Max Payne 3: 193 Hours Of Shooting Men In The Face

Here’s a fun fact about me: in the approximately 100 days since the release of Max Payne 3, I have spent 193 hours and change playing it. That’s about a third as much time as I’ve spent at my job over the same period. Even I’m a little shocked by that number – I think it might be the most time I’ve spent on one leisure activity ever.

I’m pretty sure I own that shirt.

Sure, there’re some extenuating circumstances (I’ve tried to quit smoking two or three times over the past 3 months and nothing helps with that first day on the patch like sitting slack-jawed in your dark room), but at the end of the day I have to face that number. 193 hours, which is about 2 hours a day. Not the healthiest amount of time. Still, I’ve read a bunch of books in the past 100 days, gone out with friends, had some dates, and in general led a pretty fulfilling life.

I’m not trying to explain myself to you, reader. What I’m much more interested in (and I hope you are too, because that’s the trip we’re taking together) is why I’ve stuck with this one repetitive, bloody, grim bullet ballet for so damn long.

But What Is Max Payne 3?

Great question, reader! In short, Max Payne 3 (hereafter MP3) is the continuation of the neo-noir misadventures of failed husband and NYPD detective Max Payne. In the first game, Max blows his way through New York’s underworld in search of the answers behind the murder of his wife and baby daughter. The player actually gets to control Max as he arrives home a few minutes too late and dispatches the junkies standing over the corpses. It’s pretty effective as a way to motivate a player to strap in for another 15 hours of gunplay. Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne is kind of more of the same, but better.

MP3‘s developers (Rockstar, who you may remember from Red Dead Redemption, and who took over from Remedy, the developers of the previous two games) looked at “Noir York City” and decides to scrap it in favor of São Paulo, Brazil. Max is now working as a bodyguard for a rich man and his trophy wife, kidnappings occur, conspiracies abound, bullets fly, bodies hit the floor. All but the last two take place in little movies that ostensibly serve as moments to catch your breath between gunplay but generally end up going on three minutes too long and making you hate the developers.

In short: MP3 is guiding a middle-aged gun-toting ballerina through the nightclubs and slums of São Paulo shooting anonymous gangsters and crooked cops and then stopping every ten minutes for story time. It’s more fun than it sounds, honest. But it’s also got some pretty sickening elements.

Looks Like His Head Needed Some Extra Ventilation

Grantland’s Tom Bissell wrote a long piece on MP3 a few weeks after it was released. Bissell writes:

Let’s also not kid ourselves about what happens even to a sane, well-adjusted person after an entire day of watching faces get shredded by bullets. I played Max Payne 3 in two long sittings. After the end of my first sitting, which lasted around six hours, I went to a dinner party with my girlfriend. I was, she reports, “mouthy” and “agitated” during our dinner, and she wondered what had gotten into me. What had gotten into me was that I was shooting people in the face all afternoon.

And these blasted faces are definitely something the developers considered worth highlighting. When Max fires the killing shot on the last mook in the room, the game’s camera will follow the trajectory of the bullet as it connects with the unfortunate soul’s gut, face, groin, arm, whatever. The player is not only able to slow down the action, a sort of tease before the blood orgasm to follow (guns as phalluses, yep, I sure went to college), but can also keep pulling the trigger to riddle the corpse and watch it jerk. There’s no way to skip these scenes – Rockstar demands you pay close attention.

Here’s a YouTube compilation by some little psycho in training. I wouldn’t recommend watching it, really, unless you’re super curious. Suffice it to say that there’s lots of blood, lots of face wounds, and lots of comments about how “epic” the kills are. You get a little reward when you watch 750 of these things. You can turn on an option to make every one of your kills into one of these orgies of blood jelly and it’s pretty disgusting in all honesty and I never want to meet anyone who sees one and goes “that’s awesome, I wish there was a way to make every kill look like this”.

Maybe I should give this article a “trigger warning”.

Actually, Let’s Talk About Blood And Gore For A Little Bit

First, let me get this out of the way: I am a big fan of action movies and games, I have no real issue with seeing a little blood. I don’t think we should censor everything so that we’re punching the sweat out of each other. It’s when copious gore becomes a fascination for the creator that I become a little squeamish. In other words, it’s not the amount of blood but the lingering looks that weird me out.

