History Lessons: Max Payne

New readers may wish to read my History Lessons Introduction first. Other History Lessons posts can be found here. And, as always, you can click on images to view larger versions.

Max Payne, released in 2001 by Remedy Entertainment (known these days for the Alan Wake games), was the first game to do a lot of things. Ever play a game where time slows down in the middle of the action, letting you carefully aim and fire your guns in slow motion? Max Payne was the first game to do that. In order for that to be possible, Max Payne needed to model individual bullets fired from guns, tracking their flight paths and having them realistically impact against walls, furniture, and people. Today every game that features guns does that, but Max Payne was the first; in earlier games, guns would magically damage enemies in their sights without any projectiles being used whatsoever. At the time it sounded impossible: individual bullets? No way. And you can dive sideways in slow motion, firing a pistol in each hand, while these bullets whiz past? Just like in the action movies? No. Way.

Today, games get a lot of criticism for trying to ape cinema so much, for being filled with non-playable cutscenes, countless set pieces, and other scripted events, but when Max Payne was released it wasn’t nearly so common, and it wasn’t a cause for criticism. In fact, it was cause for excitement. To be able to actually play a crazy action scene from a film was like a dream, something that the limited capabilities of older computers and software could never have enabled. Max Payne was not the first game to try to capture the feeling of playing a movie — the first game I played that tried this was Half-Life — but it is one of the most notable. I’d seen some people play sections of Max Payne, and it sure looked like it delivered. But I’d never played it myself until now.

Before playing it, of course, I had to get it running, which isn’t that simple. It’s easier if you’ve bought it from Steam, but I had a physical disc, a gift from a friend who was getting rid of some old games. The regular installer on the disc refused to run on a 64-bit operating system, but manually browsing to the contents of the CD and running “setup.exe” from the “Disk1” directory worked. Then, since I wasn’t using Steam, I had to manually download and install the v1.05 patch. After that, I was able to follow these convenient instructions, which cover everything from the fan-made sound fix patch to fancier things like downsampling. The latter is entirely optional, but I’m glad I tried it. Basically, downsampling means running the game at a higher resolution than one’s screen, and then taking the higher-resolution rendered image and displaying it in the lower native resolution of the screen using a filter. This ends up being more effective than traditional antialiasing methods (which operate on similar principles) for getting rid of jagged, pixellated edges on 3D objects, and generally makes everything look much sharper. Since Max Payne is an older game, it’s easy for my modern hardware to run it at a crazy high resolution and take advantage of downsampling. Check out the screenshots in this post to see the results — I’m running the game at 5760×4320 and downsampling to 1440×1080 (the highest 4:3 aspect ratio resolution that fits my screen; necessary since Max Payne is a 4:3 game instead of the more common 16:9 found in most games today).

The instructions are all in the link above, but for posterity I’ll reproduce them here, just in case. I downloaded the GeDoSaTo downsampling tool and installed it. Then I opened up the settings in GeDoSaTo (careful, when the tool is active it seemed to crash other programs I had open, including my web browser, so you might want to close everything else first) and changed the 7680×4320 resolution setting to 5760×4320, as per the instructions [EDIT: Also make sure GeDoSaTo is set to blacklist mode!]. Next I had to manually set my monitor to 1440×1080, making sure that I kept the “maintain aspect ratio” option checked in my graphics card scaling options so I would get black bars on the sides instead of a stretched and distorted image. I had to make a custom resolution for 1440×1080, which is apparently easy if you have an Nvidia graphcs card, but not for my ATI card. The instructions for doing that on an ATI card are so long and convoluted that I will simply link them; if that link goes dead, google should find alternate instructions for you. It was worth the effort, however; with GeDoSaTo activated the game ran perfectly and looked fantastic. And I only had to painstakingly create the custom resolution once, after that it was a breeze to launch the game every time.

