Tuesday, 27 August 2019

A Bit Closer to Heaven: A Max Payne Retrospective

A Binary Choice
"They were all dead. The final gunshot was an exclamation mark to everything that had led to this point. I released my finger from the trigger. And then it was over."

In 2001 an obscure Finnish developer with exactly one video game to their name (a combat racer named Death Rally) released what many consider to be the finest action game ever made. Max Payne was a game that mashed together so many genre influences that it could have collapsed under its own weight. Instead it combined all of them into something artful and masterful, to the point where a full eighteen years after release there still hasn’t been anything really like it, save only the first of its sequels.

Rewinding a little, Remedy Entertainment was founded in Espoo, the second city of Finland, in 1995. It arose out of the demoscene, a movement dedicated to creating self-contained audio/visual demos which also served as testbeds for new software and technology. One demoscene group, Future Crew, decided to use their skills to form a company and create their first game. Death Rally, made in a team-member’s basement, was published by Apogee in 1996 and was a minor hit, enough for the company to expand and go big for its next game.

The company considered three ideas for their next title: a third-person shooter, another racing game and a space combat sim. Apogee were keen to continue their partnership and founder Scott Miller looked over the ideas. He thought the space combat idea was a bit niche and had a lot of successful series already underway (the X-Wing and Wing Commander series in particular, soon to be joined by Freespace), but that the action game idea was promising. First-person shooters were all the rage but arguably no-one had created a successful third-person shooter as yet, a Tomb Raider with less puzzle solving and more gunplay. There was also a nice synergy going on: Apogee Software had just rebranded itself as 3D Realms and released one of the most acclaimed first-person shooters of all time, Duke Nukem 3D.

Miller agreed to fund the game on the grounds that Remedy produced a graphically stunning game, that it didn’t cost too much and that they changed the working title of Dark Justice. He wanted a memorable, punchy title, preferably with the main character’s name in it. The team at Remedy were stumped until Miller suggested "Max” (possibly inspired either by Max Headroom or Homer Simpson’s "Max Power" alter-ego, or both) and the team suggested "Heat". A pleased 3D Realms spent $20,000 securing trademarks on the name until Remedy came back suggesting that "Max Heat" sounded like a porn title and what about "Max Payne". A few more thousand dollars later and the game had a name.

What it didn’t have was a story, engine or central mechanic. Remedy were not cowed, using their considerably technical prowess to quickly start building a 3D engine they called MAX-FX, putting a considerable amount of effort into particle effects and muzzle flares. An early tech demo, released to the public in 1998, made jaws collectively drop and started building hype for the game. Remedy had also decided to hire a professional writer, Sam Lake (who’d already provided some writing help on Death Rally), who started building up a significant amount of backstory for the central character of Max Payne. A massive fan of American TV crime dramas and pulp noir thriller novels, Lake wanted to make the game a psychological thriller as well as a violent action game, one that deconstructed the protagonist as it went along. Both he and the design team wanted the game to feel like an authentic noir thriller in New York, necessitating some of the team flying out to NYC and – accompanied by ex-NYPD officers as bodyguards – taking thousands of photographs of dingy back alleys to use as textures in the game.

The game had also gotten its gimmick. The developers were fans of Hong Kong action cinema, particularly the works of John Woo, and had noted that one of his signature styles was slowing the camera right down so individual bullets could be seen flying through the air. This wasn’t necessarily a new technique – Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch had experimented with such imagery in 1969 – but Woo had stylised it tremendously. Whilst the game was in development, the 1998 movie Blade also used some similar techniques. “Bullet time” became the central mechanic of Max Payne, with the player able to slow down time to the point where individual bullets could be seen flying through the air and allowing the player to shoot with incredible precision in the middle of the fiercest firefights.

To save money, the team decided to eschew in-engine cutscenes in favour of comic book panels, with single frames of imagery and a Raymond Chandler-esque monologue presenting the action. Northern Irish-American actor James McCaffrey was brought in to provide Payne’s voice and was an absolute find, his beyond-world-weary delivery becoming instantly iconic. Even the cost of a relatively unknown voice actor proved problematic for the budget, however, and left the team having to use themselves, friends and family as actors to portray and voice other characters. Writer Sam Lake himself was asked to model as Max Payne, giving the character his trademark signature, slightly constipated grimace.

