GENRE ABUSE! Part I: Why Max Payne 3 Isn’t a Noir

I write books.  More specifically, I write historical fiction which agents usually classify as historical noir, a subgenre I didn’t know existed until I pitched my first novel.  As a result, I’m more than a little familiar with the signifiers, tropes, and idiosyncrasies of historical fiction and the hardboiled writing style of noir.

Recently, I’ve noticed that two of my favorite genres are getting a lot of attention in the videogame community.  Critics praised Max Payne 3 as the triumphant return of gaming’s best “noir” franchise, and the marketing of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 has recently begun to refer to the game as “historical fiction.”

Here’s the problem: both labels are wrong.  Max Payne 3 doesn’t follow the conventions of noir and Black Ops 2 sure as hell isn’t historical fiction.

Today, we’ll deal with Max Payne 3.

Max Payne 3

Let me get one thing out of the way: Max Payne 3 is a great game.  It’s stylish, it’s good looking, it has well-written and directed cutscenes, and Max’s desperation is palpable.  Much to my delight, it makes the most of its setting and uses Brazil’s very real social problems as a backdrop to comment on the relationship between wealth and power.  I’m going to be high-fiving it big time if we do another Borders, Bigotry and Body Dumps panel, and you can put me squarely in the Pro-Max Payne camp.

However, being a good game doesn’t make it good noir.  The game contains elements of noir, no doubt about it, and takes a lot of its cues from neo-noir films like Collateral and Man on Fire, but it’s missing a true noir sensibility.  In fact, the Max Payne series has never been noir — and by playing the series straight for the third installment Rockstar created a sense of dissonance between the narrative and the gameplay.(1)

Consider the original Max Payne: it screamed spoofy mashup.  It had comic book panels for cutscenes, first-person narration cribbed from Raymond Chandler, and its gameplay mechanics were inspired by the Hong Kong action film Hard Boiled.  Sure, it’s visual cues were cut from film noir celluloid, but no one really took the game seriously.  Designers peppered the run time with in-jokes and hammy performances: mafia figure Jack Lupino prays to Cthulhu, hoods protect their hideout with the password “John Woo,” Max’s facial expressions are intentionally buffoonish, and multiple villains have an obsession with the fictional superhero Captain BaseballBat-Boy.  In the game’s most brilliant moment, Max has a bad drug trip and brakes the fourth wall, realizing he’s in a video game.

This gonzo mix-and-match sensibility, and acknowledgement that Max Payne was a game, was what held it together thematically.  Remedy understood that the core of the game was slow motion gunplay — that transcendent experience of diving over a balcony, dual Ingrams chattering, bad guys falling, and feeling so goddamn cool.  It was a style of gameplay that sacrificed realism for sheer overindulgent bullet-gasms, and the story was overindulgent to match.  Max Payne 2 tried to ground the plot in a love story (perhaps this is why it failed to connect with players) but the franchise still retained its wackiness to an extent.  Despite Max Panye 2 being billed as “A Film Noir Love Story,” the game didn’t so much embody noir as it borrowed some of the elements.

But when Rockstar took the helm, Max Payne 3 turned into an entirely different property.  Dev teams recontextualized the series’s memorable features as serious and gritty.  Max became an alcoholic.  His previously tongue-in-cheek use of painkillers morphed into a prescription drug addiction.  He went from cynical to actively self-destructive.  The comic book panels were replaced by compartmentalized cutscenes that portrayed his fragmented and fraying psyche.  Half the game Max is drunk, and the other half he’s got the DTs so bad he can barely see straight.  All cheekiness and sense of fun has been stripped from the dialogue.  It’s a strong new direction and well-executed.  Rockstar really gets the conventions of the genre, especially noir’s obsession with appetite, specifically, appetite for the forbidden.  In early film noir movies, these forbidden appetites usually had to do with lust, but now that the modern world is more open about sexuality, current noirs tend to focus on alcohol or drug abuse — and Max Payne 3 nails the theme of addiction better than any game I’ve ever seen.

In short, Max Payne 3 was a full-blown attempt at noir drama, and a successful one at that.

During the cutscenes, at least.  There’s the problem.

No matter how much Rockstar pickles Max in pathos during the cinematics, he’s still going to turn into a swan-diving superkiller as soon as the player takes control.  Suddenly his hands go steady and he can defy physics.  He can take bullets without flinching and snipe grenades in midair.  He’ll mow down armies.  His self-doubt and negativity is rendered absurd: He’s Superman with a large-caliber handgun.

