I’d never played a Max Payne game before 3, but I didn’t need to to understand what makes Max Payne so great, both as a series and character. It’s the best 24 game we never got; a drug-addicted protagonist whose family is murdered, shooting his way through countless henchmen and impossible odds. Max is a more likable anti-hero than Jack Bauer, though. His personality reveals itself through sardonic quips in dialogue with other characters (insert a good one here), and his inner monologues convey his sorrow and self-loathing in a way the robotic Bauer could never duplicate.
The narrative grips you from beginning to end, but there’s one particular scene that continues to stand out in my mind … and not in a good way. When Max first arrives in Sao Paulo, he stops in a shady strip club to use a phone. It’s here he meets De Silva, his police confidant, and is confronted by a group of thugs looking to terrorize Max (who they affectionately refer to as “gringo”). A gunfight breaks out, leaving Max to wipe out any threats inside the bar. In one room, a stripper wearing nothing but a thong and high heels cowers in the corner. The game allows the player to kill the stripper, should they choose to do so. If that wasn’t bad enough, when Max shoots her, he says, to no one other than the player, “Show’s over.”
Now, I know killing civilians in a video game is an idea that’s now commonplace. Rockstar’s other hit franchises Grand Theft Auto gained its popularity by allowing the player to wreak havoc and murder NPCs on a whim. Even Read Dead Redemption, a cowboy western, allows the player to walk into any shantytown and go on a killing spree, if they desire. These games, however, are fundamentally different from Max Payne 3. Grand Theft Auto is known for its wackiness, and Red Dead Redemption incorporates morality into its gameplay, granting the player the opportunity to play as an outlaw (which is integral to crafting a believable narrative).
Max Payne, on the other hand, is not a game about player choice or causing destruction on a ridiculous scale. Max Payne is about getting inside the head of a tragic figure, numbing himself with booze and prescription pills just to be able to live with himself. GTA and Red Dead invite gratuitous violence, but Max Payne does not. The game is brutally violent, but none of the violence is superfluous. The story is mean to be grim, because Max leads a bleak, lonely life. He can’t forgive himself for failing to protect his wife and daughter, Mona Sax, and, ultimately, Fabiana, who he spends more than half of the third game trying to rescue from kidnappers. For someone who has lost so many people he cares for (particularly women), why would Max get off on executing a terrified, defenseless woman? You’re given an achievement later in the game for sparing the life of one of your enemies, but here, you’re “rewarded” for ending an innocent bystander’s.
It’s a shame that such a mature and dark game had to be tinged with this senseless sexually charged, male power fantasy. It’s completely out of character, and it detracts from the immersion in the narrative in its depravity.