Max Payne’s ambitions were expanding and in 1999 the game encountered an unexpected issue when the film The Matrix was released. The Matrix took bullet time to the next level, using it as a storytelling device as well as an aesthetic choice. On the one hand, this was great marketing for Max Payne but it also risked Payne looking like it was a rip-off. That was not helped by Payne’s 1999 release date being indefinitely delayed as the team encountered technical and storytelling issues that caused a full revamp of the game to take place. The game would not be released until 23 July 2001.

When it was released, it was an instant and immediate hit.


A Cold Day in Hell
NYPD detective Max Payne returns home after work one evening to find his wife and baby daughter dead, killed in a home invasion by two men high on a new street drug called Valkyr, or "V". A distraught Payne transfers to the DEA and joins a dangerous undercover operation in the Punchinello Mafia family, which is linked to the drug. Two and a half years later, Payne seems on the verge of securing the evidence to bring down the organisation. Instead, his handler is killed and Payne is framed for the murder. Wanted by both the cops and the Mafia and suffering vivid hallucinations as a result of being exposed to Valkyr, Payne follows a trail of evidence, entering into dubious alliances of convenience with Russian gangster Vladimir Lem and contract killer Mona Sax. Eventually Payne discovers the true power behind the drug, the Aesir Corporation and its CEO, Nicole Horne. A powerful rival of Horne’s, Congressman (and later Senator) Alfred Woden helps Payne gain access to Horne’s headquarters, where he finally kills her and blows up the case. Woden then helps Payne clear his name in the judicial system.

Max Payne should not remotely work, but it does, and brilliantly. It’s a game overlaid with dialogue that feels like Raymond Chandler sprinkled with a cheese topping (“Everything was subjective, there were only personal apocalypses; nothing is a cliché when it’s happening to you”). It starts with gut-wrenching horror – I still pity whoever had to create the dead baby 3D model – and then proceeds to traumatise the main character to a possibly greater degree than any other character in video game history. But it also has a ridiculously black sense of humour and a knowing sense of metacommentary that even Dan Harmon might balk at. At one fourth-wall-breaking moment Max, having been injected with Valkyr, realises he is both in a video game and a graphic novel simultaneously.

Then of course there’s the action. There are many, many action video games, of course, but very few of them are in love with the idea of action as much as Max Payne. Bullet time slows everything down, allowing the player to put bullets through the air with pinpoint accuracy. But this could make the game too easy, so the designers also make levels twisting areas with limited ammunition and forcing the player to make strategic choices on which weapons to use (you can’t change weapons in bullet time and you only have a small amount you can use, which regenerates slowly). As the game proceeds, the intensity of the action creeps up and so does the quality and artistry of the set pieces. A shoot-out in a multi-storey car park is a noted highlight, as is a raging gun battle through a Ragnarok-themed nightclub, a manor house firefight and the final assault on an ultra-high-tech skyscraper. New weapons enter Max’s arsenal at a carefully rationed rate, with you starting with a single pistol and culminating in a final battle where you have grenade launchers, automatic rifles and dual machine pistols.

The game puts a huge arsenal and amount of power in the player’s hands but also makes the battles strategically tense and dangerous. Max is also relatively fragile, reliant on thoughtfully-placed painkillers to restore health. The result is a surprisingly tough game at times, to the point where the sequels are considerably easier.

It’s also a game that inverts the usual idea of video games as power fantasies. Max is a one-man army, sure, but he’s also a profoundly damaged individual, living only for revenge. A cold-burning hate overwhelms him through the game, to the point where he wilfully destroys evidence that could clear his name because he no longer cares, he just wants his enemies dead, in the hope that it will make everything better. Max is possibly the most over-the-top case of PTSD you’ll ever see, but the player always understands why he’s doing what he does. Showing his dead wife and baby at the start of the game and Max’s resulting breakdown (and the actual murder of his wife later on in a dream sequence) may feel gratuitous but it also makes him relatable.

