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Less is More in MAX PAYNE – Action and Narrative Done Right

This was a title that I had been curious about for a while, but never got to play it. Until a certain Steam Sale told me it was time.

For those not very familiar with it, Max Payne is a 2001 third-person shooter developed by Remedy Entertainment for PC and the first game of a trilogy. It’s a somber and action-packed tale set in a snowy New York City.

After just a couple hours of gameplay, I was already pleasantly surprised, especially considering I’m not a big action fan. So I took this opportunity to speak about Max Payne’s game design, and how it can captivate many types of gamers.

Just be aware that there are some spoilers coming ahead.

The story of Max Payne

When it comes to the story, Max Payne was clearly inspired by the classic noir films. The protagonist is a moody cop with a tragic backstory that sets out to fight unscrupulous and deranged crime bosses.

Max Payne was a typical good cop from the NYPD that, despite having to listen to many jokes about his name, seemed like a chill kind of guy. He was a family man that one day went back home to find his family dead. His wife and little daughter were brutally murdered by three junkies that were experiencing the effects of a new drug called Valkyr.

Right after that, Max became a DEA agent, and we see the transformation caused by the incident very clearly. Max is now a broken man with the sole goal to make things right. Three years later he goes undercover, infiltrating the mafia family called Punchinello, responsible for the trafficking of Valkyr. However, things go horribly wrong when his best friend and handler, Alex Balder, gets murdered by an unknown assassin right before his eyes… and he becomes the prime suspect.

Now, he is an unstoppable force, spending all his bullets in mobsters that now know who he really is, while being fiercely hunted by the police.

Most of the cutscenes we see in the game are actually presented as comic book pages, with the actors dubbing over the characters’ lines, and Max’s voice narrating his thoughts. The narration is the other noir aspect that complements the narrative and shows Max as the stereotypical noir protagonist. However, considering the fact that the whole game’s narrative is structured based on the noir style, his character doesn’t feel out of place and you buy into it quite easily, gladly helping and descending with him that path of destruction. The dialogues are well-written overall, but Max’s lines in his narration are what really make him shine as a character.

The art style of the comic pages is also quite nice and fits well with the somber and dirty atmosphere of the game. It’s a good way of giving the game some personality, and for an indie dev, for example, it would be a nice way of telling the story without having to worry about making scenes with complex character animation.

The classic noir structure also allows for “shallower” character development: you have a typical cop/detective protagonist, mobsters, a femme fatale, and a typical noir story, so you don’t have to spend too much time on exposition and character development, and keep the action going.

However, as Max goes through the many lairs of the bad guys, things get a bit convoluted; the hierarchy of the Punchinello family starts to get confusing at a certain point, and it’s very easy to lose track of who is who in the story.

That is a problem in a game with too many characters and too little time put into dialogues, narration, documents, anything that helps the player to understand the story. If you don’t want to spend too much time into the story, keep your character list short.

Action is the focus

The main mechanic of the game is the shooting mechanic. You aim and shoot with the mouse, after selecting one from the various weapons you will find throughout the game. You have the blunt weapons that you only really use on special occasions such as if you want to break boxes that might contain items, or if you lose all your guns, and that only happens in one part close to the middle of the game. It is very easy to manage your ammo, and the enemies are always dropping their guns after you kill them, so you will rarely find yourself completely out of bullets, and therefore will hardly use the blunt weapons.

But that doesn’t make the game easy by any means. Depending on the weapons they are using, the enemies can do some serious damage, especially if you’re closer to them and if there’s more than one attacking you at the same time. That often enough forces you to use the Bullet Time Combo mechanic, which is a mechanic that allows you to dodge for a moment, throwing yourself to the sides, and shooting at the enemies while the whole game is in slow motion. It’s a simple but very cool-looking mechanic that will also be very helpful in those difficult moments when the mobsters are particularly aggressive. The fact that ammo is easy to find is a nice contrast with the challenging combat, and it prevents the player from feeling unnecessarily frustrated.

However, that doesn’t mean you will never experience frustration in this game, especially if you’re playing it for the first time.

There is some basic platforming in the game; just to jump over some boxes, or through breakable windows that give access to other areas. But it takes a while to get used to the timing of the jump, and when the surface you have to jump to is a bit more distant than usual, it might take a couple more tries to make it work. From what I observed, that happens because the jump is not very natural and has a bit of delay between the pressing of the button and the actual start of the jump. It is also a “slower” jump, one of those that make the player float for an instant and doesn’t take them very far. Those elements end up creating a not very accurate jump and might get the player stuck in moments that shouldn’t get them stuck.

Those moments are very rare, though, since platforming is far from being the focus of the game, so you won’t encounter too many complex jumps to make. But if you’re thinking about making platforming a good part of your game, focusing on coding a more accurate jump is certainly a good idea. You can achieve that by balancing the height and length of the jump; make sure the character is not floating for too long and not too high, and give it a good reach, even if it may look unrealistic. It’s very frustrating for a player to have to spend a lot of time platforming with a short jump.

Nothing is perfect

Max Payne benefits from having just a few simple mechanics; instead of adding lots of unnecessary mechanics as fluff, the devs kept it simple and polished the combat mechanics, the stars of the game, keeping them balanced, effective, and fun.

However, nothing is perfect and there is this one part of the game that is not very fun. The game is divided into three parts: The American Dream, A Cold Day in Hell, and A Bit Closer to Heaven. The last boss we fight in the first part, The American Dream, is Jack Lupino, the underboss of the Punchinello Mafia, who had been driven mad by the use of Valkyr. After Jack dies, Max is approached by the game’s femme fatale, Mona Sax, who offers to help the protagonist in his quest to take down Don Punchinello. Her motive is to save her twin sister, Lisa, from Punchinello, her abusive husband.

