classic

Making Max Payne – How Hong Kong Kung Fu And Family Photo Shoots Built A Noir Thriller

by Kyle Hilliard on Mar 27, 2016 at 09:00 AM

Quantum Break, the next game from developer Remedy, is right around the corner with an April 5 release date. Ahead of the studio's next big story-driven third-person shooter, we're looking back at the game that put the Finnish studio on the map – Max Payne. We spoke with its writer and reluctant Max Payne model, Sam Lake, all about how the game came together. This feature originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Game Informer magazine.

Max Payne was not the first game to come out of Finnish developer Remedy Entertainment, but it became the developer’s first major success and set a standard and aesthetic style for the studio moving forward. Max’s overwrought noir dialogue, dark tone, story focus, and third-person shooting with an unconventional hook have been translated into staples of Remedy games, even up to its upcoming Xbox One game, Quantum Break, which we featured on our cover in December 2015.

Following the release of the studio’s first game, Death Rally in 1996, Remedy threw around ideas for a follow-up covering everything from The Legend of Zelda-inspired fantasy to making an early prototype that used an overhead perspective starring a hard-boiled cop. The latter moved forward into production. “There was a concept called Dark Justice, which was a kind of near-future, drug gang-war concept,” says writer Sam Lake. “I wanted a film-noir, hard-boiled feeling to it – wanted to bring kind of a private eye type main character into it and [Dark Justice] became, step by step, Max Payne.”

The game changed tremendously over the course of its development, shifting from the top-down perspective to third-person, abandoning the near-future and gang-war components, but embracing the tough-minded lead detective and the drug-focused story to eventually become Max Payne. Remedy was working with 3D Realms at the time, and received permission to expand and change the game from its original pitch.  “They were pushing us to be more ambitious with this,” Lake says. “Tomb Raider was coming out with a third-person camera, and that kind of felt like, ‘We can do this. Let’s go in this direction.’ That’s how it started.”

Entering Right Behind The Matrix
The obvious assumed inspiration for Max Payne’s bullet-time shooting mechanic is The Matrix, which released two years prior to the game in 1999, but the relationship between the film and the game are coincidental. Max Payne’s bullet-time mechanics were well in development when The Matrix released, but Remedy saw the film’s release as positive as opposed to getting beaten to the punch. “Matrix, in many ways was, I feel, a big stroke of luck for us in the sense that Hong Kong action theater, from the western perspective, was still a relatively little known, kind of a niche thing,” says Max Payne writer Sam Lake.  “Matrix really brought that kind of stylization and coolness in action. It was huge, and it came nicely before us, setting up a perfect launch platform for Max Payne to come out.”

Bullet time, the game’s most notable hook and the aspect separating it from competing third-person shooters, came along during this iterative process. “We were all watching a lot of Hong Kong action movies, like John Woo stuff, and we were saying, ‘We should do something like that – all of those cool slow-mo, bullet time things. We need to find a way to bring some of that coolness into the gameplay,’” Lake says. Some early versions took bullet-time out of the hands of the player, assigning it to specific story-moments and rooms before it became a crucial aspect of the players’ interaction with the gun combat.

Max Payne’s interstitial story moments are told through a series of comic vignettes as opposed to animated cutscenes. The initial idea was to take photos and use them as reference to create watercolor images on paper, which would then be used in the game. “It was ambitious and it was a cool idea to use watercolors and ink, but it was way too slow,” Lake says. As the game progressed, the photographs became more integral, and the watercolor painting idea was abandoned in favor of applying watercolor filters with Photoshop.

Many of the models who made it into these comic book scenes are members of the Remedy development staff, friends and family, and most notably, Lake, who modeled for Max. It began with Lake and friends dressing up as cyper-punk soldiers for a photo-shoot to be featured in his university’s role-playing association magazine. “I brought those photos to work and I was saying, ‘We should do something like this – this is a way to tell a story with a graphic novel. The best I can recall, because I was posing in those photos, everyone went, ‘Okay, you are the guy then,’” Lake says.

With a budget too small to allow for professional actors, Lake found himself in the game. “Suddenly, the character started to look like me. I honestly don’t know if I had known that at the time, if I would have just shrugged and said ‘Okay,’ I maybe would have thought about it a bit more,” Lake says when remembering his initial agreement to model for Max.

Lake recruited the rest of the cast, and in some cases, pulled in literally anyone near his one-room rental apartment to be a model. “All the models in the game are from close groups of friends or relatives that I just tracked in,” Lake recalls. “The janitor in that house where I was living ended up being the mob boss, my mother ended up being the main bad guy in Nicole Horne, my dad is the shady government official Alfred Woden, and my brother was Vinny Cognitti, the mobster.”

Despite the comparatively budgeted storytelling mechanics, Max Payne was a huge success, winning many game of the year awards. Game Informer gave the Xbox version a 9, and its Metacritc score reflects a similar level of positivity across the board.

The game has sold more than four million copies and cemented bullet time as a widely-used gameplay mechanic. It was one of the earliest examples of a developer treating its dialogue and story with the same level of respect as its gameplay and graphics, and assured the ongoing legacy of video gaming’s slowest shooter and the studio that created him.

The Max Payne Grimace
Few celebrities of the video game industry are recognized primarily for what Remedy writer Sam Lake describes as a “constipated face.” People ask him to make the Max Payne face at events, and he even poked fun at the legacy of the expression in a recent video asking Remedy fans to send in their best Max Payne grimace after offering a humorous walkthrough of how to do it.
The face is a result of the limited technology of the time. Max Payne’s face had no animation, but it did have three swappable expressions – a neutral face, a smirk, and the now famous shooting face. “The face for shooting was kind of me going like, ‘Well, if I was shooting a gun and there was a bright muzzle flash, how would I…?’ and then I was in front of the mirror going… [Lake laughs while making the expression] something like this.” Lake says. Though players rarely saw the face while playing the game, it did make its way into nearly every published screenshot. “Because of what we were doing with the particles and we could freeze and go in slow mode – that was really, really cool – an eye-candy thing. So we wanted to show that in every shot, so Max had his shooting face on for everything.”

For more on Remedy – the studio that created Max Payne and Alan Wake – head here for a number of features covering the developer's next game, Quantum Break.