The corners were the best weapon. Back to the wall, gun loaded, the best weapon you could find was the drop on your enemy. Swivelling the camera to give Max the edge, swallowing a fistful of painkillers, diving from behind cover into the syrupy world of bullet-time, and filling each enemy with many more bullets than were needed – a winning formula. The rollercoaster of cheap thrills was one well-worth riding, and today, fifteen years after its initial release, Max Payne is still a game well-worth your time.
The first things that greet you are those glorious panels. Max Payne took on a hard-boiled noir graphic novel aesthetic in both its tone (dark and gritty) and dialogue (absurdly cheesy). The panels illuminated one by one as they splashed across the screen, real voice actors lending their talents to it as it was acted out in front of you. The art work was charming — it was real actors that had been rotoscoped in, softly smudged around the edges, and set lovingly amid the gloomiest of gloomy backdrops.
One of the earlier panels you see is the interior of an NYPD office replete with all the noir staples: cigarette smoke swirling in the air, tumblers and whiskey bottles, the holster of a gun atop a thick wooden desk. You knew where you were straight away when you dived into Max Payne, and its mood was vivid and self-referential.
It was a nuanced title in a lot of ways; nothing stands out quite like the bullet-time he heart of the game’s combat. It was strange, actually, that it took so long for bullet-time to make its stylish and over-the-top way entrance to the world of action video games – shooters especially. The Matrix was released in 1999 and Max Payne followed two years later in 2001. It’s a simple idea: click a button to slow the world down, dive around and shoot your enemies before they have much of a chance to protest. Max would enter bullet-time automatically if you dived out, and what would ensue was one of the most thrilling slices of action that there was to be had in gaming. Those dives were something else. Sailing cleanly through the air, falling with style, you would whirl the cursor from thug to thug with your trigger finger held firmly in place. Max wasn’t so much a cop but a goon killing-machine, and this wasn’t so much a film noir detective story, as it was a high-voltage, caffeinated homage to the films of John Woo.
To call it cheap thrills is not to do Max Payne a disservice – quite the contrary. The game not only has an impeccable understanding of the genres, films, and art forms it wants to write love-letters to, but it has an impeccable understanding of its own identity: a rollercoaster of cheap thrills that capitalises on fun, while dishing out some of the most notorious lines of dialogue ever committed to the screen.
“It was colder than the devil’s heart, raining ice pitchforks as if the heavens were ready to fall,” proclaims Max at one point. “You’d find that lady luck was really a hooker, and you were fresh out of cash,” he muses at another. The good folks at Remedy actually wrote that! That wonderful, genre-ribbing line of utter schlock is one of the many things that wrap around your heart. It’s so bad it becomes wonderful; it becomes hilarious, warm, and care-free cool without skipping a beat – then you’re on your way to the next area to clear out another collection of rooms populated with more thugs in overalls.
That’s what Max Payne was really — rooms populated by thugs, goons, gangsters, and the drug-addled maniacs of New York’s underbelly, all waiting for a shot at the world’s unluckiest detective. It just worked. The gameplay was a little bit repetitive, and so it was better to dip in and out of, but the formula was a born winner, and nothing else that was out was anywhere near as satisfying. Aside from the gameplay, the game did a number of interesting things that nobody else was doing. It was truly cinematic for one thing. It wasn’t just graphic novels and hard-boiled detective fiction that Remedy took their cues from, it was the world of cinema, and the plot, the gunplay, the settings, and the characters all blurred the lines between games and the silver screen. It was the 2001 equivalent of something like Uncharted now.
The production value was impressive, and the narrative played around with convention. Take the oh-so-very Meta level wherein Max discovers himself to be in a video game. He keeps going through the same door into the same room, where on the desk he finds a piece of paper telling him that he is in a graphic novel. The phone rings, someone on the other end of the line tells him he is in a computer game, and Max starts musing on your HUD. He talks about the weapon icons looming above him, just out the corner of his eye, and about the distinct feeling that he is being controlled. This sort of thing isn’t profound, but to mess with players’ heads was rarer then than it is now. Games like Spec Ops: The Line, Hotline Miami, and Bioshock: Infinite owe that self-aware debt to Max Payne; most third-person shooters owe a debt or two to Max for one thing or another.
It was disposable yet memorable; it was loaded with cheap thrills, and it told a darker-than-dark tale about corrupt cops, murdered infants, designer drugs, and government conspiracies, but despite all this Max Payne excelled because of the little things.
The things that stick in your mind some fifteen years later are things like Max not picking up health packs, but guzzling painkillers. He kills pain. Little touches like the hourglass in your HUD that tracks your bullet-time allowance, or the little silhouette of Max that fills up blood-red as he takes bullets. One of the most iconic things for me is Max’s leopard-skin shirt: it’s a cheap and cheesy affair, has no place being as cool and effortless as it is, and despite its gaudy and over-the-top design it remains timeless and fun. A bit like Max Payne, then.