The lights are on
It happened in the decaying favela slums of Sao Paulo. It had been a good few weeks since I picked up the controller to play Max Payne 3, so I figured why not go back. Max Payne 3 has perhaps the most polished gunplay I have ever experienced--it's almost as satisfying as a real trip to the gun range. In my second playthrough, the shooting and movement still felt dynamic as the first time, but in the streets of the ghetto, while Max undergoes a "hangover sent straight from Mother Nature," something felt off. After his employer is killed and the building burns down around him, Max has a life-changing epiphany--no more booze until he puts a bullet in the brain behind this convoluted plot involving organ harvesting and political corruption. The plot takes off in a very clear, direct path for redemption and brutal execution...but the gameplay stays the same.
Here is a textbook example of ludonarrative dissonance (shameless plug for the title of my blog). From the beginning of the game, we know Max Payne bathes in alcohol and derides himself for being a washed-up loser. Yet he moves with the practiced grace and precision of ballet dancer, placing shots between the eyes of his would-be killers with surgical accuracy. It's hard to buy that Max is simultaneously a booze-soaked, pill-popping slob (he even tells his partner "I'm not slipping, I've slipped") and a grotesquely efficient killer. Is this really the performance of a pilled-up drunk with a gun?:
It's brutal, it's disgusting, it's beautifully rendered, and it's provocative. But what does it mean?
Let me reiterate, though, that Max Payne 3 boasts the most responsive and satisfying shooting mechanics I've ever experienced. Nevertheless, if games are going to be elevated to the artistic standard we so fervently argue they do, the questions regarding video game violence and ludonarrative dissonance must be addressed. The interaction on part of the player redirects the moral responsibility of executing a person-shaped pile of ones and zeroes back on the one holding the controller. The role of the critic, then, should be to unpack the meaning embedded in the code as pixels explode across the screen. Performing such an exercise on Max Payne 3 yields mixed results, but the game may be compelling precisely because of this problem. There's no way to synthesize violence and meaning here; the game drags you down into a blood-spattered critical hell and challenges you to climb back out--bullet by bullet. Perhaps that's commentary enough.
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