Playing a Role

Playing a Role
Schizophrenic Storytelling

Robert Buerkle | 20 Jul 2010 07:55
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A cinematic cutscene starts the game.

A tumultuous blizzard has fallen on the city. Swarms of police cars hurry through the snowy streets of Manhattan, accumulating around the base of a skyscraper. Atop the building stands Max Payne - gun in hand, a beaten mess. He looks weary, but stands defiant.

A voiceover intrudes over the soundtrack.


"They were all dead. The final gunshot was an exclamation mark to everything that had lead to this point. I released my finger from the trigger - and then it was over. To make any sense of it all, I have to go back three years. Back to the night the pain started."

Graphic novel panels pick up the story.

Three years earlier, Max is a detective with the NYPD. With a wife and newborn daughter at home, Max has given up smoking along with undercover work - "Michelle and the baby come first," he tells his partner. But arriving home to his house on the Jersey side, Max gets an uneasy sense of foreboding.

Voiceover. "I didn't like the way the show started. They'd given me the best seat in the house - front-row center."

Gameplay picks up the tale.

You enter the house to find it in disarray. Furniture is overturned, graffiti is strewn about the walls. A telephone rings nearby, and you approach the phone.

Illustrated panels. Max answers the phone, telling the caller to notify the police. "Is this the Payne residence?" she asks. "Yes," Max replies. "Good. I am afraid I cannot help you." The phone disconnects with an ominous click.

Gameplay. You hear gunshots followed by your wife's scream and charge upstairs with your gun drawn. Two drug-addled thugs emerge from the baby's bedroom, and you take down the intruders before finding the tiny body of your daughter lying lifeless in her crib. You hear more gunshots and hurry to the master bedroom. Inside you dispatch another assailant, but you're too late.

Cinematic. Max sobs uncontrollably as he finds Michelle's dead body slumped across the bed. He bellows a final heartwrenching scream as he holds his wife for the last time.

Voiceover. I am Max Payne. This is my story.

Gameplay. You are Max Payne. This is your story.

Cinematic and illustrated vignettes. He is Max Payne. This is his story.

It's a rather schizophrenic experience if you stop to think about it. From the very opening moments, Max narrates the tale in the first-person: "I released my finger from the trigger"; "I didn't like the way the show started." Yet at the same time, the game provides a second-person narrative by asserting that you, the player, are Max Payne, that playing allows you to inhabit both the body and persona of Max, and thus suggesting that "you enter the house" and "you dispatch the intruders upstairs." And just to further complicate matters, the player must intermittently relinquish control of Max during cutscenes, illustrated passages, and other moments of third-person action, moments when Max is not providing the story nor the player inhabiting the role of Max: "Max answers the phone"; "Max kneels over his wife's dead body." As a result, the game provides an eclectic mix of first-, second-, and third-person address - all in reference to the same character!

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