'Max Payne 3' by Rockstar Studios

On neo-noir, style and difficulty

Beat Max Payne 3 the other day. Enjoyed it quite a bit. I'd enjoy it even more if it wasn't brutally hard even on Medium difficulty, but oh well.

See, one of the problems I have with video games is that they don't know how to balance style with difficulty. Max Payne 3 - the series as a whole, even - is clearly centered around style - the ever-present inner monologue, replete with a constant stream of hardboiled similes; the series' signature Bullet Time mechanic wherein you leap around rooms shooting people like a gun-toting Spider Man; the retro comic book/graphic novel plot presentation of the first two games that gave way to the blurred and scanlined cutscene aesthetic in the third game.

I ate it all up. The cutscenes, the similes, the story, everything. I bought into Max as the tortured, middle-aged gun-for-hire driven by a humanistic ethos that has tired him and broken him apart. The moment where he finally shaves his head? It was real, it was a divinely inspired touch. He's having a serious mental breakdown, and the only thing holding his shattered psyche together is the insane drive to leap suicidally into run-down favelas full of people and professional soldiers waving machine guns and machetes in his face, just so he can rescue a terminally hopeless girl from a ramshackle army. And then he fails. And his failure causes another person he's charged himself to protect to die.

There was a moment, even, in the final chapter where you run through an airport lobby, using pillars and bag carts for cover, leaping through terminal seats, this song playing in the background, the special forces unit of the local police throwing bullets and grenades ad nauseam, and damn if it didn't feel right.

The only problem is that I had to replay that sequence, like, fifty times because of how bloody difficult this game is, especially towards the end. And I was playing on Medium difficulty. I'm a guy who's beaten every single Halo game on Legendary, and I'm being brought to my knees by Medium difficulty on a Max Payne game. Come on.

It's rooted in this sickening modern view of video games, stemming as it does from the deplorable nostalgia for the brutally punishing arcade games of old, that unless your game sadistically punishes players for continuing on, you're "too easy" and your game sucks as a result. Prototype 2 got that kind of drilling. Prince of Persia (the honestly okay cel-shaded series reboot) did too. It's a shame, because any sense of real flow I was getting - feeling the moments where I was leaping around to the beat of the soundtrack like the suicidal maniac that Max really is - was horribly stunted by the oft-accommodated assisted suicide that Max the character so desperately searched for.

I suppose from an artistic standpoint you can reason that the punishing reality of the game world was in keeping with Max's bleak worldview, but dammit I'm there to keep him alive and prolong his suffering - otherwise there wouldn't be a point to having a full game. If I wasn't supposed to be pushing Max through his own personal hell (thrice over now) then the ultimate payoff of blunted emotional catharsis isn't quite worth it, is it? Like, who cares if we get a Long Goodbye ending where Max wordlessly swigs a beer at a beach bar then walks off carrying a disturbingly 90s zip-up tote bag into the sunset - away from a news announcement about the endgame of the situation in Sao Palo -  if we should feel bad for even getting that, and not for the usual reasons.

What I'm trying to say is that I'm supposed to feel good in the moment and bad in reflection -  exactly like Max Payne.

That's the allure of neo-noir for me - getting caught up in the style and the swag of the moment, living dangerously alongside the narrator and feeling good about it, then feeling horrible in the aftermath and having to work through those terrible emotions. I mean, that's why the new cutscene aesthetic is there - it's pointing out the artifice of the world, just like the graphic novels that came before. Only now instead of seeing Max as the portrait of a hardboiled detective, we're seeing him through the glitched-out recordings of a disheveled ex-cop who is half a lucky step from being a disheveled ex-con. Even Max's voiceovers carry a detached, mechanical tinge.

All of it is saying "Hey! You had your fun living a comic book, now check out what you've reduced this character to in the process. Look! Look, damn you!"

But you don't want to look, you want to keep feeling good, you want to pop painkillers like a pro and shoot up tons of minorities like the middle-class ass kicker Max says he knows he (and by extension you) are. Except you're not, you're the pathetic white savior-wannabe, just like one of the villains calls you out as.

"At least I'm trying!" Max Payne yells, seconds before thoughtlessly demolishing a building and killing and maiming god-knows-how-many innocent bystanders in the streets in the process. If it weren't for Max's cruel luck, he'd be dead, too. But that's what a life of adrenalin-junked pain suppression gets you - a whacked-out decision maker, murderer of many, who's somehow been trusted with - and therefore believes in - saving personal worlds, no matter the cost.

But I can't get caught up in the barely-contained meltdowns, can't really enjoy the bullet ballet that doubles as a binge on self-destruction, can't truly experience that awful cathartic aftermath, if any sense of cohesion-via-flow is mercilessly ripped apart by a punishing reliance on modern shooter tropes. I don't have regenerating health, Rockstar, so why are you making me cover shoot like I do?!

Ugh. Ugh, ugh, ugh.

So much wasted potential.