Max Payne did action, psychological deconstruction, elaborate dream sequences, humour and empathy all in one impeccably-presented package. Critics and fans went wild, with the game going on to sell millions of copies even in a market crowded by hits including Halo: Combat Evolved, Super Smash Bros. Melee, Devil May Cry and Gran Turismo 3.

A New Owner

One game that Max Payne did very well against, even sharing some of the same DNA of rainswept New York streets and fighting the Mafia, was Grand Theft Auto III. The first 3D game in the criminal drive-and-shoot series, it was released in October 2001 and was an immediate massive hit. But before release, the game’s Scottish developers, Rockstar Games (recently rebranded from DMA Design), had been facing financial challenges. One side-project they’d picked up was the console port of Max Payne, as neither Remedy nor 3D Realms/Apogee had any experience working with consoles.

Flush with cash from GTA3, Rockstar’s owners, Take Two Interactive, swept in and bought the Max Payne IP from Remedy for over $10 million, putting it under the Rockstar banner. Combined with profits from the game, this had left the small-ish Finnish company very well off indeed.

With Rockstar busy on GTA3’s sequels (Vice City and San Andreas), Remedy were contracted to make the inevitable second Max Payne game. This was fortunate, as they’d already started work on the game before a firm contract was in hand.

Max Payne 2 used the same engine as the first game, but dramatically revamped and upgraded. As well as higher resolution textures and character models – now capable of emoting and lip-syncing – Remedy was able to plug the cutting-edge Havok physics engine into the game, making scenery far more reactive and everything from explosions to ragdolls more convincing. A higher budget also meant that more voice actors and professional models could be brought in to portray the characters, with Sam Lake gratefully giving way to Timothy Gibbs as the face of Max Payne. The game also hired Finnish rock band Poets of the Fall to record a special song for the game, "Late Goodbye" (based on a poem of Lake’s), which became a hit on Scandinavian radio.

All the money in the world, however, couldn’t address two significant issues. The first was that Rockstar had given Remedy a very tight eighteen-month deadline in which they needed to finish the game, compared to the near-five-years of the first game. To say this was "challenging" was a masterpiece of understatement. It was eased by the use of the same engine and a much greater focus on what the game was about, but it still meant that Max Payne 2 simply couldn’t be as long and epic as the original game (which had clocked in at around 10-12 hours of gameplay).

The second issue was that Max’s story was effectively done. Driven by the murder of his wife and child, he had found and punished those responsible. What else could he do that wasn’t either more of the same or massively contrived?

Sam Lake floundered for a while before coming up with the solution: Max Payne 2 was going to be a love story.

The Fall of Max Payne
Payne is back working as a police detective in the NYPD. He is called in to investigate a gunfight at a warehouse owned by Payne’s redoubtable ally Vladimir Lem and discovers a criminal gang known as the "Cleaners" are targeting Lem and other groups in the city, particularly anyone who knows anything about the Inner Circle, the secret society that both Alfred Woden and the late Nicole Horne were members of. Payne’s investigation into the Cleaners is complicated by his own department’s suspicions about him (after Woden helped Payne escape from his vigilante murder spree Scott-free) and the return of Mona Sax, a wanted fugitive. Payne and Sax work together to track down the Cleaners, but also fall in love at the same time; at a key moment Payne chooses to kill a fellow detective (albeit one on a criminal payroll) to spare Sax’s life. It is eventually revealed that Lem himself is behind events, and he launches an attack on Woden’s mansion. Sax and Payne take out Lem, but Sax is – apparently – killed in the process. In the aftermath of the conflict Payne is able to once again clear his name, and start to heal.

Video games, traditionally, do not do love stories well. RPGs such as BioWare’s 1998 hit Baldur’s Gate had started allowing characters to have relationships, but it was all a bit cheesy, especially as their insistence on narrative freedom meant that characters could have relationships with different characters simply by choosing different lines of dialogue (note: does not necessarily work in real life). Other games hinted at romances more than showed them: Final Fantasy VII initially teased a romance between Cloud and Aerith, only to later suggest a possible relationship with Tifa instead, but never pulled the trigger on either option.

