Outgrowing the Cage: Max Payne 3 and Raised Expectations

When I play Max Payne 3, I guide its title character from one shootout to the next on a private security gig gone bad. The rhythms grow familiar: gun barrels will explode from all corners of a room, bullet casings will skitter across the ground, breathing bodies will become corpses. The constant chaos measures itself against clear cinematic aspirations (think John Woo by way of Tony Scott and Michael Mann), and it only stops when the game decides to more overtly indulge through cutscenes of its own. They’re mostly what you’d expect: Max giving a self-loathing internal monologue, Max interacting with another character, somebody otherwise setting up the next scene. Often, Max waves his gun around, and whenever he does this, he always uses his sidearm (typically a pistol). Always.

I don’t always play through Max’s frequent gunfights with a pistol. They’re the obvious weapon of choice for a game with a designated dive-through-the-air-in-slow-motion button, but I use other guns as I encounter them: shotguns, assault rifles, whatever. Although this kind of hiccup separating characters as they appear in cutscenes from characters as I control them is not unique to Max Payne 3, the game takes it a step beyond most. If, for example, I clear a room with my shotgun and a cutscene plays where Max brandishes his pistol, he will remain holding that pistol when the cutscene ends. It’s a peculiar, somewhat irritating effect, and it sums up all my weird, conflicted feelings about Max Payne 3, about how its technical improvements alter my expectations.

I grant that all this sounds like a nitpick, but the Max Payne series has always emphasized the player’s control. Its central mechanic of slow motion essentially provides a filmmaker’s input to its elaborate action movie homage – as in most third-person shooters, I am both actor and cameraman, but with access to slo-mo effects, I become a director of sorts. At my discretion, the simple act of stepping around the corner to blast a goon full of buckshot can be injected with dramatic weight by a press of the slo-mo button. It is a whole new dimension of control over the flow of the action, and the effect is powerful even in the two previous Max Payne games, with their blocky character models and awkward movements. Those games may portray Max with an eerily square head and a goofy sneer etched into an unchanging face, but one dive through the air and I feel like Chow Yun-Fat and Neo rolled up in one pill-popping, sardonic, trenchcoated wrapper.

Max Payne 3 appears to extend player control even further by complicating both the character you control and the world he interacts with. Max’s craggy face looks as haunted and tired as his weary narration sounds, and he moves with a heft that accentuates the beefy, middle-aged frame he squeezes into rumpled suits and loud floral shirts. He seems to lack all the restrictions of previous games, which used comic book panels instead of animated cutscenes to neatly sidestep the obvious limits of stiff, rudimentary character models. Now the comics are all but gone, referenced only during loading screens, and Max clasps an assault rifle in his off hand instead of levitating it a few inches above his back like so many other shooters. To recover health, he produces a little orange pill bottle from the folds of his jacket whenever I press a button.

Of course, in terms of player control, I’m not actually doing more here – the only change to the health system from previous games is the addition of that pill-popping animation. But that’s the thing: I know these technical embellishments are just a well-orchestrated illusion, and yet they still work. On a pure presentation level, it just feels good for Max to hold a shotgun in his other hand like that and then tuck it under his elbow when he reloads. Really, it’s simple math: give me more small details and character animations to control, even at such a minimum level of engagement, and it fortifies the illusion. I get more invested because it truly feels like I have more control over Max and his world than I ever did before.

The problem with something like Max switching to his pistol is that it jolts me out of the illusion. It’s meant to be another detail that engrosses me, removing one of those video game-y little blips where the character’s weapon instantly changes, like magic. Instead, the pistol swap only emphasizes my lack of control, like an awkward silence drawing attention to the thing you want to avoid. It underscores how I’m reliant on the game to perform such actions for me, and being so reliant not only feels at odds with the visual illusion Max Payne 3 invests so much to construct, it conflicts with the uncommon level of control it affords me.

I have no real desire for some BioWare-esque dialogue wheel, or to be able to choose which location I visit next. But something as simple as choosing a gun and pointing it? I can handle that. In fact, I do handle that during almost every playable second of the game. Though it came out nearly four years ago, Max Payne 3’s detailed characters still feel incredibly modern, its approach to gunplay still fresh. But these things also create control expectations that the game can’t quite meet. Every time it guides me with a helping hand like any other shooter (or most other video games, for that matter), it feels intrusive. It feels like a refusal to let me do what I’ve been led to believe I’m capable of, or should be capable of. Throughout the game, Max will do things like tackle someone through a club window or use a toppling water tower as cover or swing from a chain, which will trigger a kind of mid-air shooting gallery (using a pistol, of course) as he plummets to the ground. But I can’t set these moments off on my own; the game only allows them through cutscenes.

I know why, of course. The development headache of letting Max tip over water towers at will is surely enormous, so I recognize that on some level, these expectations are, at best, a little unfair or, at worst, wildly entitled and outright delusional. However, the nature of controlling such a vividly-rendered protagonist is also to expect a greater role in the proceedings, and I can’t help but come away unfulfilled. In a modern gaming context, where technology is even more powerful and the resulting illusions even more elaborate, Max Payne 3 emerges as a cautionary tale of sorts, demonstrating the odd dissonance that results from taking the protagonist so far; he feels too capable in my hands to be taken out of them as often as he is.

But that same feeling of being so capable is also what keeps me coming back to Max Payne 3. It is, strangely enough, a victim of its own success. The issues of player participation emerge precisely because the game is so successful at letting you inhabit Max as a character, to the point where he expands beyond his run/shoot/slo-mo confines and defines a new set of expectations in the process. He is the animal that outgrows the cage. But the reason Max Payne 3 feels so modern today, four years and one console generation later, is that so few games since have attempted to build on its foundation. Naughty Dog remains Rockstar’s closest contemporary here, though they’re still working on it themselves – Uncharted’s borderline auto-platforming, for example, doesn’t quite reach the Max Payne standard of control. The others seem to stick to first-person or embrace the game-y quirks that Max Payne 3 bends over backwards to bury. To play this game in 2017 is to long for more examples of such vivid protagonists, and it’s also to await solutions to the new player control challenges that they pose.

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