“But, you have me at a loss. You know my name but who are you? Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he's John Wayne? Rambo? Marshal Dillon?”
“Was always kinda partial to Roy Rogers, actually. I really like those sequinned shirts.”
“Do you really think you have a chance against us, Mr. Cowboy?”
“Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker.” — Die Hard
Action heroes. They never have their shit together. They are not allowed to, of course; that's the point. They are only in their element when they're under pressure, getting shot at. They are only good at killing the bad guys, whoever they may be. Through determination and sheer willpower, they go in and save the day. They are the great American heroes.
The first Max Payne game was built on this sort of unexamined violence. Max Payne is a good cop, until his wife and baby girl are murdered by a junkie. He goes undercover to expose the bad guys, gets set up, and goes raining holy hell on the people who manufactured the junkie's drug. By allowing the player to slow down time while diving out of the way, a gun in each hand, the game evoked John Woo films. It also had one of the most comically inept plots I've ever sat through, which is saying something when you play videogames for a living. But a ludicrous story means you can go from shooting mobsters to Secret Service agents with just a bit of pretense. The plot is just the fat guy at the shooting range who changes targets during the downtime between sessions.
For his third game Max Payne has been passed from Finnish developer Remedy (Alan Wake) to Rockstar, the global studio that developed the open-world Grand Theft Auto series. The problem with Grand Theft Auto is how it solders a linear, swooping, cinematic story onto an open sandbox that provides more immediate pleasures than the screenplay's hundreds of pages. In Max Payne 3 Rockstar seems to have finally found a series where story and action walk hand-in-hand.
Max is no longer a cop, but a for-hire bodyguard. He's hopped up on painkillers and whiskey and off to rescue yet another woman by any means necessary. He has left Jersey for São Paulo, a welcome departure from the greys and browns that infected his first two games. The game revels in cinematic flourishes, with its slow-mo bullet cams, its narration straight from the Shane Black one-liner school of film, and, of course, its frequent use of cut scenes. If you die, it subtly slips you some more health or painkillers or bullets. This is a game design no-no—it's like the designers are half-admitting that they are demanding too much from the player—but here it feels like another one of Max Payne 3's game-as-cinema machinations. You are meant to feel like an action-movie badass.
He strides through their slums wearing a bright tropical shirt, oblivious to what is happening around him.
And São Paulo is equally cinematic. I can see why Brazil's favelas have become part of the level-design Rolodex. Imagine that junior-level designer, up late at night, catching City of God (or, more likely, Fast Five) on Starz, and thinking “An exotic locale? With lots of heavily armed gangs? Multiple tiered angles of attack?” Modern Warfare 2 featured a level in Brazil, but in the context of a globe-trotting Semper Fi action porn. São Paulo in Max Payne 3, meanwhile, is a place where the mainstays of noir, the guns, the girls, the criminals, can be redressed in a layer of exoticism. Its theme is still that of a man fighting against forces he can't understand, except now he literally cannot understand. He strides through their slums wearing a bright tropical shirt, oblivious to what is happening around him. He is the stereotypical ugly American.
Max is ushered from the richest VIP clubs in São Paulo to the poorest slums, and even he comments on not understanding how one really connects to the other. It's something Rockstar's script keeps coming back to, his inability and unwillingness to comprehend the complex socio-economic relationships in Brazil's major cities. Max shoots first, and doesn't bother to ask many questions later. There are a few aborted hostage negotiations, money exchanged, some interchangeable gangs that Max has to kill. After Max expresses his confusion over the various factions and their plots against each other, a character tells him, “You're not supposed to follow it”—a don't-look-behind-the-curtain line if I ever heard one. The player and Max are given license to focus on shooting, if they so choose. While clues scattered around the levels can give insight into the world’s inner workings, they're more an excuse for Max’s Chandler-esque soliloquies. They, too, can be ignored.
Remember: “You're not supposed to follow it.” Everybody here speaks Brazilian Portuguese. Portuguese is a rough language with all sorts of sharp edges that Brazilians have sanded down into a melodic bounce. But it's a language that most players won't understand, and a language for which the game provides no translation. You have to guess that the secretary is saying good morning to you, or that the bystander in the favela is mocking your shirt. None of the Portuguese dialogue carries any meaningful subtext; it is just there to emphasize the gap between Max and the world. The natives are scenery. Or they're targets.
Dan Houser, who is co-Vice President of Creative at Rockstar with his brother Sam and serves as its chief writer, loves picking at the hypocrisy of American myths. Grand Theft Auto IV, for example, examines the American dream from the cynical eyes of a recent immigrant. Similarly, Red Dead Redemption looks at the American West and the bedrock of violence that had to be put down before civilization could take root. In Max Payne 3, it starts to feel like Houser is deflating the great action star himself, using Max as a metaphor for U.S. foreign policy—no game that casually mentions, in passing, the storied relationship between Panama and the U.S. is unaware of what it is getting at. Max is always one step behind everybody else, which ends up getting people killed. His lack of true understanding is a liability. We see other ugly Americans walking around. There's the sex tourist in the strip club who brags of frequent trips. There's the yokel retired cop who works in the slums one weekend a year, but doesn't seem to make a difference in the lives of the poor. Houser is, no doubt, making these connections on purpose.
Houser is deflating the great action star himself, using Max as a metaphor for U.S. foreign policy.
In every action film there is the recognition scene where the hero finally realizes what is going on and saves the day in a burst of violence. John McClane figures out Hans Gruber's master plan to steal millions. RoboCop finds out the company that made him is up to no good. Max, near the end, gets a glimpse at the big picture and realizes that he is a pawn and played into somebody else's plans for him. He is, as one character notes, a “fall guy, the American, running around like an action hero.” But what of the game that tries to pick at this idea? Max Payne 3 is critical of Max's blundering, but finds no easy resolution of it. Houser and company pull up at the last second, only reinforcing the action-hero myth. Max is an ignorant foreigner, gets several people killed because of that ignorance, and still wins at the end, his violence fixing the problem.
The killing is the fun part: we have become the action heroes that Max Payne 3 wishes to deconstruct. If Houser and company are trying to implicate the player, they have failed. The player is still justified in the buckets of blood spilled. São Paulo is there to be saved or fucked. For Max, it is a symbol of salvation and redemption. For the player it is a few hours of entertainment for 60 bucks. Houser has made us all ugly Americans.