For Max Payne 2, Lake wanted to explore a hook in the first game where Payne joined forces with femme fatale killer Mona Sax. It was only a minor subplot, but it did put a chink of humanity into Payne’s otherwise revenge-crazed obsession. Sax is apparently killed in a shoot-out but her body disappears, with the suggestion she managed to crawl to safety. Bringing her back in the sequel, Rockstar made her a much bigger part of the game. She works alongside Payne and in one key sequence of the game the player can take control of Sax as she works to rescue Payne from enemies.

Psychologically, saving Sax (literally and morally) replaces revenge as Payne’s obsession. Dubiously toxic as the relationship is, it also brings Payne back from the brink. At the start of the game he is shown to be a wreck, his killing of Nicole Horne doing nothing to erase the pain of the loss of his wife and child. Payne is an alcoholic and painkiller addict, and uses sex phone chat lines to overcome loneliness. He rejects his boss’s offer to sponsor him at Alcoholics Anonymous. There are hints that Payne’s colleagues think he is a suicide risk. Sax’s return gives Payne hope: he knows falling in love with her is a really bad idea, but it also gives him purpose. At a key moment in the game he is floored by his own realisation that "for the first time in I don’t know how long, I realised, I didn’t wish to be dead."

As a result, this makes Max Payne 2 something the first game isn’t: hopeful. It’s still not a happy game, with multiple betrayals, murders, stitch-ups and, of course, a lot of lunatic, slow-mo ultraviolence, but it’s nevertheless a game about Payne crawling out of the hole that he fell into during the first title. It’s a redemption arc but one that’s refreshingly free to cliché, apart from the obvious one where the femme fatale dies at the end...until you replay the game on the hardest difficulty level, when you learn she doesn’t, with at least the hope of some kind of ultimately happy ending.

Max Payne 2 is almost unlike any other action game ever made, a blood-soaked noir romance with a strong redemptive arc and considerably better dialogue and writing than the already strong (but far more insane) first game. It borders on genius, but its greatness does come at a hefty cost: at just over 5 hours, it’s half the length of the first game and among the shorter linear action games of its time. By 2003 it had become much more expected for games to be both longer and also have some kind of multiplayer component. Being short and lacking that multiplayer idea (Remedy couldn’t figure out how to make bullet time work between multiple players simultaneously), the game suffered in sales, selling at less than half the rate of its predecessor, despite considerable critical acclaim. Max Payne 2 certainly made a profit, but its sales were so far below those of expectations that Take Two had to issue a profit warning for 2003-04 (not helped by a gap opening between the release of GTA: Vice City and San Andreas that left Take Two banking far more on Max Payne 2 than otherwise would have been the case).

Sales were so disappointing that Rockstar shelved plans for a third game. Remedy had also gotten slightly tired of the character after two titles and wanted to move onto something fresh: an open-world horror game inspired by Twin Peaks, Stephen King and Silent Hill. They parted company with Rockstar and instead signed a publishing deal with Microsoft, who wanted a top-tier title for their in-development X-Box 360 console. That took a lot longer than expected, with the open world aspect of the game canned and turned into a more linear experience, eventually published in 2009 as the excellent (and underrated) Alan Wake.

Reborn in the USA
For a while, that’s where Max Payne was left: on the shelves with nowhere to go. But the two Max Payne games had built up a cult following. They were frequently listed on various “Best Games of All Time” lists and demands for a sequel began building.

One of those fans was Dan Houser. The co-founder of Rockstar Games, Houser was the writer or co-writer on Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City, San Andreas, Bully, Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption. He was a huge fan of the first two Max Payne games and wanted Rockstar to make a sequel. As Rockstar went from a mid-tier game studio to one of the two or three biggest developers on the planet, his clout went from middling to commanding. If he wanted there to be a Max Payne 3, there would be a Max Payne 3.

