The first reaction I had upon seeing the Max Payne 3 promotional material: Oh, I must be confusing the Max Payne series with something else.
I wasn’t, it turned out, but you can hardly blame me for my uncertainty:
What I learned during my exposure to Max Payne and Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne was that the franchise is interested in notions of the self. The first installment was the first game to use bullet-time, the drastic slowing down of action sequences as seen in The Matrix, which instantly became a defining characteristic of the game. Of course, bullet-time is designed to emphasize Max’s (and the gamer’s) experiences and abilities over others’, since the gamer is able to relish every bullet in a way the target presumably cannot. It also serves to isolate the protagonist from the characters around him, in a sense privileging his experiences over others’.
The plot rests on Max, a protagonist coping with horrific levels of grief and guilt related to the murder of his wife and child, on a journey through his own psychology and towards vengeance. Regardless of what you believe “actually” happened in the first game,* the lesson is that you can never really rely on yourself. You are not so much a solid piece of flesh and psychology as you are an ever-changing, chaotic force of will at the mercy of the world around you and your own limited perspective.
Max’s strategy in the game echoes this. He is never deliberate, but rather throws himself into whatever opportunity presents itself. Media messages, chance encounters, and his own background as a cop fuel, aid, and interfere with his efforts, but generally his main tactic is that he runs around the game world aggressively being himself, even as his understanding of himself and his perspective shift.
Of course, this self still has effects on the world around him in ways more interesting than the mere death count of the game. The essence of Max Payne is refracted throughout his world. The name of his love interest, Mona Sax, is a rather straightforward permutation of Max Payne. In the show “Address Unknown,” which appears throughout the series, John Mirra (mirror) and the unnamed man in the show become a clear parallel for Max’s struggles. These are two more minor characters of Max-ness seeping into every part of the game, but one cannot ignore the dream sequences, either; the gamer must play through Max’s subconscious, a world created entirely by this Max-ness.
The American studies nerd within me was delighted when I began to realize that the third installment of Max Payne was an exploration of the same themes, but played out on a new level: that of national, racial, and socioeconomic identities rather than solely personal identity.
The easiest entry into this discussion, I think, is through the transformation Max Payne undergoes. In the beginning, Max is hired to work as a body guard to a rich family in Sao Palo. The job is pitched as a vacation from his usual police work, but also seems like a lifeline — Max is growing older, gaining weight, and drinking himself into a stupor regularly. The idea seems to be that working for rich people in a warm, exotic locale will be easy money after his career as a cop in the northeast.
The transformation in question occurs about halfway into the game. Max shaves off his hair, decides to stop drinking entirely, and heads into the slums to try to find an answer for the present mysteries.
I think the visual transformation serves two different purposes. First, it represents the giving up of certain aesthetic aspects of the self. Max casts aside his “Max Payne Look.” Whereas his battle plan in the first and second games was based on simply running around doing his own thing until things worked out, I think he anticipates that Sao Palo demands that he become someone else before following the same battle plan. Part of this is out of disillusionment with what it means to be Max at this point — mainly, drunk and disappointing — and part of it is, I think, believing that he needs to be “more Brazilian” in order for his usual battle plan to work. You can tell by his classic sarcastic commentary on his actions that the original strategies are still in play, just with an entirely new look. He is making the same bad decisions he ever made — “I’ve had better ideas, but then, I’ve had worse ones. Like accepting this job in the first place,” he says at one point — but with what he deems a more fitting look.
The transformation is also, however, an attempt to move away from his American white-ness. This is tightly interwoven with the previous purpose, but I think it’s important to pull out separately. Max is clearly trying to be less white and less American. He enters the favela saying, “So I guess I was finally about to go and experience the other side of Sao Paolo first-hand, the bit people try to ignore, the unpleasant memory they try to obliterate with cocktails and helicopters and parties and lines of blow like rich fools the world over.” Instead of being a tourist, he tries to blend in, head into the slums, and stare the social structures in the face. Ironically enough, his tactic for doing this is by wearing the most blatant sign of an American tourist — the god-awful Hawaiian shirt, evidently the closest thing he could manage.
The emphasis the game maintains on linguistic and cultural barriers is heightened after the transformation. It seems that everyone refers to Max as a gringo as soon as he makes the attempt at losing his white self — they clearly see through his efforts, which are cosmetic at best — and seem to be drawn to rooting out his artifice immediately.
Although the transformation is limited in its effect for how Max and the Brazilians interact with each other, it does wonders for Max’s abilities to understand the problems. He recognizes the full complexity of the situation when he starts spending time in the slums. One beautiful moment in the game, I think, is when the paramilitary shows up unexpectedly. Suddenly, Max is shooting at everything, and any semblance of justice or reason dissipates. Instead, the gamer is left feeling trapped, forced to shoot every moving object even as Max lays on the guilt. “They were shipping them out by the dozen,” he observes, as he tries to put the pieces of the puzzle together, realizing that the gangs of Sao Paolo might not be the only bad guys. “But,” he concedes, “who was I to cast judgment on proper police procedure and justifiable use of force?” This is the classic self-deprecation, consistently questioning tone Max uses throughout the series, but here something is different.
In seeking a conclusion, I look to the role that the Brazilian language plays in the game after the transformation. It has always been a weakness for Max in the game, but here it takes on a certain prominence. In one scene, Max essentially declares that he’s not as dumb as he seems despite not knowing the language, the subtext being that he’s smart enough to know what’s right and wrong in Brazil, even if he can’t understand what people are saying. This, to me, seems like a very American thing to say in this situation, an argument for absolutist morals over local understanding. Towards the last moments of the game, as he reflects on his experiences as a hired guard, he continues the identification with his motherland: “Say what you want about Americans, but we understand capitalism. You buy yourself a product and you get what you pay for.”
A turn happens in the game, however, in the next lines: “And these chumps had paid for some angry gringo without the sensibilities to know right from wrong. Here I was about to execute this poor bastard like some dime-store angel of death and I realized: they were correct. I wouldn’t know right from wrong if one was helping the poor and the other was bangin’ my sister.”
He has recognized that he was always more of a random outsider than he was any sort of moral authority — he is not a Brazilian, and therefore has no claim to righteousness here.
“What was I really doing walking in there with my bad haircut and ridiculous shirt?” he asks at an earlier point in the game. “Was I there to make something right? Or was I using a messed up situation to indulge myself, grasping at some desperate delusion of control?” The Max Payne games are a testament that, as he answers ,“Maybe the two went hand-in-hand more than I cared to admit.” But by framing the third installment in a plot so focused on race, class, and national identity, Max Payne 3 elevates its notions of the psychological self — as a constantly-evolving blob at the crux of a horrendous past, a complex and unknowable present, and a desire for a moral future — into notions of the social, political, and national self.
* Personally, I opt for a reading wherein Max actually kills his wife after stumbling in on her trying to kill the baby. It’s not a theory supported consistently beyond the game’s entries into Max’s subconscious, but it is the one I appreciate the most.
**Easter Egg bonus: If you beat Max Payne 3, you get to play the game with skins from Max Paynes 1 and 2. Yep, you get to play the game about consolidating past and present versions of the self as if you were versions of your past self playing in the present.a