On to the game itself. The first thing to know about Max Payne is that its inspirations are not limited to cinema. The game’s story is a clear homage to film noir, or more specifically, neo noir, which transplants the grim, brooding detective stories of traditional film noir into a modern setting with modern themes. Outside of the playable levels, the game’s story is told via a series of graphic novel panels, complete with narration boxes (with voiceovers) full of moody metaphors and jaded ruminations on the futility of everything. While the graphical style is quite different, I wouldn’t be surprised if Frank Miller’s Sin City graphic novels were a direct inspiration. And there are some weirder influences mixed in too. The game’s story makes numerous references and parallels to the Norse legend of Ragnarok, which is essentially an apocalypse story. The record-setting blizzard that has struck New York City as the game begins mirrors the Fimbulwinter that heralds the coming of Ragnarok, when three winters arrive without a summer. From there, things get even more overt.

Even Max Payne’s playable action is aiming for a specific style. While many players at the time immediately thought of The Matrix, which had released just two years before and was extremely popular, actually Max Payne (and The Matrix) owe a debt to John Woo and the action films he was making in the 1980s and 1990s in Hong Kong. Max Payne makes no secret about this, with Woo’s name appearing in the game and many references to his signature style of slow-motion, two handed gunplay. Payne himself conveniently wears a long coat that can billow behind him as he dives in slow motion and blasts another goon with dual berettas. You know, like Chow Yun-Fat.

With such a broad set of inspirations, one might wonder if Max Payne is simply trying to copy pieces from more accomplished works, delivering an experience full of references and knowing winks but not adding anything of its own. Other games have suffered such a fate, but Max Payne manages to transcend this, almost by sheer force of will. The love and excitement the developers had for their game is tangible, evident in every moment, every graphic novel panel, and every voiceover. The developers were not content with mere imitation, instead aspiring to create a game that could stand alongside the classics.

The other reason that Max Payne works is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s over the top in almost every way, but knowingly so, adding a bit of parody to its tributes that does wonders for the tone. It’s grim and brooding, but it’s also crazy and a bit silly, and most importantly, lots of fun.

Somehow I’ve gotten this far without writing about the playable action at the core of the game. It’s brilliant. Even playing it fourteen years later, when all manner of games have co-opted Max Payne’s signature slow motion mechanic, it’s still brilliant. The developers knew they had come up with something amazing, and they didn’t miss their chance to mlik it for everything it’s worth. The first inspired decision they made was to make the slow motion “bullet time” a finite resource. While that may sound like it would be punishing — forcing players to not use the slow motion action that was the game’s main selling point — it actually works incredibly well, because it’s balanced perfectly and it’s linked with another brilliant bit of design. While it’s possible for a player to trigger bullet time whenever she wishes, this function is actively discouraged, not even bound to any key by default. Instead, bullet time is linked to what is called the “shootdodge”, a move where Max dives sideways, forwards or backwards while blasting baddies. Each bad guy that Max kills regenerates a small amount of bullet time, conveniently the exact same amount that is used up by performing a shootdodge. So as long as Max is taking down bad guys with each of his dives, he can use them indefinitely. And, most importantly, these dives look and feel incredible, with slow-motion muzzle flashes and the occasional bullet streaking past. Unlike modern games, which tend to show bullet streaks even in real time as a way of letting players know where shots are coming from, the bullets in Max Payne are hard to spot, even in slow-motion. This makes the times when they can be seen whizzing through the air all the more special.

You may be wondering why bullet time isn’t an infinite resource, if Max simply recharges it with every kill anyway. The answer became clear later in the game, when I’d discovered how perfectly the difficulty is tuned. Early levels are simple affairs, full of corridors with corners for Max to dive around in slow-mo, unloading a shotgun into a thug’s gut. Since the “anytime” bullet time key wasn’t even bound at the start of the game, players are taught to dive all the time, instinctively, whenever enemies appear. This not only gives plenty of time to aim and shoot, but also moves Max out of the way of incoming bullets. Which is important, because bad guys will quickly take him down if one is playing at normal speed. In fact, at this point I was starting to wonder if sets of corridors with right-angle turns was all the game was going to have. But then the later areas start to open up, featuring larger groups of enemies who engage from longer range. Here is where it’s useful to trigger slow motion without diving, to let Max take careful aim at a distant foe before he gets shot himself.

