No, I Won’t Take Your Hand and Marry the Game State

Capitalists move in, assimilate your battle-hardened ideals into hope-and-change plush commodities, all rhetoric and no fire; you are waiting for the collector’s editions to go on sale. You watch the trades closely these days. You do not apologize, your conscience is clean. Out in the streets somewhere, somebody in a balaclava sees his reflection in the proverbial corporate coffeehouse window. You would have us imagine the man in the mirror and how he must feel, next time we reach for the brick.

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image credit: sean mort via reddit

Presently in the gaming world, designers and gamers wish to shatter the two-dimensionality of linear gameplay by forcing into it meaningful decision-making, a buzzword describing algorithm-guided sudden obligations for the gamer to bend and, in some instances, redirect his avatar’s story arc. (Click the preceding link for an in-depth examination of the meaningful decision-making craze by one of its enthusiastic proponents.)

As we gamers are not our avatars; as we cannot live in fiction as our favorite characters do; as we cannot share experiences with the pictures of people on the screen – though it can be fun to pretend; the meaningful decision-making craze, like its literary counter-part the Choose Your Own Adventure novel or the gamebook, opens up the medium to one-note moralizing *link contains Telltale’s Walking Dead spoilers* about individual will. (To be clear, there is a sublime, absurd exception to every natural law.)

This is my brick; there are many like it but this one is mine: released in 2013, amid both the meaningful decision-making craze and an upsurge in self-criticism among gaming industry elites about depictions of women and femininity in gaming, Rockstar Games’ Max Payne 3 can be interpreted, and should be interpreted, as a standout example of linear gameplay done right; as the action genre’s rebuttal to the claim that linearity means predictably bad writing; and, importantly, as emblematic of the need for the gaming industry to its own boyishness (link potentially Not Safe For Work) and do some growing up.

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image credit: Rockstar Games

In this extended post, we use Max Payne 3 as a venue in which to explore linear gameplay and non-chronological storytelling — the art of the effective flashback, if you will; sexism in gaming; gaming’s role in maintaining capitalism as an institution; and capitalism’s misapprehension of womanhood. We put the meaningful decision-making craze in a position within the context of a dying industry hellbent on providing (money-making) interactive cinematic experiences.

Fans of the Max Payne series know from the outset that Max has a track record of making the deaths of his wife and daughter all about him and what he wants. He is a shootdodging anachronism: a present-day film-noir figure, the surviving patsy of a corporate conspiracy; an absurdly named alcoholic ex-cop; a narcissist and an eternal widower incapable of protecting those dear to him, dependent on pain killers pick-pocketed from the bodies of fallen perps; quick to anger yet calculating in combat.

At its root, Max Payne 3’s linear gameplay and non-chronological narrative exploit the unhealthy relationship between boys and guns, between masculine identity and male misapprehension of the complexities of womanhood under capitalism.

The opening cutscenes of Max Payne 3 trade in the graphic novel presentation established in the first two games for an overblown cinematic style of which Tony Scott would be proud. As the scenes unfold, they add to Max’s anachronistic identity some new positions for the bloody old ceremony: American bodyguard to the heiress of the wealthy Branco family in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Great, another damsel-in-distress to protect from armed thugs. No way Max will screw this up*SPOILERS*

Game critic and novelist Yahtzee Croshaw takes issue with the disconnect between Max Payne’s self-loathing and his murderous gift of bullet-time perception (the franchise’s defining gameplay gimmick, an exploit of the popularity of The Matrix film franchise). He goes on to describe Max – rightly – as “completely lacking in self-awareness” (4:17 in Zero Punctuation’s review). To be sure, Max Payne is the unwitting digital torch-bearer of the Cain- and, later, Hammett- and Chandler-tradition of perceptive anti-heroes haunted by inextinguishable alcoholic dread and bad timing in all aspects of life not involving the quick-draw of one’s guns. Max Payne has brief episodes of Bogie’s despair-as-cool, preferring to it, instead, pitch-perfect impersonations of Robert Mitchum’s desirous insularity, a man apart in a mad, mad world full of bad men with guns.

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image credit: Rockstar Games

In Max Payne 3, all of Max’s enemies in the single-player campaign are young men: strong, fierce, eager to prove something, especially if they can prove it by intimidating, coercing, and kidnapping women. Women appear as bystanders and victims, in the ritzy dance club and, later, in the dive strip club, femininity sexualized on a pedestal for men’s amusement, turned meek and defenseless under fire. Strippers: the classic embodiment of capitalism misapprehension of, and aversion to, the feminine mystique.

The objectification of women in mass media — and, especially, gaming’s willingness to sexualize women while conforming strictly to the edicts of the heterosexual male gaze in cinema (non-threatening powerless naked women, men as strength and influence, possessors of women) comes across as foul pandering to the ogre-fratboy demographic. To illustrate, in the flashback to the Hoboken bar, which serves, primarily, to introduce Raul Passos as a deciding factor in the Max Payne pre-Sao Paulo mythos, we watch a woman – drunk, rough around the edges, a perfect fit for Max, really – who tries to get Max’s attention. He seems disinterested, appearing – temporarily – to have learned from his femme-fatale-chasing mistakes. It is she who fatefully exacerbates Max’s conflict with Tony DeMarco, whose murder will give Max incentive to get out of Dodge.

DeMarco calls the woman a whore and slaps her. As gamers (bullied in school for our presumed meekness or perhaps ourselves survivors of violent domestic disputes), we feel outraged at DeMarco’s display of physical violence. We may recoil, too, from the designer’s decisions to allow the men in the scene means and agency to assert power effectively via physical violence and, yet, to deny the same means and agency, arbitrarily, to the only woman in the scene. In fact, Max describes the woman in both diminutive and masculine terms — as a “girl” having the “balls” to speak up, effectively denying her feminine identity at the precise moment that her actions have an impact on the story. At DeMarco’s inexcusable transgression, Max the avatar makes a meaningful decision without the player’s input, independent of one’s own values: he avenges the woman, chooses to put a bullet in the gangster wannabe.