I recently watched Vengeance, a Hong Kong action flick. The climactic scene has the heroes surrounded by Triad gunmen in hooded raincoats, with bullets flying by and brass casings hitting the ground. Every time someone got tagged by a gunshot, a puff of red mist would fly out. That little pfft of blood is all you need – man shot, man goes down. No need for closeups of the gaping wounds or viscera hanging out.

The first two Max Paynes took a lot of cues from that Hong Kong style (probably more due to hardware limitations, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they didn’t want to show huge gaping bullet wounds). MP3 leans more towards excess. I saw The Expendables 2 last week and really liked it. But while the violence in Expendables 2 is laughably over-the-top, there’s still tons of shots of mooks having giant holes torn in them, one man being riddled with bullets and jerking around with the impacts, and plenty of other moments of graphic violence. While I was watching it, I kept thinking about all of the virtual snuff MP3 had forced me to wait through. Why was I laughing at the movie and cringing at the game?

The answer is responsibility. I didn’t tell Stallone to blow that man’s head off. But I did pull the trigger to force Max to fire on that crooked cop. And now I have to sit and watch as some vampire’s dinner is sprayed all over the place. What makes me feel closest to sick is the barely-constrained glee that the game brings to these bullet cams that bothers me, the way it sort of nudges you in the ribs and says “if you keep firing, you can watch the blood spray even further, come on, it’ll be awesome”. It’s not awesome, it’s just another entry in the violence-desensitization arms race.

Am I supposed to be impressed that Max’ll leave bloody footprints as he storms the next group of bulletsponges? Should I say “holy fuck, the rendering on that bullet wound is incredible”? It’s not even that it’s trying to show me The Horrors Of Violence, because you can’t play that shtick after making violence the only choice for progression. You just can’t do that, guys, please don’t be that stupid.

So, Hold On, You Spent 193 Hours Playing This Game You Have A Major Issue With, You Fucking Loser. Did You Even Like Any Part Of It?

There’s no need for harsh language. And, yes, I did. One of the Max Payne series’ signatures is their use of Bullet Time®. The part of The Matrix where Neo bends over backwards to dodge the bullets? It’s that. At any point, Max can drop himself down into Bullet Time®, where the world goes grey, bullet trails whiz past him, and everyone moves slower. There’s a definite sense of satisfaction into shooting a bunch of goons in the head in slow-mo and then watching all their bodies crumple to the floor at the same time when the world speeds up again. Yes, I know how socieopathic that sentence is.

The best moments of MP3 take place in large open areas full of ledges to jump over, balconies to jump off of, and bulletbait running towards you. Max dives from cover to cover, elegantly dispatching the opposition, two pistols firing akimbo. Yes, it’s violent but it’s beautiful violence.

That doesn’t really help my “I’m not a psycho, honest” case very much. But compared to the gamer’s usual fare of “super realistic hyper-military shooter featuring fifty different kinds of sights that I don’t know the difference between and all the guns fire bullets, what’s the real difference” and “shoot a troll with a bow”, it’s definitely different.

And the story itself, while convoluted and often inelegantly told, is gripping. Max himself spouts off plenty of clever-ish lines (after getting shot in the arm: “I had a hole in my second-favorite drinking arm”) and the game looks gorgeous. But it’s that feeling of grace that comes with the Bullet Time® that really sticks with me.

Unfortunately, the Peter Pan mode was cut just before the game’s release.

So That’s 193 Hours Of Playing With Yourself Over The “Beauty” Of These Gunfights. Really?

Well, no. I probably only played with myself for 40 hours. The other 150, I took the fight online and It. Is. Glorious. Dive off a balcony in Bullet Time®, shoot two people in the head on the way down, and hear the squeal of anguish from the manchildren on the other end. And I’m good at it, I really am.

I think that’s the answer to the question I posed all the way up there, about why I’ve stuck with it. The multiplayer element has none of the blood-spewing bullet cams or piles of corpses that litter the single player experience. Once you strip away some of the more graphic and objectionable frills, all you have left is pretty satisfying gunplay. There’s always a new toy or bragging right to shoot for, which ties pretty clearly into my brain’s reward center. And I’m good at it, did I mention that? I almost always win (yes, ladies, you could be rolling with a champ).

I know “being good at video games” is small potatoes, but I don’t have a bunch of competitive outlets. I’m not big on sports, I don’t remember when I win at drinking games and they don’t give prizes for Twitter. So for about two hours a day, I sit down and compete. I don’t think that’s particularly unhealthy. What may be unhealthy is my contest of choice being “who can shoot the most dudes in the face”.

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