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?:
Tom Bissell, one of the most established game critics I've read, writes about this in his article on Max Payne 3, saying that the game is "quite possibly the most ludonarratively dissonant video game ever made" and arguing that, in the end, the game "appears to be trying to say something about regret and death and slaughter and addiction, but, of course, can't." I tend to agree. The game sacrifices synchronicity in favor of a well-polished shooting system. After all, who the hell cares if a game's story syncs up perfectly at the expense of gameplay? Controlling a drunk, stumbling Max Payne for the first few hours of the game would not a happy gamer make. Nevertheless, if a developer chooses to make a game as narratively driven and brutal as Max Payne, then said developer should work to elevate the purpose behind having a player kill hundreds of virtual people, drunk or sober. One way to alleviate this issue would have been a cosmetic change to the gameplay--other than Max's shaving his head and donning a Hawaiian t-shirt. Something as simple as making the gunplay a bit sloppier in the first half of the game by using more motion blur or by eliminating kill cams altogether would make Max's narrative shift better. Imagine playing the game for a while and enjoying the crisp gunplay, just without the exquisite detail (because Max is drunk), only to be completely blindsided by the clarity of the the death animations in the latter half of the game when Max sobers up. The impact would be narratively and ludologically synchronous--Max's clarity would be the player's clarity. The trade-off would be significant, to be sure, but if the gameplay were still crisp and the visuals dialed down in the first few chapters, the transition could be extremely effective.
But the heavy themes the game introduces would still need to be resolved. Max Payne 3 raises the issues of poverty, redemption through violence, and the carelessness of the rich without offering any type of ludological investigation of how to deal with them. The only issue explored in gameplay is extreme violence, and even then, mostly through the slow cam close-up. The game forces the player to witness up close and in incredible detail countless bodies' being torn and shredded in gory, beautiful detail. Only in these instances does the player have the opportunity to understand what exactly all this killing begets in the form of dynamic death animations brilliantly crafted to respond to where the bullet pierces the body. The player also has the ability to slow down the camera to see with greater clarity the character's last movements as well as the ability to keep firing at the body even though the enemy is dead. Affording the player with the ability to slow down and view pieces of metal ripping and tearing the human body allows the player to reflect on the means he/she employs to accomplish Max's goal. But after about the hundredth time I saw a slow motion death sequence, it no longer induced a wince from me; I kept wondering what is the purpose behind it. Am I supposed to feel guilty? Am I supposed to gain some sort of insight about the human propensity to violence? Is the message that violence only begets more violence? Or am I simply asked to enjoy the carnage? Entertaining any one of these questions seems like a logical critical step, but upon execution, the results are unsatisfying. The game, in this respect, seems a missed opportunity.
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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