Max and Mona start discussing their partnership in a bar when Max realizes she drugged his drink. She justifies that by saying he may end up killing her sister while trying to get to Punchinello. Max goes unconscious and starts to have a nightmare about the day his family was murdered.

This nightmare sequence, however, is a playable part of the game. There are no enemies, though. The setting is Max’s house, which is now a surrealistic maze, divided into two parts: the first one looking like hallways of his house, and the second being a trail of blood in a black void. Step out of the trail and you fall to your death. To find the way out and to end the nightmare, Max has to follow the screams of his wife and the crying of his daughter.

It is obvious that this part is very different from the rest of the game. It’s a sort of psychological moment, made to show how that incident still affects Max. That in itself is not a problem. Many devs do this; they add a segment in the middle that differs a lot from the rest of the game, generally to achieve some narrative effect (and in nightmare sequences it’s an overdone trick), or to create a break from the main mechanics to improve the game’s dynamics, and even highlight the main gameplay. However, it’s always a good thing to keep those kinds of segments quite short, because not everybody will enjoy a change in the gameplay in the middle of the game. That way, if the player doesn’t like it, they won’t take too long to go back to what they enjoy in the game. And if the player enjoys it, it’s going to be a memorable moment anyway, as long as it doesn’t overstay its welcome. At the end of the day, if someone is playing an action game, they want the action to be the majority of the gameplay.

For me, that’s the problem with that nightmare sequence in Max Payne. It’s too long, and to put two mazes in a very straight forward action game doesn’t seem like a great idea altogether. I don’t think the sequence should be completely cut out, but I would definitely make the mazes much easier to beat (or maybe just create an illusion of a maze) and make the sequence quite shorter overall. I think that would be a good way of achieving the intended effect, while also keeping the player away from frustration. The blood trail part was particularly frustrating for me, since both the start and the end of the maze look exactly the same, making me think I was walking in circles and going back to the start every time.

At the end of that sequence, I was very irritated and ready to go back to the action. So keep that in mind if you want to avoid making the player give up on your game. That’s when Max wakes up and realizes he has no other weapons besides a baseball bat. That forces us to use a bit of stealth for a brief moment, and then make a lot of use of the Bullet Time Combo mechanic to kill a couple of bad guys with the bat, and grab their guns as fast as possible to shoot the other enemies nearby.

However, this is not the only nightmare sequence in the game. At the end of part 2, Max finds himself in a situation where he has no other choice but to surrender. And that is when another villain, Nicole Horne, forces him to take a dose of the infamous Valkyr, so another nightmare begins. This one is a bit more interesting than the previous one. Here, the path you have to follow is less confusing, which is good, but the blood trail maze is back and a bit more difficult, since it makes you perform more tricky jumps more often and it’s very easy to fall off the edge.

Needless to say, I was quite irritated with the fact that I had to go through that again, but in the end, there was something else that made it more redeemable than the other nightmare sequence, so to speak. We reach once again the bedroom where Max’s wife died, and there we also find… Max, dressed the way he was on that fateful day. That’s when we have to fight the other Max, and once we kill him, a flashback tells us that Max’s wife tried to warn him there was something wrong, but he was in a hurry to go to work and didn’t listen to what she had to say. So, this sequence actually has a purpose in relation to the narrative: it tells the player that Max feels responsible for his wife’s death and why.

When Max wakes up, this time, he still has his Beretta with him, though, which is a relief.

Action isn’t just shooting

There is another particular moment when Max Payne gives us a break from the shooting, but not from the action.

During A Cold Day in Hell, Max sets up a meeting with Punchinello in his restaurant, and it seems we will finally be face to face with the don. We get there and the whole place is dark. So, when we take a few steps forward, the restaurant starts blowing up and we have to run immediately to escape the fire.

There is a specific path you have to follow so the fire doesn’t kill you. When playing for the first time, you definitely will die many times, and each time you will learn the next turn you have to take. It’s a sequence that thrills you without making you shoot a single bullet (Max looks even more like a badass by the end of it), and even if you die many times in the process, it’s not really frustrating (at least not too much) because it doesn’t drag out more than it should. It successfully makes your heart race and delivers a segment that doesn’t use the main mechanic of the game, but it still delivers the action.

After it’s over, you take a deep breath and realize it’s time to shoot some mobsters again.

The genre of a game is not made just of a single mechanic. Action is not just shooting at everything you see, but it’s also getting chased, or even chasing an enemy. Just as horror is not just jumpscares, it’s also atmosphere, unsettling visuals and sounds, and many other things. So, if you really like a certain genre and you want to make a game for that genre that is going to make an impact, be sure to understand all the elements of that genre and how you can explore them.

Grand finale

When I got to the end of the game, I was very close to feel like it was a bit longer than it should. But for its length, I would say the devs did a good job preventing the gameplay from feeling repetitive, which is something that can happen easily in a game that focuses on a small number of mechanics.

The many short breaks you take during the game to read the comic pages, to do a bit of platforming, to activate levers, or just to listen to the parody soap operas on random TVs are enough to keep the gameplay dynamic acceptable.

In my opinion, the game could benefit from being an hour shorter, at least. But overall, Max Payne successfully delivers many hours of fun action gameplay, and a captivating and well-written noir story. Despite the frustrating moments here and there, you certainly leave that grim and cold version of New York with a smile on your face.

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