How many famous grimaces can you name in video games? For those in the know, Detective Max Payne is clearly going to be up there. However, he’s much more than just a grizzled detective that looks like he’s spent a year sucking on a lemon.
We’re going to look at the history of one of gaming’s most distinct protagonists, from cult hit star to one of the most recognizable faces in all video games. This is the story of Max Payne.
The Rise of Max Payne
The genesis of Max Payne is like many others. A publisher, 3D Realms, had a need for a strong protagonist who could carry a brand new series on his back and looked to Finnish company Remedy Entertainment to create them. Once originally called Max Heat (a name that was trademarked at the cost of $20,000), they settled on the name Payne as the character and his story started to come together.
One of the most famous aspects of Max Payne’s design only really lasted for the first game and was born more out of necessity than choice. All of the cringing, scowling faces in Max Payne, for enemies and allies alike, are those of Remedy Entertainment developers. Max himself was portrayed by none other than Remedy head writer Sam Lake (also responsible for much of the story and writing in Alan Wake, Quantum Break, and the excellent Control.)
However, goofy as the character’s face may be, his story is anything but.
The Payne is real
In 2001, serious video game narratives were just starting to have a more broad market appeal, and Max was clearly designed to invoke a particular kind of narrative. The series and the character are drenched in Noir themes, with the grizzled detective being turned into unwitting fall guy in a story that he narrates from beginning to end. Cynical, self-effacing, brutal, and with a few hints of a screw loose, he was very much unlike the previous 3D Realms franchise-carrying hero, Duke Nukem, in just about every way.
Like many great morally ambiguous heroes, it was a tragedy that shaped Max to be the way he was. The murder of his family (coupled with being framed for the murder of a fellow DEA agent) turns him to vengeance, a familiar story but one that goes a lot deeper into the broken psyche of such a man with single-minded motivations. Max is self-destructive, Max has a deep sense of guilt that doesn’t go away just because you beat the game, and Max even at one point comes the conclusion that he “was in a computer game” in one of the game’s most memorable moments. It might be the ramblings of a man losing his grip on reality in the narrative, but it’s one of the most memorable fourth-wall breaks you will find in all of gaming.
The Fall of Max Payne and beyond
The second game in the series keeps following Max Payne down that rabbit hole, bringing more violence, more brooding dark themes, and dripping with more heavy Noir style than ever. At this point, Max is still far changed from the happy family man he was at the start of the first game, but he has started to find his new “normal” after satisfying his vengeance. Reinstated in the NYPD after being cleared of the grizzly murders in the first game, he’s on the case for a new set of murders by a group of contract killers. With the success of the first game, Remedy writer Sam Lake declined to play him again. Instead, this time they had the budget to bring in Timothy Gibbs as the model, while James McAffrey voiced him, as he did in the original.
In Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, the story shifted to focus largely on the burgeoning relationship between Max and Mona Sax. A contract killer that gets the jump on Max in the first game, she returns to get more romantically entangled with Max. It’s a dangerous and passionate relationship that shows that while Max is able to keep forming bonds, they’re not always the healthiest of relationships. Needless to say, without getting too into spoilers, a cop dating a contract killer does not end well for either of them. Max does start to show a few signs of moving to a more healthy way of grieving for his wife, however, which is nice.
The Rockstar era
The most recent game featuring our beloved detective was Max Payne 3. While Rockstar had published The Fall of Max Payne, they had taken a much more active role in the game this time, overtaking development and writing from Remedy, with Dan Houser leading the writing team. Needless to say, as with any major change in a franchise, it’s a departure that fans continue to debate over to this day.
The Noir themes fade away to a sunnier, more colorful look, but beneath the new visuals, there’s still a richly depressing narrative to our main character to keep it going. Max is much more Charles Bronson a la Death Wish, now, a facet of his character that voice-actor James McAffrey attested to himself. Retired, alcoholic, and addicted to painkillers, he no longer even shows the semblance of upholding the law, but instead works as little more than a mercenary, a private security contractor for the Brazilian businessman, Rodrigo Brassos.
With Mona long out of the picture, an affair that Max now regrets, we’re shown a more jaded and broken man than ever before. Needless to say, the kidnapping of his employer’s wife and the discovery of an organ-harvesting ring supported by a corrupt police force don’t make matters any better for Max.
The most abused video game protagonist in history?
A lot of video game characters go through some truly awful moments, there’s no denying that. However, Max Payne might just be unique in how utterly terrible his life continues to be. While the style of narrative shifts from game to game, it’s utterly engrossing to see the man struggle and overcome time and time again and hopefully it’s not too long before we see it again.