Gameplay Reflection on Max Payne by Jeremy Wildberger

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February 29, 2012 by jwildberger

I first played Max Payne years ago in middle school, and at the time I did not concern myself with the story. Instead, the bullet time shooter gameplay immediately appealed to me. While the gameplay was not particularly challenging, the stylized gunplay and over the top death scene hooked me. At the time, I realized the Matrix inspired the bullet time mechanic, and that graphic novels influenced the cut scenes, yet most of the other pop culture references escaped me. When I replayed the game in high school and paid attention to the story, I thoroughly enjoyed it, although like most videogame stories I found it slightly cheesy even at its best points. Playing the game once again during the lab, I picked up on several media influences that eluded me before. What I found remarkable about the game is how well it intertwines the content and form of other media, like film noir.  

Last semester I took a film noir class, so when we played the opening segment of Max Payne during the lab, I instantly recognized many noir elements I learned about in the class that I failed to see during my other playthroughs. The game opens in media res, with the titular character on top of a skyscraper with a gun. His narration triggers a flashback to his origin story, and the game narrative progresses from this point. In fact, this flashback contains almost the entirety of the plot. Complex narrative structure, which includes flashback and voice over narration, is a staple of the noir genre. In film noir, the complex narrative makes the viewer feel as confused as the protagonist, and the subjective narration forces the viewer to see the diegetic world through the eyes of the protagonist. It serves a similar purpose in Max Payne. Since videogames already tend to collapse the distinction between the viewer and protagonist, as players are both, the effects of the noir narrative structure translate well to the videogame medium.

Max Payne is the stereotypical hardboiled noir detective, sour-faced (perhaps constipated) and silent unless delivering a one-liner. This works well for action games, as character silence is standard during gameplay, and the one-liners complement the cheesiness inherent in most game narratives. Gangsters, another common noir character type, fit well with action games, as they easily translate into shooting targets. Dark cityscapes function as a great action game setting, especially the more menacing areas that show up often in noirs. The city offers plenty of narrow hallways and large open spaces for a variety of shootout environments. Noir’s cities are bleak and corrupt, and the threat of death and violence is ever present; it is the ideal gamespace for an action game.

The replacement of cut scenes with comic panels in Max Payne is striking. While graphic novels have gained greater cultural prestige, the form itself is still associated serial releases and action. Max Payne’s comic panels open with a standard comic trope, the origin story. This transitions into the game, so that you actually play through the origin story. Since the length of videogames often requires them to be divided into different levels, the serial form of comics provides a useful corresponding narrative format. When it comes to action sequences, the videogame comes closer to approximating the fluidity and motion of a fight than a comic could. Substituting the gameplay for the comic book action sequence is thus fairly natural.

Unlike the cut scenes, the gameplay is intensely cinematic. The third person shooter gameplay of Max Payne derives itself from the stylized, acrobatic shoot outs of Hong Kong action films, especially the films of John Woo. The player dodges bullets and maneuvers around the room by jumping and rolling across the floor. When the player kills the last enemy on a level, the game slows down and zooms in on his body as he falls to the ground. Taking a cue from the Matrix, Max Payne allows the player to slow the passage of time during a shootout. This innovative mechanic puts less emphasis on reaction time, allowing the player to enjoy the cinematic gunplay.

The game does not simply appropriate disparate elements and mix them. It deploys them in very specific ways. Film noir style sets the tone of the game, as well the theme of the game and its narrative. Graphic novel panels replace traditional cinematic cut scenes, which contributes to the game’s pulp feel and compliments the action-focused nature of the gameplay. Finally, Hong Kong action films and the Matrix provide the gun kata/bullet time mechanics. It combines these non-game media influences, and transforms them into a coherent whole. The narrative and thematic borrowings work together in the game because they meld with action gameplay. Thus, it is difficult to analyze the game from a solely ludological or narratological standpoint, although I believe a gameplay analysis yields a better understanding of how the elements work together.

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3 thoughts on “Gameplay Reflection on Max Payne by Jeremy Wildberger

  1. phyliciacash says:

    I found this analysis of Max Payne very informative. Being that I am not a true Film Studies major, I also missed the overlapping of movie genres. However, I did see the film noir one. My question, then, stems from there. Do you think that taking certain things from certain genres (the gritty-ness from noir, the bullet time mechanics from Hong Kong action) while leaving out other things (like the femme fatale in film noir) make a significant difference in the way the game is played? Would the addition of such things make the game less attractive (like Max falling in love with the femme fatale) or draw away from the essential shoot-em-up premise of the game?

    • jwildberger says:

      To illustrate how stylistic choices can affect gameplay, one could compare Max Payne with Limbo. Max Payne does not use shadows and stark contrasts as part of the gameplay, even though these lighting effects give noir its name. It is dark, but not Limbo dark. Limbo’s noirish lighting has a gameplay effect; it makes obstacle difficult to perceive, which instills a certain amount of paranoia in the player. This is generally undesirable for a shooter, because the main game mechanic requires you to see the targets.

      Your example of the femme fatale is interesting, because in the sequel to Max Payne, a femme fatale character figures prominently in the narrative, although this inclusion has little gameplay effect. Whether it strengthens the narrative is arguable, as games often have difficulties portraying love stories, because the distinction between protagonist and player is so thin. However, the femme fatale makes for a more complex romantic interest which might be adaptable to games, as her motives are unknown to both the player and protagonist.

  2. rkelle4 says:

    Following what Phylicia said, I am interested in finding out whether or not you think the narrative is more important than the gameplay? I like how you describe the game play as being more cinematic than the cutscenes. I never thought about gameplay as being particularly cinematic, but thinking about this makes me change my view on that. In terms of Max Payne, I wouldn’t consider the cut scenes particularly ‘cinematic’ in terms of film (although it is close to something like a graphic novel on screen…you know, what they do in movies like the opening to Marvel’s X-men or watchman.) and the gameplay is, however, more cinematic. That, I think is a really original idea.

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