What my brain matter is currently perplexing (thoughts on): Max Payne 3; A modern game with spaghetti western themes and narrative ideals.

Upon completing the third Max Payne for the first time the ending left me rather satisfied but at the same time left me with this odd feeling that grew over time until around a month ago when I finally figured out what it was that kept me confused; the ending cutscene completely undermined the overall tone the game was going for but at the same time changed how I saw the game and my previous six hour experience. Allow me to elaborate:

In order to talk about the ending I will be talking about the endings of Max Payne 1 & 2 as well as the general plot and tone of the games, I’ll also be talking about significant plot points of the movies Oldboy and A Fistful of Dollar, so I will be delving into a fair amount of spoilers. So you have been warned:

In terms of tone the first 2 Max Payne games are thematically similar, with both being dark nior detective thrillers but was also almost lighthearted in its cynicism. This was due to many of the aesthetic and gameplay decisions made: Take the game’s colour scheme which mainly consists of dark grey, black along with various hues of purple which creates a darker image of New York City as well as a melon collie atmosphere. This coupled with each level either being set in the evening or during periods of heavy cloud cover meaning there is very little vibrant colours used and overall a dark and unforgiving world is presented; I think the best phrase to sum it up would be “Melon Collie and the infinite sadness”. And then the gameplay starts: the gameplay almost completely undermines the tone and atmosphere created by being fast paced, wacky and almost fantastical; Max sores through the air performing full body rolls as he shoots five mercenaries and then slides across the pool table while popping his 47th painkiller of the day into his mouth, completely insane right? And even  Max’s animations, which are made to seem almost clumsy as he combat rolls from side to side, are fast with the late 30’s NYPD detective going from prone to standing with one expert martial arts jump. Now Max’s movements are based off those of detectives from old Korean triad films, as is most of the game, and takes a lot of cues like the middle aged detective whose been sitting behind a desk for the last three years but is somehow fit enough to take on rooms of heavily trained men. Then there’s the games story which, while dealing with heavy themes like loss and addiction, is camp and bonkers; it may start off with Max’s family being killed by junkies or Max wakening up after having killed a fellow detective but then descends into chaos with a secret government drug that enhances human abilities or mercenaries who disguise themselves as cleaning crews before completely tossing the hat in with the evil underground society, called the Inner Circle, being led by an eye patch wearing, wheelchair bound triad leader in his haunting mansion on the hill complete with constant lighting strikes and suits of armor. All this serves the games use of the uncanny valley; something is off about the events happening within the game, whether that’s how Max survives the constant barrage of bullets or his comments on the games events that narrowly avoid breaking the fourth wall. Max Payne 3, on the other hand, fails to create this effect; although the melon collie mood is present throughout the game the gameplay is where struggles. Now the gameplay is rather fun but compared to the first two games is slow and sluggish, forcing you to use cover instead of the run-and-gun slow motion shootouts the series was known for, and it’s also were the game’s biggest flaw is seen; it takes itself way to seriously. Now while writing this article I couldn’t figure out why this was until yesterday when I was sitting in Starbucks:

The Max Payne games have always inspiration from a variety of different types of media from the aforementioned Korean triad films, to frank miller-esque comic books, to late 1940’s nior detective films, the list goes on. But were Max Payne 3 differs from other entries in the series is that most of its narrative and aesthetics influence comes from one film; man on fire. Everything from the ex-government agent/cop moving to a foreign country (Mexico and Brazil respectively) to become the bodyguard to a rich family when the daughter (in Max Payne’s case the wife of a wealthy business man) is kidnapped and Creasy/Max must peruse the kidnappers. Hell, there’s even the part where the ransom meet is ambushed by a powerful force of mercenaries composed of corrupt cops. Now this is not inherently a bad thing, the style of the movie seemed the best fit for a Max Payne sequel as setting another game in New York again would have been unrealistic (by even the standards of the series) after all the things Max has done to that poor city, the lens flares and the way the written appears on the screen when key words or phrases are mentioned fits with the Max Payne style even if the comic book cinematic approach was, sadly, pushed back to the loading screens. But the problems comes when trying to stick with the movie and subsequent tone set by this and the new developers (Rockstar) take on a dark and gritty Sao Paulo, the game completely falls flat on all attempts to be mature and I will be mentioning this in other pieces I do but to talk about it briefly; the copious use of the word ‘fuck’ as well as the snatches of nudity were the game can get away with it, overreliance on gore and the completely the stereotypical view of brazil just fails to be mature (and though the game does create a realistic and sympathetic view of Sao Paulo perfectly at certain points the bulk of the time it just falls flat). Previous Max Payne games were mature because of their tone and subject matter as were Max Payne 3 is juvenile in comparison. But back to the main topic point; so now how does the ending and the title of this piece fit into all of this? Well when we look at the base narrative structure of a piece of nior fiction; it usually starts with a crime (Max’s family’s murder/ the shooting of detective Winterson/the shot at the weapons warehouse/Dae-su’s kidnapping and imprisonment), then we see there are personal stakes (Max’s quest for vengeance/Mona Sax’s involvement/Dae-su’s (oldboy) quest for vengeance and search of his family), the mystery then unfolds (we find clues about who’s in charge of the supply of the drug V/ it is revealed Max is being hunted and used/Dae-su attempts to find out why he was kidnapped) and then finally we see the protagonist triumph over their adversary only to lose something in return/or not seen as the hero (Max stopping the conspiracy and then being arrested as a criminal/Max kills Vlad only for Mona’s death to come minutes later/ (Oldboy did this in reverse) Dae So finding out the truth about his past and his kidnapping then Woo-jin Lee committing suicide) the ending of most nior stories are usually bittersweet. To show that the protagonist has achieved their goals but show the result of their string of violence and the consequences involved, the “good guy” never truly wins. Now how does Max Payne 3 differ? From just the ending cutscene we can see how:

