Max Payne – “A Noir Love Letter”

Max Payne - Title

Like in many other forms of art, videogame creators look up to other mediums as a means of finding inspiration. Classical themes and codes are often replicated in videogames, whether in terms of story, art or cut-scene direction, or even gameplay. Not always have these transitions been successful, but sometimes, they work, they really, really work; “Max Payne” is one of those cases. Now, “Max Payne” is not an adaptation “per se”, but it’s a clever homage to a number of art forms, and especially to a genre: the Noir. “Max Payne” can be described as an interactive cinematic action noir graphic novel. Sounds complicated, right? Let me Explain.

From the get-go any player will understand that “Max Payne” isn’t an ordinary game: the initial cut-scene renders a dark NY, stricken with the storm of the century, wind and snow ablaze; behind a cacophony of helicopters, ambulances and police-sirens, a low-toned, hoarse voice slowly mutters the words: “They were all dead. The final gunshot was an exclamation mark on everything that had led to this point. I released my finger from the trigger, and it was over.” Meet “Max Payne”, a worn-out, gloomy police-officer whose wife and daughter were murdered by a group of over-drugged junkies; his purpose in life? To kill everyone connected to that murder. Like any hard boiled novel cop, he is a man stricken with guilt and regret, his past a mystery, and his objectives are not pure. Max’s journey will unveil a corrupt society, where crime and power go hand in hand, where love and hate go side by side and where vengeance and justice are two faces of the same coin. As he himself puts it… “I had taken on the role of the mythic detective: Bogart as Marlowe, or as Sam Spade going after the Maltese Falcon. To unravel all the mysteries, following a path of clues to that final revelation, even if it would take me down to the cold, cavernous depths of a grave.”

Max Payne Im in a Graphic Novel

The plot develops through a series of live-action stills, with hand drawn coloring and drawings on top to resemble graphic novel vignettes. Speech bubbles show the dialogs, while at the same time voice actors read them, with that over the top, fatalist tone that so well complements noir stories. These dialogs are extremely well written, filled with metaphors, hyperboles, allegories and a cynical overtone that engulfs nearly all sentences… even that creepy post-modern humor makes an appearance [See Images]. The moody and sad undertone of the soundtrack is the icing of the cake: the cold sound of a bleeding cello gives a whole new level to Max’s emotional pain. Everything in “Max Payne” feels like a tribute to “Noir” films and novels, a tribute to Eisner, Miller, Wilder and Ellroy; its dark aesthetic and literary influences leave no doubt: “Max Payne” is the first interactive Film-Noir.

But, a good narrative isn’t enough to make a good game, gameplay is also a factor, and even there “Max Payne” is brilliant. The action bulk of the game is perceived in the 3rd person shooter angle, with a “bullet-time” mechanic (Matrix style) allowing the player to slow down time, dodging incoming bullets while aiming at the opponents’ heads to blast them to kingdom come. Even from a technical point of view this was revolutionary at the time, for the bullets’ trajectories were calculated in real time, with the shooter’s momentum interfering on the path they took. But the level-design is what truly made this shine; levels were correctly paced, with action sequences followed by adventure and plot elements in the right proportion, thus avoiding the shooting-overload-sickness most action games go for. Max Payne’s formula is so downright perfect, that no game to this day has nailed the “bullet-time” style gameplay on the same level (except its sequel); “Enter the Matrix” was shallow at best, and the recent “Stranglehold” is absent of any thought level design choices, making it the shooter equivalent of a “hack and slash”.

Max Payne I’m in a Videogame

Games don’t get any better than “Max Payne”, its smart narrative, audacious aesthetic and its perfect gameplay all come together in one solid game. Its so damn good, I would never have imagined there would ever be a sequel, let alone, one that actually improves on its predecessor… but that is a tale for another time. “Max Payne” is a beautifully told noir novel that could have been written in any other medium, and still be brilliant; a novel that demands the rightful statute of Art.

Overall: 5/5

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  1. Ainda que não seja uma jogadora, não posso de realçar a beleza estética deste jogo.

    • James Dunn
    • August 5th, 2008

    Amen to that. Max Payne hits the spot in every modern form of art medium. Excels in content and deliverance.Sometimes i’l just watch the cutscenes on youtube just to get my fix of that depressive noir cop voice. Max payne 2 rocks but story feels slightly misplaced, as though theyd twisted characters from the original to suit an entirely new conspiracy theory that was nowhere near as thrilling or enigmatic as the first. A well paced Noir love story more than the hardcore revenge aspect of the first. Both class and an excellent review. Keep that S**t up! Nuff love Dunny

    • Charlie
    • August 28th, 2008

    I loved this game, but I wouldn’t go so far to say that the story alone is particularly brilliant.