After finishing development on the GTA4 expansions (and whilst another team were working on Red Dead Redemption), Rockstar began developing Max Payne 3. Their intention was not to tread on Remedy’s toes by undoing any of the character development or events from the first two games. Instead Houser had come up with the idea of removing Payne from his home city, with his friends and allies, and instead dropping him into the favelas of São Paulo, Brazil. This would be a complete fish-out-of-water story, with Payne as the ostracised outsider trying to help resolve a crisis for his employers.

Max Payne 3, released in 2012, was a solid game, enjoyable and well-written, but it lacked a certain something compared to its two predecessors. Max Payne 1 and 2 were aware of their own ridiculousness and embraced it, whilst Max Payne 3 was over-earnest and too serious. It tried to be slick, epic and polished, removing the character and colour of the first two games’ slightly amateurish, low-budget feel. Dan Houser isn’t a bad writer (by video game standards) but he didn’t get to grip with the character in the same way as Sam Lake, and the game suffered. From a gameplay perspective Rockstar also made a huge mistake by taking control away from the player way too often for lengthy, unskippable cut-scenes and reducing the different types of bullet time available from Max Payne 2. The game was also far less logical: one dockside level had Max dying instantly if he fell in the water, only for the sequence to end with Max jumping into the water and swimming off unharmed.

Given Rockstar’s reputation as the masters of the open world gaming genre (via the Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption series), it’s bizarre they made Max Payne 3 so linear and restrictive even compared to its forebears.

Max Payne 3 is not without merit. The final airport shootout to the theme of Health’s "Tears" is breath-taking, one of the greatest action set pieces in gaming history, let alone this trilogy. The technology used is impressive – the game still looks fantastic seven years after release – and the central idea of not repeating the first two games by taking Max outside of his comfort zone remains very clever. But in almost every other respect, such as the lack of resolution to the Mona Sax storyline from the second game (as Mona surviving appears to be canonical) or everyone forgetting that Max shot dead a fellow detective in the last game, the game feels disconnected from the events of the first two titles. It’s a good example that transferring a game from one developer to another, even one on paper well-suited to it, can sometimes mean throwing out the heart and soul with it. You end up with something superficially similar and not bad on its own merits, but doesn’t quite match up with what was established previously.

Waking Up From the American Dream
Max Payne and Max Payne 2 remain unusual among action games. They take American genres such as noir thrillers, detective stories and action movies and mash them together with an unprecedented (and unmatched since, either) level of psychological character exploration of the protagonist. The games explore the internal psyche of their action hero and thus humanises him, whilst also not whitewashing his flaws: Payne is a hugely sympathetic and relatable protagonist, but one no sane person wants to be, because he’s also a psychological, traumatised, PTSD-suffering mess whose coping mechanisms are alcohol, pill-popping and obsessive bloody vengeance and who makes bad decisions because of those issues, and ends up surviving and winning (arguably) only because of the intervention of allies.

I think the games do so well at this because they are viewed from an outside perspective: Sam Lake and the team at Remedy Entertainment are Finnish, albeit ones very familiar with American cinematic and video game tropes, and that allows them to explore these facets of Americana from a remove, and very successfully at that. There’s a knowing humour in the first two Max Payne games which comes from them being an affectionate but more considered look at American violence and stories.

The first two Max Payne games are brilliant, the third interesting but not as successful. Will Payne ever return? Reportedly Max Payne 3 did okay in sales, but Rockstar’s ludicrous budget for the game meant that it was not hugely profitable. A cheaper game, perhaps outsourced back to Remedy, could be very interesting. Whilst Remedy were tied to Microsoft (for Alan Wake and Quantum Break), that seemed unlikely, but now Remedy are an independent team again that becomes a less fanciful notion. Remedy’s new title, Control, is out this month and looks set to once again be an idiosyncratic, off-beat action game with unusual mechanics and clever writing. But another question might be if a fourth Max Payne game is even a good idea to start with. His story arc, from finding his dead family at the start of Max Payne to him sipping drinks on a South American beach at the end of Max Payne 3 having found something very roughly approximating closure, feels done, and giving him more adventures for the sake of it may not be the best idea.

As it stands, the Max Payne trilogy stands as an interesting, innovative and compelling exploration of character within an action shooter, and one well worth investigating today.

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