Max Payne and the Pictoralists

Kent’s post about games and their relation to old media got me thinking. It’s best to read this one if you’ve read his first.

Because my 360 is at school and my computer is too shoddy to handle Bioshock 2 right now, I’m currently playing Max Payne. In case you never played Max Payne, here’s what you need to know: it is The Departed crossed with John Woo crossed with every B-movie cops-and-robbers flick you’ve ever seen. All the cutscenes are comic strips. They’re not even real comics: they’re photographs layered over with ultra-cheesy Photoshop art filters, with speech bubbles and word boxes slapped on top. The language is such a heavy kind of noirish nonsense that it gets hard to handle after a while. Constant references to the dark nature of the city, the predatory howl of sirens, the call of the night, that kind of thing. In short, the game wants so badly to be everything that crime novels, action movies, and gritty thriller comics have ever been that it’s practically bleeding out the anus to accomplish this.

Nevertheless, it’s fun as hell. The John Woo fighting moves are incorporated as bullet-time dodge-jump-and-shoot attacks—at one point, Max even remarks that he’s about to get “all Chow Yun Fat” on his enemies’ collective rear ends. It’s marvelous. The whole game crawls right up into that sweaty place under the armpit of twentieth-century pulp fiction and sits there grinning like a monkey and clapping its hands, and there’s nothing you can do but love it.

Aside from the bullet time effects, which were very unique and awesome when the game came out, there’s not much special about the stuff the player does in the game. You’ve got a million different weapons, grenades, rocket launchers, et cetera. Stupid boss fights. A couple halfhearted puzzles, because every game in the universe needs a puzzle, right? It’s the standard shooter rigmarole through and through. A few hallway laser-bomb puzzles are direct references to situations found in Half-Life. What saves it from being derivative is the style: By accessing that whole antihero-thriller- noir-cops-and-robbers heritage, Max Payne transformed itself from a poorly-balanced shooter into something completely magical.

Its aims are a bit like those of the Pictoralists, described in Kent’s post, but with a bit more punch. Max Payne adopted non-gamic inspiration in the most audacious manner possible by flaunting its relationship to movies and comics. It’s trying to be a movie and a comic, at the same time, while also being a game. The basic attacks are obvious homages to Woo’s Hard Boiled, for crying out loud! It doesn’t try to be a movie in the same way that Heavy Rain does, but it’s still trying, and it cleaves so tightly to that heritage that it inherits all the excitement and energy of the old media. It knows why we love movies and trashy books and comics, and plays up to that. We don’t keep playing Max Payne simply because the game itself is well-made; we love it because it’s a bombastic send-up of everything pulp and horrible. In spirit and attitude, it’s the ultimate action movie and the ultimate comic.

So: Demons’ Souls is fantastic, on a gamic level. But not every game has to be Demons’ Souls. And not every game should be. Games that go in the exact opposite direction are often just as marvelous.

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  1. Switchbreak

     /  March 24, 2010

    Great post.

    Early film theorists, people like Siegfried Kracauer, used to argue for strict realism in film based on the idea that capturing unscripted/uncontrolled nuance was what separated cinema from theater, and was therefore the true essence of the medium. As cinema evolved, it grew to contain both realist styles and theatrical styles, and was able to build upon both in new and exciting ways.

    I look at games the same way: even those elements that are “cinematic” in games may lead to new things that haven’t been seen before either in film or in games. Things like Valve games, where lighting tricks learned from movies (and theater) become tools the developers can use to subliminally guide the player without overtly telling them where to go are a good example.

    • This is interesting and thoughtful–thanks for the comment!

      I agree with you and with Laura. While I think that games like Demon’s Souls are important because they help us to establish a distinct identity for games, there is certainly a lot that we can learn from films.

      Group f/64, who I mentioned in my post, said in their manifesto that “Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form.” The middle part is where I don’t agree with them. Of course Ansel Adams used qualities of composition that he had learned from studying paintings, woodcuts, etc. I like the stuff that the pictorialists made, and it was important to the greater development of photography, just like group f/64 was.

  2. I’m afraid I have nothing to say here. I’ve only seen one John Woo movie (and never played Max Payne), but now that I have a Netflix account I am sure to remedy that.

  3. Rabble

     /  May 19, 2010

    Max Payne was actually one of the first games I remember incorporating bullet time into it’s structure, If not the first.

  1. Salutations, New Readers! « Second Person Shooter

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