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01/28/2004

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Hetty Bembler

In light of my somewhat wrong-minded argument with Sanford about AtticAuthor, its interesting to me that he and I both also wrote about MP2. I had an entirely different take on the game, and I honestly think he kind of missed the point with it...and I would argue that MP1 & 2 are at least on-par story wise with FF: Spirits within. Some of his points are valid, but MP2 is a step in the right direction for real storytelling in games, I think. It just so happens that they are written in a highly stylized (some would say ridiculous) form. Where they do succeed, I think, is in the creation of a narrative style that lends itself to gaming but doesn't take you out of the notion that you are in fact playing a game. It may kind of look like a movie or a graphic novel, but it plays and feels like a game. And that is a good step towards something great in gaming. Not to bring it up again but damn if Beyond Good & Evil didn't do it right as well, in a totally different way.

Justin, you would do well to play through MP1. The story is more engaging IMHO than 2 and I think it is a much more full game overall.

Review

justin

Yesterday, I bought a copy of Max Payne 1 for the XBox to play through. I also bought a copy of DOA: Extreme Beach Vollyball, and I must say that's serving as a wonderful beach vacation, away from the rainy grimy blood-soaked streets of Noir York. Soon I'll return back to try the first game, but I must admit I'm daunted to boot up MP1 so soon after MP2, since I expect to be immediately confronted with another of Max's dead loved ones. Grim, that stuff is.

Walter

I haven't played the sequel yet, but I couldn't help but feel that Max Payne 1's story was pretty ephemeral. It's cool enough to run through once, and yes, it's certainly distinctive in today's gaming environment, but it's ultimately just a big cheese-fest that doesn't warrant revisiting. Not like my much-beloved Metal Gear Solid or many of the LucasArts adventures.

Hetty Bembler

I honestly don't know how you can call Max Payne a cheesefest and then seriously compare it to MGS.

Walter

MGS if full of cheese, no doubt, but there's a great deal more to it as well. Max Payne never really transcends its noir-ish trappings.

Skwirl

I think what I liked about Max Payne is the story. The problem people seem to have with the writing is how it relates to the dialogue, which is understandable, since it's fun and corny, but if you don't secretely harbor fantasies of pacing dark alleys while wearing a trench coat, it can get annoying.

But the story, the plot of the game, of both games, I thought was fantastic. The things that I don't like about bad writing in other mediums (characters with nonsensical motivations, people being really stupid, reliance on deus ex machina to bring about resolution)don't apply to Max Payne. You understand why each character does what they do, even if you don't always agree with their actions.

Plus you don't get action games that are so damned moody that often. Lots of games try and be dark, usually through satanic imagery (i.e. the dooms and quake 1) or just sheer violence (i.e. every first person shooter). But in Max Payne they do it through mood and tone. Using story, artistic direction, and dialogue (even if it is campy). And that's something that I think should be applauded.

pajamo

Justin I couldn't agree more. Max Payne 2 is the first game in a longtime that I've considered playing thru twice. I think you hit the nail on the head when you noted how it's very much a loopy narrative with not much for the player to do but shoot bad guys but man, the experience of just walking thru some of those areas are so engaging. The fun house, for example, has barely any bad guys and I was so enthralled with just walking thru it.

And darn it all, I think the dialogue is ridiculous and memorable in the best way possible.

As noted before, Beyond Good & Evil is another great game with terrific characters and plotting.

Hetty Bembler

MGS if full of cheese, no doubt, but there's a great deal more to it as well. Max Payne never really transcends its noir-ish trappings.

Perhaps it doesn't, but perhaps it was never intended to? Any interview I've read with the developers, and my own experience with the game itself would lead me to believe that it is an excercise in genre. Like how Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Joss Whedon continually creates great stories and characters out of some of the most cliched genre notions there are.

Of course, I am placing it within context. If I may contradict myself, I tend to believe that art should be successful to the consumer of said art without having that consumer resort to context to understand it...which is a lot to ask, I know. But by rigidly defining its own parameters of story and look, I guess Max Payne is setting itself up for just such criticisms as you make, Walter. I stand by my pov though. As I think it succeeds at what it sets out to accomplish. Keep in mind too that I am focusing more on MP1 than 2, which had its own great aspects (see Funhouse talk), but wasn't nearly as tight and well written as the first one. It also helps that Max looks like a complete loon in the first one.

Also, there is a lot of parody and satire in both games as well. They never take themselves too seriously, which I appreciate a great deal. It says to me that they realize just what limits they've set for themselves and are now out to have fun with it.