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image credit: Max Payne Wiki

Take note: it is Max’s decision to shoot the kid in the bar, but the game designers have left the dirty work of pulling the trigger to the player. Cutscene becomes interactive — without an intrusive HUD, like the quick time events of ye rare olde tymes. If we do not pull the trigger, Max dies, we watch him die – again, we are not our avatars – and the game immediately returns us to the moment of decision. So, we consent to the parody of choice and give the game the blood it demands.

The immediate price of our consent for our avatar: the player’s “decision” to pull the trigger has turned Max into a marked man in his mob-run American town. Now, forget the avatar: a person sits in front of a screen and actively chooses to participate in the drama on the screen, agrees to perpetrate simulated violence for the sake of moving the story along — and because we don’t like DeMarco, this punk has it coming, he deserves to die.

As further evidence of Max Payne 3’s detournement of meaningful decision-making, examine the achievement The Only Choice Given: the player chooses not to pull the trigger on a dying enemy, whom Max has just struck down and who bleeds out, anyway. Decisions, decisions.

DeMarco’s execution and The Only Choice Given are not anomalies in gaming. They express the same sentiment presented by the hilarious Red or Blue door “decision” in Saints Row IV, in which the avatar either agrees, potentially, to sacrifice all of mankind or to kill himself — at which point the credits roll, the game is over, and the player has failed the mission. In both Max Payne 3 and Saints Row IV and indeed in all violent video games, ultra-violence is made palatable by its occurring in simulation, in gaming’s digital world.

The creation of our beloved digital world is politically charged. As gamers, we desire the luxury of an electronic life, invite and accept a digital diversion from the dreary life with others, on the condition that the diversion allows for gratifying interactivity: good controls, challenge, achievements. Just give us that payoff (we’ve paid for). Concurrently, an individual gamer, identifying as a citizen of the world in the colors of a revolutionary, feels aversion to slave-wage labor, men with machetes outside precious metal-mining operations, petroleum-based plastics involved in packing, gas burned in shipping, etc. used by the capitalist – that state-sanctioned hoodlum – to construct electronic technology. Give me the loot, declares the consumer, in fantastic emulation of his capitalist overlords; spare me the bloody sob story bio of paupers made poorer by contingencies attached to my decision to gain technological access to a designer’s digital daydreams. As Max Payne 3 is an interactive intellectual property distributed for private gain, its sardonic dialogues on capitalism belong in a sociopolitical context – in particular, ours.

A person’s decision-making in the real world is made meaningful by its impact on oneself and others. In our lives, we forge an uneasy peace with pixel-production, its attending industry. We stand tall and face the charges of radicalism from gaming peers. Can the revolutionary gamer, in the same breath, deny charges of collaboration from revolutionaries rallying in the streets? Our revolution will be brought in not through a window but through a flat screen. In the quiet before the storm, we crouch in our dark places, hyper-focused, supporting metal-mining and its attending atrocities to dodge pretend bullets in our cyber-lives; all as we hope — against cataclysms of evidence — that the meek, of whom we fancy ourselves protectors, survive to inherit what is left of the earth.

We have selected and purchased a license to play the game, consented to Cloud saving methods and permitted anti-piracy safeguards access to our hard drives. Beyond the game’s sardonic commentary is the reality of anti-capitalist concepts subsumed by privatized intellectual property, trademarked with all rights reserved. When the brass of Rockstar Games claim to prefer anonymity, we imagine the anonymity of pampered lives, anonymity complete with stock options and art auctions: decadent companion pieces to the programming sweatshops.

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image credit: banksy/the simpsons

Recall the drama of brick and window. We return to it as the crosses the two-dimensional plane. The speed of things slows as brick connects with glass. As an observer, take in the airborne tufts of glass shattering where the brick pushes through. Slower, even slower now: loose quartz crystals breaking from the pane in plumes.

Through the best of times, through the worst of times, time determines our changes and, therefore, it gives our changes meanings. The past consumes our previous selves, lovers, the neighbors, first pet, that homeroom teacher you never really cared for, your last pet, your last anything, my only life, yours. No difference, rejoiced or lamented. In the Max Payne trilogy, time cannot be stopped or rewound; rather, adrenaline sharpens one’s obsessive perception to cut into the near-infinite nanoseconds when a bullet sheds its shell, pops hollow-tipped out of the barrel, and spins into the great wide-open like a heavy metal ballerina burning bright in a tutu of kinetic hot air.

To begin, again, at the beginning: the game opens in the middle of things. “Say what you want about Americans but we understand capitalism,” Max says in narration over the game’s first cut scene, before the player has had any input in the action. Max’s head is shaved; we have never seen him looking so rough. He stands with a gun over a man with severe skin burns and clothes smoldering. “You buy yourself a product and you get what you pay for.” Max identifies himself as a villainous product; hired killer bought and paid for; an “angry gringo,” imported from the U.S.; “a dime-store Angel of Death,” destructive to others and to himself, not an avenger of his wife and baby girl’s deaths (as we have come to expect him to identify himself, no matter how falsely it rings) but a perpetrator, a “rent-a-clown” murdering “other bad guys” for money.

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image credit: Rockstar Games

We the gamers have stakes in similar arrangements. We feel uncomfortable with our own complicity in the capitalism funding our gaming operation. Like Max says, we understand capitalism; we got exactly what we paid for. We, too, have hired Max to kill for us.

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