Compare the final cinematics of all three games; first game ends with Max Payne standing on top of a building after the final climactic battle when he is arrested and is thrown in the back of a cop car after a brief encounter with Woden and Max gives a smirk. Max has won, he’s not the hero, he hasn’t got his family back, he’s just achieved a bittersweet victory. The second game ends with Max having killed Vlad, the inner circle is broken, and Max finds Mona dying in the foyer. She dies in his arms as the police enter the building and it’s hinted that Max is no longer a wanted man, bittersweet. Then there’s the ending of Max Payne 3; after stopping Victor Branco’s plane it cuts to Max sitting at a coastal bar with a beer, dressed like a comical stereotypical tourist complete with the bad Hawaiian shirt, as a nearby TV speaks of the consequences of the games events. Max then gets up and begins to walk down the beach as the sunset is seen in the background with the camera pans to the sunset and logo. Credits. Main menu. At the time I thought that was good, it felt odd but it was good. A few weeks latter my mind drifted to when I was thirteen and my grandfather showed me the old Clint Eastwood Dollar trilogy (the Good the Bad and the Ugly, a Few Dollars More etc…) and it hit me; the structure of the game felt more like that of a spaghetti western film:

In a spaghetti western the structure of the story has some similarities to a noir film and a comparison may be the best way to show what I mean, so I shall compare Max Payne 3 to a Fistful of Dollars: The story starts with a foreigner (The stranger in a Fistful of Dollars/Max) entering a foreign local, a crime or power struggle is found to be plaguing the area (The Rojo Brothers vs. the town sheriff/The Branco with the crime in the city and the kidnapping of Fabiana Branco), the protagonist then decides to use the situation in order to gain something (the Stranger playing the families against each other to swindle them out of money/or Max, whose motivation for continually chasing after the criminals was poorly defined, supposed chasing after Fabiana to somehow redeem himself for the woman he’s lost) but the most important part that both have is that they have no stake in the situation, soon things spiral out of control and the side the protagonist is on suffers major loses (Though he is “on both sides” the Baxter’s are set up as the good side and as a result are massacred/The Brancos are picked off one by one in around Act II), The protagonist is then hunted and forced to flee and hide (The Stranger escapes Rojo’s men and the town in a coffin and hides in a nearby mine/Max has to flee with Passos from the UFE and hides), The stakes are upped and the protagonist must now make a final stand and fight (The Stranger finds out Silvanito has been captured/Max finds out Victor Branco is escaping), after confronting the Bad guy and winning the protagonist then leaves  (The stranger rides out of town/Max walks away into the sunset) but one important part of the structure of the story is that the protagonist’s character has not changed. In the structure of spaghetti western films the protagonist rarely undergoes a massive or significant character change or devolpment, they are merely an unbiased medium to witness the events, someone who is neither good nor bad but has enough character so that they are not stand-ins for the audience. They need to be capable but their “character arc” must not distract from the main story. They are the proverbial muscle; someone able to do what the other characters cannot do and challenge the antagonists. Now they can go through some sort of resolution (The stranger’s resolution to fight and protect the people in the town/Max’s resolution to stop drinking, which was said to be a character arc but was set up like a resolution since it didn’t affect the Max’s character in a great deal) but is always second fiddle to the main plot.

After I realized this my whole view of my experience with the game shifted; when looking at the game as more of a spaghetti western, whether this was intentional structure or not, all of a sudden that weird feeling went away and I favoured the game more. I felt the structure fitted the games setting and plot but I still felt it was an odd Max Payne game. Now it would be remiss of me to stand on my soapbox and say what is, and is not, a Max Payne game but this just didn’t feel like a central Max Payne game but rather a spin-off. This wasn’t entirely caused by the aesthetic or gameplay changes but the narrative and tonal ones.

Max Payne 3 is by no stretch of the word a bad, it’s great when you’re in the experience but when you start to think about it the game lags a bit. I would recommend it as both a game to play and a game to critique. I hope Remedy will return as developers should another Max Payne game be planned, Rockstar did a good job but I’d like to see what Remedy would do with the story and the fourteen year gap since their last Max Payne game. Till then go play the Max Payne series if you haven’t yet.

Recommendations: I recommend watching the Dollars trilogy as well as Hang ‘Em High (a sort of spinoff of the Dollars trilogy by Clint Eastwood’s production company) which is well worth a watch, Oldboy which is one of my favourite movies (along with A Fistful of Dollars), Man on Fire (which is not as great as the Dollars trilogy or Oldboy in my opinion but is worth a watch to better understand Max Payne 3) and the Max Payne game series. If you can get your hands of all of these amazing pieces of media you have an exceptional weekend to full week, depending on your personal preferences to sleep… If a critique of the Max Payne series also intrigues you I recommend watching the Extra Credits episode on Hard-Boiled and Errant Signals video on Max Payne 3 both of which helped in my research of this topic, I’ll leave links bellow.

Till I next post, farewell…

The aforementioned Extra Credits and Errant Signal episodes