One other thing about Max Payne 1, which I think was pointed out on either IGN or Gamespot, is that Max's motivations for killing are justified to some extent, at least in a dirty harry kind of way...and they really drill into you just how much pain he had to go through to get to a point where he would become so homicidal. One of the problems I had with MP2 is that he kind of just took things into his own hands and started the killin without as much justification.

justin

Hetty - you raise an odd point: "One of the problems I had with MP2 is that he kind of just took things into his own hands and started the killin without as much justification."

As a gamer, I often pick up a game and begin kiing without much justification! That's often the point! It's funny to think how many pixel citizens I've slain, without worrying over the reasons for killing them. What had the Covenant ever done to me before I started Halo? Sure, most of my killing was in self-defense. At least in Max Payne 2, there was the smart inclusion of a "prequel" which explained the context of the previous series. The reeking stinking suffering that preceeded the current killfest.

Hetty Bembler

Its not that I have a problem with killing in video games per se. I just thought it was a nice addition to Max Payne that he actually had some kind of justification, and that justification wasn't as strong in MP2. Or maybe it was? Of course, you jumped in ready to kill, which is what we do in games. I'm not calling out games for their use of violence, I think with MP1 you had the introduction of some kind of moral question that interested me. Same goes for Beyond Good and evil and of course, one of the most heavy handed of games with moral questions- black and white.

Speaking of BG&E(again), I thought it was kind of funny that Jade could slay quite a few of the animals she took photographs of without any recourse...

Walter

Hetty: I get your point, and I do think MP accomplishes what it sets out to do. I'm just fairly blas about what it sets out to do in the first place. I also don't quite think it accomplishes what Whedon does, which is combine genre trappings with (relatively) competent stories and characters, which are nevertheless untraditional for the genres he's tapping. Max Payne turns the satire up, but I don't see it as providing a story or characters that are either untraditional for its genre, or that are even really on par for its genre. Like I said, I enjoyed it, but I don't see any reason for me to play through it again.

Anyway, I don't want to be an ass and seem like I'm trying to make your opinion of it unjustified, so I'll just shut up now.

Phil

Having played MP2 (though not 1) I agree with Sanford's critique. I also agree with justin that the game is fantastic as a game. And that it is noteworthy within the medium etc.

justin is right when he says that the game shows a mastery of the power of pacing. Sudden slo-mos have always heightened the moment in cinema (I still remember my heart leaping at Trinity's first jumping kick), and MP2 gives the player the power to use them - and the incentive to use them precisely when things are most intense. It's a piece of genius which is evolved further by Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, otherwise a fairly different game.

But Sanford wasn't critiquing MP2 as a whole. He was saying that the writing is not up to scratch. And he's right; the writing, especially the dialogue, drags the rest of an otherwise remarkable game down, for me at least.

The problem for me is that it does seem to have been written as an exercise in genre, and solely in genre. Characters are there as elements and functions of the genre. And, like all writing that tries to write as a generic exercise and nothing more, it fails to capture the essential truth of the genre.

Any genre, and any myth, has at its core a heightened human experience. But it is its humanity, its complexity beyond the genre's tropes, that makes it meaningful. Buffy at its best understands this, and so we have the brightly-lit and cheery Double-Meat Palace (with a despair all its own); Xander and Anya's nuptial preparations; and one moment that particularly sticks in my head when thinking about this, Oz's casual phone call to ask if his baby nephew, who bit him a few days back, happens to be a werewolf. In fact, especially in the earlier series, Buffy herself is constantly struggling to resist being reduced to a generic function, struggling with being both a hero and a young woman with a life of her own. There is a drama inherent in that struggle which adds to and deepens the drama of the actual storylines. Who doesn't know the struggle to resist becoming a function of someone or something else's existence?

Blade Runner and Se7en, to return to more noir examples, also have this element of noir not being everything. Otherwise it could hardly threaten to become so. The power of the endings of both films is that suddenly the life outside the darkness, the part of life which makes the darkness bearable, comes under attack in unforeseen ways.

Max Payne 2, on the other hand, distills noir to love, death, sex, shattered ideals, treachery, madness and despair. And every word that comes out of someone's mouth from the word go is about those things. Mona lives in a funfair - but not a FUN funfair, one themed around insanity. Max's dreams are of killing.

I'm not knocking the funhouse or the dreams - all are fantastic levels, and play with ideas elsewhere in the game. (Or at least throw them around some more.)

