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Jul 2 / Great Apes

Max Payne 3: Videogame Violence Is Killing Me

I finished playing Max Payne 3 tonight.  Steam tells me it took about 11 hours to do (spread out over about 2 weeks).  I’m now 11 hours closer to death and have nothing positive to show for it and I’m wondering how I let that happen.

Like this blog post, Max Payne 3 starts with its ending.  Unlike Max Payne 3, hopefully this blog post will end up somewhere interesting.  Back to the beginning.

In typical game review terms it might be hard to describe Max Payne 3 as a bad game.  There are certainly plenty of nice things I could say about it.  The environments look great, especially in the first of the game’s 3 parts, with vibrant colours and open environments quite unlike the gloomy hallways of doom that Max spends all game marching down in the first two iterations of this franchise.  The cut scenes are well put together, telling the story reasonably well and with an impressive (if heavy-handed) dose of cinematic flair.  Shoot-dodging is still as fun a mechanic as it’s ever been, perhaps even more fun here with the lavish production and tight controls that Rockstar have bestowed upon the madness.  There are other good things about the game too, but to be honest I’m having trouble remembering them or caring what they were.

What I do remember, though, is how exhausting the whole experience was.  Max Payne 3 is hard.  I played on the normal difficulty, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Max died about 100 times before I was finished.  It is an unrelentingly grim game, and not just in its difficulty.  The only thing you will ever do in this game is shoot guns (barring a small number of very short diversions to search for environmental clues like a power switch for a door).  There is no variety of gameplay to speak of; enemies will fill up rooms and you will pop out of cover briefly to fire bullets into their faces.  Later enemies take more bullets than earlier ones, but they’re never any smarter and you never do anything other than try to shoot them in the face.  The visual results of this violence are among the most visceral I’ve ever seen in a game, and the industry standard slo-mo killcams that punctuate the end of each wave of enemies are quite disturbing, even though I think the game thinks they’re cool.

I don’t have a problem with violence in games per se.  I don’t even have a problem with graphic violence.  My problem with Max Payne 3 is that it never earns it.  It tries to construct a serious story about a perilous situation and the man at his wits end who has no choice but to rectify this situation through violence.  But given the game’s body count it all ends up coming across like silly fantasy land, not the kind of gritty realism that might justify the use of such excessive gore.  I honestly don’t know if the slow motion zoom ins of gaping bullet holes were supposed to be cool or funny or jarring.  And I think we need to be honest about how serious a problem it is when it’s unclear if graphic violence is supposed to make you laugh or drive home a serious point about the grim nature of the experience.

I tend to prefer that the things I do enrich my experience of the world in some way; even better if those experiences help me to grow as a person.  I don’t need everything to be a philosophical marvel – for example, going out for dinner provides me with the ability to savour delicious flavours, spend some time with a person or people whose company I enjoy, and support the ability of local chefs to continue doing what they want to do for a living.  But I do want to get something out of my experiences.  One day I will die and everything I do brings that moment closer, so I’d like the time leading up to that to be filled with compelling experiences.

Video games can provide all sorts of compelling experiences, whether that’s the joyful exuberance of Little Big Planet, the fantastic worlds to explore in Final Fantasy, or the intellectual stimulation of the physics puzzles in World of Goo.  But Max Payne 3 offers no compelling experience.  It offers nothing that I can be glad I’ve done with the limited amount of time I have before I die.  It’s grim, dark, depressing.  It’s unrelenting in its pessimism about the world that Max lives in, perhaps even our own world, but more importantly it feels unrelenting in its pessimism about the player; “You’ll love putting gaping holes in peoples’ heads for no reason other than the fact that they’re here.  Here are hundreds of them.  Do it for hours.”

So I finished Max Payne 3 in about 11 hours and I have nothing positive to show for it.  How did this happen?  Why would I choose to spend my time this way?  I don’t play a lot of shooters.  Now I remember why: the characters who die in them may be fictional, but the parts of me they kill are real.

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