    Somewhat intentional cheesiness aside, the actual plot points are not mindblowing. The whole story’s fairly derivative. And you ultimately can’t shake the feeling that some arbitrary factors are brought in just for the purpose of having an interesting new locale to play in, i.e. the whole Russian cargo ship thing.

    The gameplay is a lot of fun and the storyTELLING is as well (I give it real props for atmosphere and a genuinely dingy mood), but we’re seriously limiting the height of the bar here if we’re to consider the actual story itself a real work of art.

    In fact, I’d say the story of this game falls into a sort of uncanny valley–it was not well enough written to be taken seriously as a genuinely respectable story, but it was taken too seriously by the writers for me to be 100% OK with that.

    Also, some of the mobster banter was just too stereotypical for me to bear.

    I love this game. I just very much disagree that its actual story is a real contribution to art, its strong presentation notwithstanding. Heck, I take back what I just said. I’m OK with it not being the Citizen Kane of interactive games. What I’m not OK with is people claiming it’s just that. This is more Shooter than Sopranos, more summer blockbuster than Academy Award nominee. Again, nothing wrong with that. But when people claim this is the pinnacle of interactive storytelling… it takes a little wind out of my optimism for the medium.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • August 28th, 2008

    First up, thanks for the comment. Every opinion is welcome here and it’s my great pleasure to respond to such thoughtful comments. Now unto the answer.

    Well, I can see why someone might not like the style of the plot; Hard Boiled is indeed a very specific type of crime novel, with a lot of quirks and specific codes, which most might not appreciate. But, tastes notwithstanding, I would be wary in saying it isn’t a storytelling prowess. Just compare “Max Payne” with modern graphic novels, books or films with a noir motifs, and you’ll find very little lacking in “Payne”. Sure, the videogame medium isn’t particularly deep when it comes to expressing character feelings (hence the use of vignettes instead of cutscenes), but noir is seldom known for its deep characterization, instead deriving its depth from the (excessive) use of expressionist style, in order to translate the hidden meanings that lie in the story.

    As to this being more “Shooter” and “Sopranos”, I think that is a comparison that just doesn’t fit. “Shooter” is a film that tries and adapt the shooter nature of certain videogames and movies, thus being a nice translation for the action part of “Max Payne’s” gameplay. But the plot of the game is infinitely superior. While “Shooter” draws its dark toned parody on action movie/game clichés (mostly focusing on Westerns and half brained action movies, John Woo being on the forefront), “Max Payne” tries to tell a “noir” tale; and there’s just nothing in common on that regard. Nor there is with “Sopranos”, a textbook example of applying drama vehicles in a genre background, in this case, the gangster movie. Though “Max Payne” features gangsters, its plot and motifs have nothing to do with the genre, just watch Godfather and try and find any similarities. If I had to describe “Payne”, I would say it’s a crossing between Miller’s “Sin City” and Woo’s “Hard Boiled”.

    As to “Payne” being more summer blockbuster than Academy Award nominee, I can partially agree. It’s an action game with a genre trapping, so it would be hard for it to be an Oscar nominee, it not being a classical melodramatic piece, which is usually what the Academy awards. But that is not the same as saying it’s a summer blockbuster, as I would find it difficult to find a good summer blockbuster with the same narrative depth and genre understanding that “Payne” elegantly boasts.

    Maybe if you carefully watch the vignettes again, notice its writing qualities and its visual style, and learn a bit more about the noir genre, you’ll understand why people think “Max Payne” features such a good story. Understanding the genre is absolutely essential to fully appreciate the intricate details of Payne’s plot. I reiterate what’s in the review, Sami Jarvi has no need to feel embarrassed next to “Noir” veterans as Eisner, Miller, Wilder or Ellroy, as there’s a bit of all of them in “Payne”, and put to great use I might add.

    • tony
    • October 9th, 2008

    max payne was an amazing game, but mark wahlburg as max payne?????? wtf thomas jane would make a better max, but other than that im really anticipating the movie.

    • Aamir payne
    • April 30th, 2010

    i love this game!! this z 1 of the most marvellous game i ve ever played…

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