Soon it becomes clear that the different uses of bullet time have their own advantages and disadvantages. In the early levels, when Max usually faces only one or two enemies at a time, diving works fine, getting Max out of the way and letting him dispatch enemies as discussed above. But against a larger group, it can be a mistake, because at the end of the dive Max will be lying on the ground for a few seconds, presenting an easy target for enemies. Diving also makes it hard to aim at distant goons. Using bullet time without a dive, on the other hand, makes long-range shooting much easier, but it eats through Max’s reserves of bullet time quickly, and while he can aim faster, he can’t move any faster, so he’s easier to hit. Add to this the strategic use of grenades and other heavier weapons, and combat provides an interesting set of choices.

I was disappointed, however, to find that later guns make earlier ones obsolete. In the early stages of the game, each weapon is suitable in the right situation. Pistols are either weak with a high rate of fire, or slow and powerful; shotguns are either slow but with a tight spread, or fast but with a wide spread and the need to reload after only two shots. I was constantly switching between these as needed, but the fully automatic weapons I found later in the game meant I never went back to pistols or shotguns unless I was out of ammo. Strategy shifted towards how to use bullet time, as discussed above, but I knew I had the best guns available and never needed to use anything else. This feels like a design decision left over from the earlier generation of shooters, where finding each new weapon was an event and the later ones were drastically more powerful.

And that’s not the only design decision that feels old. Players must manually save the game or risk repeating huge sections again if Max dies; there are autosaves, but they are spaced very far apart and feel punishing when compared to the checkpoint systems in most modern games. I do like the control that manual saves provide, but I had to remind myself to save often or I’d end up frustrated. Also, the game is all action, all the time; during a sequence where I expected to have to use stealth, I soon found the only to proceed was to set off a massive explosion and alert all the guards. A modern game would have tried to mix thigns up a bit, but Max Payne sticks to its guns (get it?). The health system in Max Payne is interesting too. A modern game would simply have regenerating health, so Max would recover automatically after each fight. But in Max Payne, Max must collect and use painkillers to restore lost health (true to the ridiculous nature of an action film, painkillers are all Max needs to shrug off gunshot wounds). This creates a satisfying tension because Max can only carry eight painkillers at a time, so he’s never out of danger, and when he’s running low he has to be especially careful. At certain points in the game Max must last through several intense gunfights before he’s able to heal, while at other times he can take a lot more risks.

But mixed in with the older design are things that broke new ground. Max Payne features playable dream sequences, which I believe represent some of the first examples of intentionally surreal design in mainstream games. They also provide a great opportunity for the writers to poke a little fun at their own game. These sequences offer an equal mix of interesting symbolism and punishing maze-like environments, as if the designers felt compelled to include some traditional “game-like” elements rather than content themselves with an explorable space. Today, with the prominence of games based solely around exploring environments and uncovering stories, this seems archaic, but at the time these sequences were surprising and memorable. The game is also on the short side when compared with other titles of that era, but feels just right when compared to modern games. It doesn’t outstay its welcome, and the writers were clearly setting up a sequel, with several character arcs intentionally left unresolved. The sequel did in fact arrive two years later, and if I get my hands on a copy it may be the subject of a future History Lesson.

Overall, Max Payne holds up well, especially when tweaked as described at the beginning of this post. It’s fascinating to see how the very first implementation of slow-motion gunplay was handled, and it’s easy to see why it was so popular. The action is surprisingly smart, with interesting decisions to make in every encounter, and despite the prevalence of the slow motion it never gets stale. But there are some weaknesses. The dream sequences are interesting but often frustrating to actually play. And, like its inspirations, Max Payne doesn’t do a great job with its female characters. Max’s wife and daughter are fridged at the beginning of the game, and an early level involves fighting through a brothel, which I suppose was intended to emphasize that the mobsters Max is gunning down are bad guys. To be fair, some other female characters fare better, but overall they’re disappointing, and the cast is dominated by men. Also, I will acknowledge that the game does more interesting things with the death of Max’s family later on, but the beginning wasn’t a great start.

Still, I had a great time playing Max Payne and would recommend it to anyone interested in the history behind the slow motion gunfight in games. Or even if you’re simply a fan of action films. The easiest way to get it today is by diving sideways in slow motion onto Steam, and then you can follow the instructions I linked at the beginning of the post to get it running. Enjoy!

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