Max Payne: the ultimate film noir game
Max Payne

Gritty bullet-time epic Max Payne turns 15 this month

I remember first experiencing the demo on a PC Gamer disc lent to me by an older couple way back when.

I was far too young for it course (I would’ve been about 11 at the time), but I remember being immediately drawn in to the world in a way no other game had achieved up to that point.

Maybe it was the fact that this was the first ‘adult’ game I’d really sunk my teeth in to. But it was also the rich, compelling atmosphere.

Max Payne replaced colourful locales with dingy subway stations, dripping with damp, and swapped out the amusing critters of more conventional titles in favour of grim rat infestations. And I loved it; I was instantly bowled over by just how stylish and cinematic the whole thing was.

The image of a door being blown from its hinges in super slo-mo was one I had to reload and rewatch again and again and again.

Even more than that, its murky crime story was genuinely fascinating. And memorable.

It was – and still is – probably the truest depiction of film noir we’ve yet had in video game history.

Here’s why.

The storytelling

Dominated by ‘collect the stars and rescue the princess’, my video gaming career up to that point had been narratively limited.

That all changed with Max Payne.

For the first time, here was a game that dealt in adult themes, and contained a story normally reserved for the big screen. It wasn’t just told in the traditional way either – with awkward, technology constrained cutscenes. Instead, Max Payne relied on beautifully gritty, hand-drawn graphic novel style comics to further the narrative between levels.

It started with a bang, with Max stumbling upon the bodies of his wife and new born baby (it’s not exactly a cheery plot), before deceit, backstabbing and cultish weirdos were all stacked against him.

It’s like a particularly noteworthy episode of Game of Thrones, played out against the backdrop of a chilling New York City blizzard. A classic, urban nightmare of a setting.

The style

Max Payne 1 screenshot

Max Payne was a game that dripped with style from start to finish.

Payne’s voice spurted hard-boiled similies with a gruffness that conveyed the character’s guilt and regret with aplomb, and everything from his unkempt leather jacket to the seedy hotels in which mass shoot-outs occured reeked of noir tropes.

This was the first game I’d ever played that actively made me feel cool.

Its revolutionary bullet-time effect, while pinched shamelessly from The Matrix just two years earlier, hadn’t been seen in gaming before. It slowed otherwise chaotic shoot-outs down until they played out almost balletically on screen, each bullet whizzing by with a whoosh before careening into the surroundings in a shower of sparks.

Film noir is notable for its unflinching and forward-thinking stylistic approaches, and Max Payne was no different.

The references

Ah, the references.

Max Payne was stuffed to the gills with popular culture nods both obvious and more obscure. Most were to action films and directors like John Woo, but it also turned me on to a lot of stuff that I hadn’t been aware of in the past, from Raymond Chandler novels to Billy Wilder movies.

These references were an obvious recognition to the influence film noir through the ages had on the development team (the amazing Remedy, who have since gone on to create Alan Wake and Quantum Break), and a way of giving fans avenues of culture to explore beyond the game itself.

The characters

max payne screenshot

If you want proof of Max Payne being the ultimate film noir video game, look no further than the cast of characters: an almost by-the-book following of the sub-genre’s archetypes.

The titular protagonist obviously served as the typical, moody lead – alienated and filled with existential bitterness – while players were also introduced to femme fatale Mona Sax, corrupt policemen, down-and-out types and just about every other noir trope going.

Cliched maybe, but pulled off with such flair it was impossible not to love it.

The little things

It’s a touch that’s become associated with Remedy’s games in the years since, but Max Payne was stacked full of incidental details that rewarded exploration and repeat playthroughs.

It was my first real glimpse of visual storytelling in gaming; using the level’s design and clever details in the game world to give the universe more context, and it stuck with me for a long time.

Whether it was the kooky melodrama of Lords and Ladies, or the Twilight Zone-esque Address Unknown (both played out on TV screens throughout the levels, and both eerily reflecting Max’s story in different ways), there was always something new to discover in this noirish nightmare of a world.

Brilliant stuff. And always worth re-visiting.

More:

Alan Wake: an underrated masterpiece

Quantum Break: and other time-bending games

42 games that made the noughties awesome