Payneful Stories

The original Max Payne was one of those computer games that rightly deserved to be called ‘groundbreaking’; the fact that it was still basically a first-person shooter says something about the overall scope of the industry, but it was (and is) a fine game. Its major gameplay innovation was “bullet time,” a technique lifted neatly from John Woo and the Wachowski brothers. Basically, when you right-click, everything around you goes into slow motion, and you can aim, shoot, and make graceful dives while your enemies move like molasses. Duration is limited, but you can pick up more bullet time by killing bad guys. The gimmick really worked; it made the game fun to play and gave it a different feel from all the other first-person shooters out there.

It was on that basis that I picked up Max Payne 2 last week. It was clear from looking at it in the store that Remedy Entertainment was pushing a different aspect of the first game in the sequel: its narrative. The full title is “Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne: A Love Story.” It’s packaged in a DVD box instead of the standard-size computer game box, and the blurbs on the back emphasize the continuing tale of Max Payne, not the gameplay features.

In both gameplay and its integration of narrative, MP2 is an incremental step up from its predecessor. My biggest complaint is that it’s far too short; I’ve already finished playing through it on the starting difficulty level, and while there are plenty of features built in for replayability, I have experienced the entire story, such as it is. And it ain’t much. Structurally, the game does a lot of interesting things with narrative, but the story itself and the dialogue leave so much to be desired that the ingenuity is essentially wasted.

The thorniest choice that a game designer has to make, story-wise, is to what extent the player will experience the narrative or create the narrative—in other words, how much will player choices affect either the ultimate outcome or the nature of the story along the way? Obviously, the only situation in which the player could realistically take the reins of the narrative would be in a multiplayer game like a MMORPG; within the world of single-player games the lion’s share of the storytelling burden will always fall on the designers. But a detailed, well-written, internally coherent setting with multiple avenues for success can make for a fine game with strong story elements, like Fallout, Deux Ex, or Morrowind. The other end of the spectrum has always been dominated by adventure games, where the ongoing story (whether related by text, cinematics, or in-game cutscenes) is interrupted by opportunities for the player to solve logic puzzles and occasionally participate in multiple-choice dialogue with computer-controlled personalities. For whatever reason—perhaps because the narratives are linear and thus more closely under the designers’ control—adventure games have tended to have stronger story elements than other computer games, all the way back to the days of Infocom. Grim Fandango is a perfect example—it’s the only game that I ever replayed solely so that I could experience the story a second time.

MP2 opts for the latter route—it has its own tale to tell and other than refusing to play, there is no way the player is going to muss it up or get it off track. The story unfolds in between the game’s ‘levels,’ and the goal of each level is largely the same: follow the path and kill all your enemies with panache. This turns out to be an excellent strategy, since the game clearly means to emulate a fusion of film noir and Hong Kong action cinema—it’s therefore appropriate that the flow of things is periodically interrupted by explosive action scenes that are little violent vignettes in their own right. When you’re actually playing the game you feel like you’re in the middle of an action scene in The Matrix. It also helps that information and clues are presented in-game as dialogue spoken by Max Payne, in past tense to go along with the rest of the story. The downside here is that the gameplay, like the narrative, is linear: enter a room with four doors, and most of the time three of them will be blocked or locked, and you’ll have only one way to go.

In the cutscenes before, between, and after the action sequences, the story unfolds as a graphic novel. This works well, and is very refreshing in a field cluttered with poorly-animated story material. The panels appear sequentially as actors speak the dialogue, gradually filling up the screen until it looks like a comics page. You can stop, rewind, or review them as you desire. Sound-effects and voice actors are very good; the actual art is no great shakes, but has an appropriately noir vibe. Sadly, instead of letting the burden rest entirely on this comics-style narration, MP2 also includes traditional-style scenes animated within the game’s 3D engine. 3D graphics have come along way, but the effort is all toward a realistic splay of limbs as your enemy falls down the stairs, not the depiction of nuanced emotion on someone’s face.

So what about the story itself? Remedy is ambitious here; they’re going for an entirely serious, tragic, psychologically complex noir fable. (Yes, this is the case despite the name of the protagonist. Mistake #1.) Most games get by by trying for less—they indulge in light humor, or testosterone-laden hookum with just enough self-parody to be, you know, all ironic and stuff. MP2, by contrast, goes for the heartstrings, trying to make us feel the self-loathing, the existential angst, and the tortured love of the doomed protagonist. But it does it with lines like these. I am not making them up.

There was a blind spot in my head—a bullet-shaped hole where the answers should be.

I was compelled to give Vlad his gun back—one bullet at a time.

It goes on and on like that. It’s as if the writers decided that all the existing noir cliches were OK but not quite cheesy or improbable enough, so they’d make up their own. None of the emotional moments ring true. They can’t even resist throwing in some coy self-reference, in the form of television programs you periodically encounter that themselves are telling the story Max Payne is experiencing, in different genres. How clever; how annoying. So the story doesn’t live up—in that sense it plays out like the stories in most computer games, except that this game is clearly trying to do more. It is because they set their sights so high that they fail so miserably.

It’s very sad to see, especially comparing the dialogue and storyline with the game’s visual elements, which are outstanding. The psychotic funhouse is genuinely disturbing; the burning building feels hot and dangerous. In the computer game industry as a whole, there’s a yawning gulf between the quality of graphic design and the quality of narrative—nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in MP2.

I hold out hope for better writing in computer games; this probably makes me a member of a cranky minority. It’s not like it’s a necessary thing—gameplay is paramount, because we’re talking about games, after all. I’d happily recommend MP2 to another computer gamer, because even as wince-worthy as the story was, it was great fun to actually play. Someday, though, I’d like to see a subset of computer games that take all their aesthetic elements a little more seriously, and manage to pull it off. I look forward to a world where game reviews are in the same section of the paper as the book and film reviews. It’s still a long way off.