Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Better than Hoboken: Conflict of Narrative and Gameplay

Max Payne 3 was without a doubt one of my highlights of 2012 however it has an odd issue of identity crisis plaguing it at the core. Still, for me, Max Payne 3 represents an important step in exploring strong and compelling narrative in gaming, and was ultimately a really enjoyable experience.

It’s clear from the outset that the gameplay in this game plays second fiddle to the narrative. The biggest example I can give you of this huge flaw is the fact that there are compilations of all the cut scenes from the film (with the gameplay removed) and they run as a movie would, quite an enjoyable one at that. The only thing missing from this movie is the action which is often left up to the player to play through. This represents Max Payne 3 biggest flaw. The dissonance between gameplay and narrative is striking as the gameplay has no bearing on the narrative and the narrative only really changes where and what Max is shooting at.

Max Payne 3 is a solid third person shooter with some serviceable mechanics and a few key standout features. There are some problems with the second chance mechanic, which is when Max is dealt a fatal blow with pain killers in his possession he is given the chance to shoot his murderer and stay alive. The implementation of this feature comes off as quite wonky and can sometimes be hampered by the environment getting in your way or the inability to reload in this mode. There isn’t much to say about the gameplay other than that in its entirety it is quite well done but largely unimportant. Nothing you do when you have control over Max really matters. It’s a shooting gallery – a well-constructed and largely well-made shooting gallery.

One of the highlight features of Max Payne is its production style and aesthetics. Max Payne 3 boasts a thumping soundtrack from Health and a visual style that apes Tony Scott’s films like Domino and Man on Fire. Overall the production of Max Payne screams high quality and a lot of effort went into constructing a certain tone and mood to the game that feels very gritty and mature. Both the look and soundtrack really do wonders to give the narrative legs and an extra oomph in its emotional punch.

The story of Max Payne 3 starts out as a plot about revenge and redemption and while it remains that to the end there are a few issues that crop up with the story. Much like the paradoxical nature of the game, the narrative seems to be unsure of what it really wants to be. Here and there, ever so gradually, political overtones begin to appear and the latter half of the story feels muddled as it deals with the weight of large issues such as capitalism, American foreign policy and the value of life.  While there is room for an undertone of political commentary in most narratives, the problem with Max Payne 3’s story is that at times it detracts from what Max ultimately set out to do.

Some of that confusion is alleviated by James McCafferys performance of Max. The actor really shines in his portrayal of Max and his delivery of dialogue, which has just the right about of dry, wry wit about it really settles the game into “serious story” mode but one that doesn’t take itself too seriously all the time. McCaffery carries the weight of the entire game and really pulls off a strong performance that gives us a character we can engage with. It’s not all perfect in the realms of characterisation but it is there and Max, as a person, does change.

It’s just a shame that this change isn’t reflected in the gameplay and ultimately this dissonance between narrative and gameplay stops Max Payne 3 from being an amazing must play game but rather represents an important but tentative step in the evolution of gaming.

To me there are two clear cut types of games now: games which present systems and gameplay as the main engaging factor and games which present narrative and story in the forefront. Games like Max Payne 3 and Uncharted provide shining examples of relatively well written and engaging stories in games and they bring a form of validity to the medium. These stories are far from perfect but by in large they are really well done, even when compared to some films that are released.

On the flip side of the spectrum you have games such as FTL or Terraria which present players with hugely addicting and compelling gameplay mechanics, with little story and narrative to frame them, which also legitimise the medium. There is room for both styles of game in the genre and Max Payne 3 represents, to me, an important step in ensuring high quality, mature, story driven content with which players can interact with and ultimately enjoy. However for story and narrative to truly be seen as valid constituents of the spotlight they need to engage with the gameplay in meaningful ways providing players with input and interaction to fully engross the player and provide them with a full-fledged, story driven game – like Heavy Rain.