Fall of a Man, Rise of a Franchise: Celebrating Max Payne
There have been film noire games and there have been action games, but rarely has any series popularized the two things together as well as the Max Payne series. This hard-boiled tale of an undercover NYPD detective’s fall from grace, revenge and eventual redemption has been in and out of the gaming spotlight over the course of decades now and each leg of the journey brought some of the most intense spectacles of action gaming available at the times of their release. Remedy Entertainment released the first Max Payne game on July 23, sparking the innovation of a new and popular style of game and the beginning of one of the best action-noir stories ever made.
Development for the original Max Payne began late in 1996. Remedy had already been considering the possibility of 3rd person action game and were further spurred to explore the concept by the success of games like the original Tomb Raider, which had been created around the same time. From the beginning, story and script writer Sam Lake designed the ideas of the game to take the archetype of the hard-boiled detective story and explore a much darker journey into psychological themes of guilt, depression and fear. Norse mythology was also an influence to Max Payne’s story and appears extensively throughout the game, such as the drug Valkyr in reference to Valkyrie warriors and characters like Alfred Woden, who’s name and position of power is a direct reference to Odin and his prominent role in the Norse pantheon.
As much as audiences would believe that the popular film The Matrix inspired the slow-motion “Bullet Time” effects found throughout Max Payne, the game was actually in development well before the release of The Matrix in 1999 and the effects were in the game well before the movie hit theaters. That said, it didn’t stop Remedy from seeing an opportunity to capitalize on the popularity of the film. Following The Matrix’s success, a few homages were created and placed in Max Payne, paying homage to the sci-fi action-thriller. In particular, a lobby shoot-out scene and an explosive scene involving a subway door were worked as references to similar scenes in the film.
Max Payne begins the story of its titular hero with an event of tragedy. A regular NYPD officer, Payne comes home to find his wife and daughter murdered at the hands of psychopaths high on a previously unknown drug known as Valkyr. Following the events, Payne immediately transfers to the DEA and begins an obsessed journey to destroy the drug that killed his family and anyone peddling it. The story takes Payne through the seedy underbelly of vicious crime syndicates, militarized corrupt corporations and the dark recesses of his own devastated mind, cut between sequences of action interlaced with a graphic novel-style unfolding of the plot in between each level.
The graphic novel presentation of Max Payne was a theme that would become iconic throughout the series, but it actually began as a measure to cut cost on animation. By creating the in-between of levels with static panels, developers were able to put the focus of development more on the action and rearrange the story easily if necessary. Furthermore, while The Matrix would popularize slow motion movie effects such as Bullet Time, Max Payne was the first to bring it to video games in the MaxFX engine that was specifically made for the game. Along with Bullet Time, the MaxFX engine allowed for some of the most advanced effects seen in video games at the time, such as the particle effects that allowed for smoke and blood splatter.
The initial Max Payne gained critical acclaim that would pave the way for the rest of the franchise for better or worse. Though the movie starring Mark Wahlberg would flop, the games would generally continue to succeed and garner the affection of audiences everywhere. Max Payne brought us an interactive film-noire story with visual effects and presentation on a caliber that audiences had never seen before. Many of its elements, especially the slow-motion effect, have been and are even currently used in newer games. Certainly styles have evolved and technology has advanced, but there’s no doubt that for all of its innovations, the hard-boiled war of Max Payne has its place in the pantheon of action game history.