But it became fairly clear pretty fast what to expect from this game's characters, and therefore to large degree from its plot, and it never surprised me. The levels, yes, they threw some surprises my way as I played them. The design was, literally, wonder-ful. But none of the characters were, or did, and so none came across as people. They were all exactly what they needed to be - but nothing more. (With the exception of Jimmy Gognitti just before his death. That was one moment of colour - and one of the best parts of the game.) Not even their turns of phrase were particularly surprising.

And that's bad writing, at least in the context. When the rest of the work is so good, to be let down by your words, your characters and their expressions of themselves, is disappointing. Not because it makes it a bad game - very far from it - but because it holds it back from something truly marvellous.

san

Justin: scathing? Why, thank you. In all fairness, my diatribe was on Max Payne; I've not even seen a clip of "Fall of..." -- though I am anxious to pick it to pieces, too.

The interesting thing is, as much as I still insist that the writing both of plot and dialog in the original Max Payne was quite poor, it was not a bad game. Indeed, it was in many ways a good game. That says a lot about the game's design: the poor writing did not overcome the entire gameplay experience. Yet imagine the majesty of Max Payne had the writing been on par with the other elements. But still, if you enjoyed MP2 I heartily recommend the original -- as to eye candy, you'll prefer the Xbox version.

"I wish I was playing this game on my couch instead of an office chair."

I have, at this point, reserving the right to waffle in future, given PC gaming up completely in favor of consoles for more or less that very reason. At my desk, in my chair, in front of my computer, I am working; ergo, it makes PC gaming feel somewhat like work; and though I often enjoy my work, I don't particularly want to feel like I'm working when I'm playing. It causes a great disturbance in The Force... Or something like that.

Hetty Bembler

Walter,

I see what you're saying about Whedon, but we shouldn't forget that almost all of his characters are stereotypes to the point of caricature...its what he eventually does to them that makes the difference. And what he gets to do to them is over the course of a whole television season. You only have 1 game to get your point across, turn up the empathy, etc for these characters. It may be that MP doesn't step beyond the bounds of its own genre, but (and I'm trying to get to a point I made in my review) it is a baby step.

A few things I'd like to mention about storytelling in gaming:

For one thing, it is absolutely in its infancy. Especially in action gaming. The comments on Sanford's original post go into this a little bit. Traditional storytelling has had literally thousands of years to figure out what works and what doesn't. Movies almost 100. Games that seriously take their story into consideration can't trace their roots back more than a decade or two. I'm not saying manufacturers should be given a pass if they do advertise their game as story driven, but again- baby steps.

The whole concept of a game having a story is a relatively new one. Most games until recently have had one single goal to attain. We are entering a generation where a new form is taking shape, but its simply not here yet. One could think of many reasons why, the chief among them being that most game manufacturers simply do not take the notion seriously. Another being writing is difficult. Now add the difficulty of writing for a genre where the consumer experiences all action first hand, literally acting as the protagonist. Then try to tell it without making it too linear that the player thinks its stupid, but also not so branched and complex that it is impossible to program.

A little while ago I had a thought that maybe it is hard to create a good story for a game because it is too hard to translate the narrative into something truly first person. And by first person I mean the player experiencing the game, not the physical perspective of the 'avatar.' Think about it. You control the action, you are triggering conversations, killing people, having epiphanies, etc. So as a game producer, how do you make the story progress in a way that doesn't pull the gamer out to watch instead of experience first hand? Its got to be damned hard. It will come, but like I said, this whole concept is really in its infancy.

Getting on to Phil and Sanford's comments, I really have to disagree with you. I guess it is a matter of taste, because I really feel that the dialogue in Max Payne is great! Of course it's cheesy, but that is completely the point. But if you pay attention- really pay attention, I think you'll find a little more substance there than you think exists. Even if you don't like the dialogue, the writing in the first game outside of it is really quite good. It's well plotted and keeps you going. Mona's limited presence is a nice touch of hope to keep Max going just long enough to knock him down. Don't forget too that the game works perfectly well as a satire of gaming and gaming conventions itself in a lot of ways. And the Satanism just cracks me up!

Is it Roshomon? Hell no! But if it can somehow be proven that there is a demand for games of a higher standard, perhaps the industry will take it more seriously. Look at gaming advertising, look at the awards, hell…look at the games. Its just not there yet. And why should anyone expect it to be. Like with any aspect of media distribution and consumption, most of the producers are content to try and market to the absolute lowest common denominator.

I do think MP2 fell quite short of what I believe was a rather high standard set forth by the first one. The fact that its as old as it is and I played it for the first time in November, and it totally got to me says a lot to me anyway. I should add that I am definitely not a typical gamer. I have a hard time staying interested in games and even Prince of Persia is just not enough for me. I work full time and go to school at night so I don't have time for the really good RPGs. The last few games I've played through were BG&E, MP & MP2, Jedi Knight II and Zone of the Enders II. Being able to play through these games in a relatively short amount of time and still get treated to a good story was- in fact- a treat.

