Monday, 11 March 2013

The Pills Would Ease the Pain

Following the murder of Max Payne's wife and infant child, in the game that shares his name, Max becomes, among other things, addicted to painkillers. It's a neat rationale for the use of an extremely standard gameplay mechanic: the health pack—that strangely ubiquitous panacea in worlds where all ailments are measured by a subtracted percentage from a universal health bar.

This rationale doesn't stop the mechanic from being totally absurd. Aside from the miraculous cure-all qualities, taken literally it's pretty safe to assume that, with the amount of pills he downs, Max would O.D. before ever got the chance to die from his wounds. But in Max Payne, the painkillers work as part of the melodramatic excess of the game.

Drawing from the bleak brutality and amorality of detective noir, the aesthetic action of John Woo movies, and revenge films where the enemies themselves are less important than how their blood looks splattered all over the walls, Max Payne is an expression of its protagonist's unhinged, vengeful state of mind. Like all games, the limitations of gameplay mechanics lead to a drastically oversimplified representation of reality—but the single-mindedness of the gameplay here lends itself to a reality that's expressed psychologically.

Max Payne looks like he means business in the New York subway

The fact that the one and only thing you can do in this game is fire away with stylish fury not only reflects Max's literal actions, but the all-consuming singular nature of his character's revenge. It doesn't matter that you can't tell one goon from the other, or even that you're killing a highly improbable number of people—the whole game is an expression of vengeful hyperbole. And it's not just that Max is addicted to painkillers, but that his dependence, in its absurd excess, takes on the same heightened psychological quality as everything else. It's in this way that the game mechanics themselves are turned to poetry, incorporated into the game's narrative vision and transformed into something artistically and narratively meaningful.

Max Payne is, in its own way, a pretty smart game. It's self-aware, knows what it's drawing from and why its influences conspire to make a great game. Beyond the explicit references to Bogart and Chow Yun Fat (which give Max himself an awareness that he's enacting a power fantasy), it also seems to get what it means to be the game that it is.

At one point later on in the story, during a drug-induced hallucination, Max imagines that he's in a graphic novel (which is how the 'cutscenes' in the game are done), and then, when the dream recurs, that he's in a computer game—and in both cases, 'it was the most horrible thing I could think of'.

Comic strip cutscene during nightmare sequence

While this is mostly just a cute fourth wall nudge, it points out something about how the game structure itself ('Weapons statistics hanging in the air [...] endless repetition of the act of shooting') defines Max's psychological hell—just as graphic novels ('All of my past was just fragmented still shots') might equally define it in their own way.

I haven't yet played the sequels, but it would be interesting to see how much they scrub out these meta aspects, or if game mechanics and narrative align as effectively. I gather that Max Payne 3 got some criticism because it wanted you to feel like Max was such a tortured, conflicted soul who detested what he was doing while at the same time the game made violence so fun. But I don't think in the first game you were entirely expected to fall for that—while Max considers himself damned and never condones his own actions, he never pretends he's not relishing it, and the game never suggests that you shouldn't too.

The game is not particularly interested in problematising the violence or the revenge/power fantasy, but it still demonstrates an interesting awareness of how its mechanics work in that context.

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