Max Payne 3 is an amazing experience. Max Payne 3 is not an amazing game. In fact, I’d go so far to say that Max Payne 3 is barely a game.
Let me explain. With GTA4 and Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar has been honing and refining its cinematic approach to games and both of those examples were highly praised for it. They felt like playing through an HBO box-set, with their broad, arching storylines and their polished, cinematic set-pieces. Max Payne 3 takes this a giant leap further. While GTA and Red Dead Redemption were games first and cinematic experiences second, Max Payne 3 feels more like game built into a film. This is largely because the other two games gave the player breathing space between story sequences. If you wanted to just arse about for a bit, you could. Max Payne 3 isn’t that sort of game. It has very strict ideas about what it wants from you.
It’s the details that show how preoccupied Rockstar was with the cinematic aspect of the game. Cut scenes are all done in-engine, so that often the game will shift fairly seamlessly from cut scene to gameplay and back again. All this is accompanied by familiar cinematic tropes – shaky cams in gameplay, lens flare, strange (and constant) digital filters on the camera. And it’s polished. Boy, is it polished! The character modelling and animation is astounding and it’s that level of detail that allows it to attempt to merge gameplay and cinematics as much as it does. It gets almost to a point where the only way you can tell the difference between gameplay and cut scene is whether or not there’s an aiming reticule on the screen. And I think this is where Rockstar has gone so wrong.
It has focused so much on making Max Payne a cinematic experience that, at many points, it encroaches on my freedom to actually play the game. It doesn’t seem to know whether it wants to let me do something cool or show me Max doing something cool, while I watch. It constantly takes the controller out of my hands, while Max and his buddy stop for a quick chat while they move into the next room. Possibly the strangest technique it uses is where it gives me only partial control of Max. It lets me steer him, but it pushes him about, or only lets him walk. The game keeps making decisions for me – during cut scenes Max will change weapons and drop the cool one that I was using.
(Video contains spoilers)
It’s as though it doesn’t trust me, as the player, to do what it wants. And that’s the problem. For a game as tightly scripted as Max Payne to work, the developers have to sacrifice some player agency. It focuses so much on creating a polished, tight, very specific experience that it falls into the trap of telling rather than showing. It forces your hand.
Here’s an example: at one point in the game I was told that I had failed and had to restart a mission. I hadn’t died, I wasn’t even being shot at. I was just exploring a bit. At no point was I told that I was supposed to be in a rush, I just wanted to try and find some of the hidden items that are strewn over the game. But I wasn’t playing the game like the developers wanted me to and as was punished for it.
This seems to be symptomatic of the direction in which ‘triple A’ games are going. Think of the Modern Warfares and Battlefieds of this world. Games that are so polished and cinematic that the player isn’t even trusted to open a door on his or her own, or to get to ‘point A’ without having an NPC lead them there. Games where the vision of the developers totally supersedes the agency of the player. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy ‘playing’ Max Payne 3 – far from it. I found it an enjoyable experience despite the lack of freedom because, really, we all know what we’re going to get from certain titles at this point in time.
Now, I’m not suggesting that Max Payne 3 is as guilty of this as Modern Warfare 3, but I do think it’s of a kin with it. These games have become something else. They’re a strange mish-mash of segments of gameplay and set-pieces and rigidly scripted events. They’re not so much things that you play as they are things that you sit through and experience. They’re the summer action blockbusters of gaming and like it or not, they’re going to be a big part of the future of video games.