All of which would be fine, except that such unbelievable talents fly in the face of what noir is supposed to be.  Noir is a genre that features the everyman.  Protagonists tend to be ordinary people who need to expose a conspiracy or escape a threat much bigger than themselves.  Often they’re cops, minor hoods, prostitutes or gumshoes, but whomever they are, they’re all alone in the big bad world, extremely vulnerable and woefully unprepared for the dangers and miseries they face.  They’re never rich.  They’re sometimes smart.  They’re always tough.  What keeps them alive is not the ability to do what others can’t, it’s the ability to do what others won’t.  A noir hero’s superpower is perseverance — he keeps going when any reasonable person would quit.  He may finish the story beaten down, shot up, and strung out, but goddamn it, he’ll get to the end.  Max Payne 3 forgets that noir is about emerging victorious despite your powerlessness.(2)

Max Payne 3‘s body count is a problem too.  Most noirs feature a fairly small number of killings.  Even the most violent examples — the film version of L.A. Confidential, for instance — contain only two or three dozen deaths, many of which may occur offscreen.  A good noir doesn’t need more than six bullets, if they’re used right.  Halfway through Max Payne 3 I had already killed over a thousand enemies and fired 15,000 rounds.

Explosions of violence can and will happen in noir, but generally these are momentous events that either kick off the story or serve as the payoff after a large buildup.  Noir is closely related to the thriller in its use of tension.  Both genres rely on the fact that an unfired gun is a more powerful storytelling tool than a fired gun, since it’s potential for violence is much more frightening than the violence itself.  When a character gets shot at, we barely blink an eye, but if that same character is standing there with a pistol against her head, we begin to sweat.  Tension gives us time to wonder what happens next.  It allows our anxieties to eat at us.  We try and figure out the motives of the man behind the trigger, try to plot his next move, try to guess what’s going to happen next because, oh God, the wait is just unbearable.  Live or die, we feel relieved when the gun fires.  Gunshots don’t create suspense, they dispel it when the tension comes to a boil — they’re the whistle on the tea kettle.

Perhaps Max Payne 3‘s dissonance stands out so much because Rockstar’s last game, L.A. Noire, so nicely fulfilled the tenants of the genre.  Sure, there were still more shootouts than a Film Noir or hardboiled novel would feature, but these were paced in a way that they punctuated the game rather than defined it and Cole Phelps never came off as an Übermensch.   I have no issue with calling L.A. Noire a noir, in fact I’d probably hold it up as the gold standard for noir storytelling in an interactive environment.  Heavy Rain is another game that could stand alongside it in that pantheon.

Unfortunately, I can’t in good conscience call Max Payne 3 a noir.  Though the cutscenes fit the genre perfectly, the actual gameplay undermines the themes of the genre and pulls you out of the narrative.  While I can understand how someone might argue that the narrative is driven by the cutscenes, and therefore the gameplay should be considered separately from the narrative, this answer doesn’t satisfy me.  In an interactive storytelling medium, shouldn’t the gameplay support and define the narrative tone?  Isn’t that the point of a story-driven game?

Max Payne 3 isn’t a bad game, but it’s an instructive example of how mechanics can undermine the genre a game attempts to emulate.  As we continue to push the envelope in interactive storytelling, we will gradually discover which mechanics best support the conventions and tones of genre narratives, or else redefine those conventions to fit the new medium the same way theatre has different conventions than film, which has different conventions than a novel.  Max Payne 3 is an action game told in the style of a noir, and there’s nothing wrong with that — provided we recognize the difference between visual presentation and theme.

Next time in Part II of GENRE ABUSE!: why Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 isn’t historical fiction.  Here’s a hint: it’s set in the future.

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  1. Rockstar has had this problem before, and usually it happens about when they’re trying to update older franchises by making them more realistic.  Take Grand Theft Auto IV for instance.  I was having a great time as Nico Bellic, playing out a story of crime and intrigue, feeling the pathos, balancing my desire for revenge with my thirst for the American dream…then I passed a billboard for a beer called Piswasser, which seemed to depict a woman peeing into a beer bottle.  Buzzkill.  It’s like I was zooming along in an F-1 when someone deployed the chute.  I got pulled out of the experience because this billboard, a relic of the earlier, sillier, GTA titles which peddled rude jokes and satire of American consumerism, didn’t seem thematically consistent with the world.  There’s a lot to be said for the more freewheeling aspects of the early GTA games, but forcing those aspects to exist cheek-by-jowl with the new, realist face of GTA IV triggered a jarring shift in tone.  Rockstar isn’t the only studio who has this issue, either.  For years, Naughty Dog has struggled with the fact that Nathan Drake, despite being a lovable rogue in the cutscenes, transforms into an F-5 tornado of homicide whenever the player takes control of him.
  2. Max Payne writer Sam Lake has said that “there is no concept of a happy ending in Film Noir,” but that’s not exactly true.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the genre.  In noir, happiness is never given, it’s earned and earned hard.  Characters have to go the distance for what they want, they have to suffer hardship and loss before they reemerge to claim their prize.  They’ll win battles, fall in love, avenge partners, and find peace, but there’s always the question of whether the things they’ve done in pursuit of happiness will ultimately undermine the happiness they find.  It’s a constant push-pull between the ends and the means.  They can find pleasure and contentment, but if they do it’s always a refuge, a happiness earned despite the rotten callousness of the world.

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