Max Payne – “A Noir Love Letter”
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.”
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”.
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.