Max Payne 3 and Theming

Technically speaking, Max Payne 3 is literally just a game about shooting people and watching cut scenes. That’s the problem we get with so many AAA productions these days, but for some reason Rockstar manages to make it work. I think it’s because they understand something that’s not often discussed in games – theming.

There’s a reason why Halo and Gears of War are the only straight-up shooters I own on Xbox: they still do the formula best (along with Call of Duty) and are the progenitors of today’s trends in the genre. Almost everything else I’ve seen has been a shallow imitation with almost nothing to offer of its own. I was interested enough in Spec Ops: the Line to try out the demo, only to get about an hour of shooting dudes and taking cover in military garb, seeing nothing of the full game’s apparently unique features. It’s gotten to the point where these basic tenants have not only infiltrated, but taken over old properties like SOCOM, Spec Ops, and Resident Evil.

Technically Max Payne 3 is the same thing despite its trademark John Woo-style slowdown mechanics. The game’s abnormal length really begins to grate because of the consistency of what you do. It’s actually not that different from Kayne & Lynch 2 when you think about it. The things that actually keep the whole game compelling at all are the visual style and the story. In this case it’s probably just a perfect melding of the gameplay mechanics and the tone, which I think make for a good sense of theming here.

I like to think of “theming” as the combination of a game’s mechanics, its setting, and which one is influencing the other. I like to think most of the best games thus far focus almost everything in the gameplay and scantly design the art and stories around that. The original art design for Mario games was dictated around the technology of the time and what the game was about – jumping on things. That’s probably why the NES Mario games still look good today.

Let’s not kid ourselves about the storylines in Gears and Halo – they’re games about shooting stuff. The reason Gears probably doesn’t feel as ridiculous as most military shooters is because Epic probably wrote the setting and everything around the fantastical gameplay elements – you’re shooting inhuman monsters in a fantasy world practically built to make the Unreal Engine look good. That’s why very little in Gears feels out of place. Going back to Demon’s Souls, the reason that game feels so complete in terms of both gameplay and setting is because it seems like From Software elegantly wrote what they needed in order to explain every game mechanic, and little more.

Rockstar was probably the perfect company outside of Remedy to make a Max Payne game. The franchise’s entire mechanic of slow motion gunplay is the perfect match for its noir narrative and John Woo-esque presentation.

Having to run around and collect what are essentially health packs feels slightly oldschool and probably makes the game harder, but regenerating health wouldn’t have really made sense in Max Payne. It doesn’t make sense in most other games in which it appears, so I can see why Rockstar stuck with Remedy’s painkiller addiction angle from the original games.

All the elements in the game fit to the point where it’s hard to tell which were conceived first. Because you already know this is a straight-up pulp action thing, it actually looks less ridiculous to see Max leave hundreds of bodies in his wake than, say, Nathan Drake.


  • Pretty detailed article on the making of both the PC and Xbox versions of The Witcher 2:
  • A little consolation for all the heartbroken STALKER fans:
  • I don’t know about this always-online DRM thing for Diablo III. First time I’ve ever experienced lag in a singleplayer game.
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