One more thing: Games don't necessarily need to be well written. Games are in fact games. Look at splinter cell. Sure there's a story there, but it's really meant to push you along from level to level, and its one of my favorite games ever. I tried to play MGSII for the first time after having played splinter cell and simply couldn't because it was too cheesy. The good ones will come, if we prove to the companies that we want them.

Sorry I'm writing so much. I'm trying to avoid schoolwork….

Bowler

Justin, do yourself a smallish favor, and pick up Max Payne 1 on PC. I only say this for one reason:

Finish the game once normally, as you would simply by picking the difficulty you're comfortable playing with, and then once finished (but not before!!!) revisit the game after downloading the Kung Fu mod for it (just Google Kung Fu Max Payne Mod -- it should be up to at least 3.0 by now).

I really had a great time with it, and wound up replaying all of my favorite scenes over and over again. Thank god I still had my save games (this was almost a full year after I had beaten it that I found the Kung Fu mod through Penny-Arcade's site).

It's seriously everything Enter the Matrix should have been, and I'm shocked that MP2 didn't include it. You won't even wind up using the guns. Much ;)

Phil

Hetty: no need to apologise, you write interesting things. Just don't put your studies TOO far out.

For what it's worth, I was really paying attention. I played the game only because of this discussion, so I was looking pretty hard. I didn't find that extra substance you speak of. I'll grant you MP2 found some clever ways to slot in the genre's tropes in unexpected places, mainly in the recursive layer of Payne-land's TV shows. But I still didn't have much sense of a serious exploration of those tropes as they actually affect people; I just got "here's some more love, madness, violence and death".

And cheesy being completely the point still begs the question "why?" Twelve hours of "Hey! Look at me! I'm being not as great as we both know I could be!" is a bit boring after a while, assuming that is what they were doing. I don't think so, though. I had more of a sense of trying to do as good a job as possible, but not quite sensing that the best way to make Max's woes really matter to us was not to have him explain them at length, and without reference to a humanness broader than noirdom.

I agree with you about the industry taking baby steps. I don't think writing-wise MP2 was a step forward the way you do, but what with the other storytelling techniques that it explored and integrated with the writing, I'm still a long way from calling it a sudden-sit-down-and-burst-the-nappy.

But like you say, if we want better writing, we have to create the demand. I'm just trying to excite people about what we could have had - because we could still have it. And we'll get it sooner if we don't sell ourselves short.

Hetty Bembler

Phil,
I guess where we diverge is in expectations. Not expecting much, I came away from MP1 surprised. Yes, the writing (including the dialogue) would fit snuggly on the pages of a half-assed graphic novel, but that's still better than most!

For my own sake, are there games out there that you would recommend that might fill me in?

The fact that Max Payne was even concerned with story instead of what I consider the more likely game design scenario- 1) pitch game, 2) come up with characters, levels, designs, bosses, weapons, etc 3) Wedge in a story- is again a big step. Keep in mind my a lot of my love for MP2 is based on wishful thinking due to just how good I thought MP1 was. I still enjoyed the gameplay but got to the end expecting something more than what I got- some plot resolution, explanation of motivation, Max getting killed...you know.

Ultimately I think the TV shows (and the funhouse and baseball bat boy) served mostly as self-awareness on the designers parts...I wouldn't even necessarily say commentary or satire, because they don't seem to have a point. They do add nicely to the games atmosphere of disjointed madness. Too bad the story doesn't.

I shall say no more! Keep on keepin' on.

Luke

Snowmit

San, I'm very interested to hear what you think of MP 2. In my opinion it is a far superior game to MP1 because the dialog, while still over the top, is so much better. The storyline is tighter and more engaging and generally, it's awesome. The first game got by on the strength of the kickass shooting mechanics. The second game doesn't really change those and gets by on the strength of the tighter plot.

The other thing that Max Payne 2 does right is that it gives you noninteractive portion of the story in SMALL DOSES. A good chunk of the plot is advanced using ingame sequences and situations (like the fact that you *live* the dreams instead of just reading about them). This puts Max Payne miles above a lot of other games that supposedly have good stories.

A friend lent me Metal Gear Solid 2 the other day, telling me it was an amazing game. So I popped it in and sat for at least 30 minutes (though it felt like longer) of noninteractive cut scenes. 30 minutes! That's longer than most tv shows. And less happened. I'm sick of games that I watch. I want to play my games.

If you are a game creator and the only way tha tyou can think of to advance the plot is 10 minutes or more of noninteractive footage, then I don't care how well-crafted the writing is, you are a BAD videogame writer. Maybe you should go back to writing films. Good videogame writing is cleverly integrated into the action. I would say that Half Life probably has some of the best writing in videogames. Why? Because we don't even notice it. It never gets in the way of playing the game.

clubberjack

I've only played MP1, so I can't speak for MP2. The thing that really drew me into the game was the first level (prologue, really) in which I/Max entered the house and tried in vain to stop the brutal murder of my/Max's wife and child. This was one of the single most effective sequences I've ever played in a videogame. The marriage of story and gameplay was superb. The fear, anger and eventually dispair of those moments drove every move that I made and every bullet that I fired. When I finished that level for the first time, I was breathing heavily and even trembling a bit, such was the emotional impact of being an active part in the scene.

This level gave me hope for the rest of the game. Of course, the rest of the game relied much more on the mechanics of gunfights and bullet time, but every once in a while, I felt like I was actually playing a story (not just watching it unfold between gunfights). In the bank heist level, sneaking around the sewers and listening to mafia guards talk gave me a sense that there was some reality to the situation, above and beyond simple level design. Things were not set up just to provide me with a nicely paced gunfight; my experience of the story was designed as well. Every once in a while, at least. The drug induced dream sequences served the same purpose, they explored the psyche of Max Payne through actual interaction. The fact that I kept dying and starting the dream level over again made it all the more nightmarish.

The writing aside, Max Payne did do a number of things right in combining story with gameplay. Unfortunately, the majority of the game rested squarely on the fighting.

tom

I really enjoyed the first Max Payne. It does, however, have an interesting flaw in its storytelling to my mind; I always felt the violence curve was wrongly balanced.

Basically, there was slightly too much shooting for my mind early on; I could have done with more exploration or something. Why? Well, you need to get a contrast into the game. Max is driven to avenge his family's murder, sure, you could say that's why it's the way of the gun throughout. But I always felt there's a change of pacing in Part II, though; particularly when the restaurant explodes. Suddenly, you realise that everything has gone to shit, and the only way out is fighting. I really wanted the crescendo to hit hard midway through, not at the beginning; once you get your hands on the Commando, basically, that's it; Max is not taking prisoners any more. It's just... he wasn't before, you know? I felt the violence was stepped up a bit as the stakes got higher, and I wish I could have noticed that more; that said, it'd have been a boring first half-of-game.

I'm really looking forward to MP2. I loved the comic sequences, but I felt that they interrupted the flow a bit much. By bookending episodes with them, and doing ingame cuts in-engine, I think they might have hit the nail on the head.

This is a really good article, and great discussion of a game that, like it or love it, demands to be examined this way. I was quite impressed with the demo of the second, simply because I was struck by how it managed to be both mature and non-gratuitous. That's a rarity in games of this day and age.

tom

I really enjoyed the first Max Payne. It does, however, have an interesting flaw in its storytelling to my mind; I always felt the violence curve was wrongly balanced.

Basically, there was slightly too much shooting for my mind early on; I could have done with more exploration or something. Why? Well, you need to get a contrast into the game. Max is driven to avenge his family's murder, sure, you could say that's why it's the way of the gun throughout. But I always felt there's a change of pacing in Part II, though; particularly when the restaurant explodes. Suddenly, you realise that everything has gone to shit, and the only way out is fighting. I really wanted the crescendo to hit hard midway through, not at the beginning; once you get your hands on the Commando, basically, that's it; Max is not taking prisoners any more. It's just... he wasn't before, you know? I felt the violence was stepped up a bit as the stakes got higher, and I wish I could have noticed that more; that said, it'd have been a boring first half-of-game.

I'm really looking forward to MP2. I loved the comic sequences, but I felt that they interrupted the flow a bit much. By bookending episodes with them, and doing ingame cuts in-engine, I think they might have hit the nail on the head.

This is a really good article, and great discussion of a game that, like it or love it, demands to be examined this way. I was quite impressed with the demo of the second, simply because I was struck by how it managed to be both mature and non-gratuitous. That's a rarity in games of this day and age.

crankyuser

I think of Max Payne as a game I could recommend to some of my foreign-film loving, novel reading, jazz listening friends.

Shenmue 2 came with all of the cut scenes of the first game strung together as a movie. I didn't watch it as I was too busy playing the game, but something similar might be interesting for people wanting a more passive experience. Hightlight reels of Halo CTF games tell a gripping story of their own as well :)

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