Above: Max's barber gives him the full Walter White.
At first, I wasn't enjoying Max Payne 3. Too difficult, too regressive, too joyless. And even though those things never really changed, at some point I bought in. It won me over through sheer determination. Stuff went wrong for Max, and then it went more wrong. Shit was dark, and then it got darker. You know what? I didn't always like it, but I couldn't help but admire it. That's the crux of my Max Payne 3 review at the Phoenix.
Afterward, I read Tom Bissell's review over at Grantland. We had similar reactions, and also both invoked Raymond Chandler in characterizing Max's narration -- which I should take as a sign that great minds think alike, and instead take as a sign that it's a lazy comparison. But I have to disagree on a fairly major point. Tom mentions the dreaded ludonarrative dissonance in contrasting Max's personal failures, poor self-esteem, and tendency to get everyone around him killed with his preternatural murdering ability. I'll let him explain:
Three seconds after claiming to be an incompetent failure, however, Max is leaping in slow motion from a speedboat while shooting an incoming RPG out of the sky and then single-handedly massacring an entire army of Kevlar-encased Brazilian commandos. Max Payne 3's hero is simultaneously a barely functioning alcoholic and one of the most sublimely gifted killing machines in video-game history. Which is a little weird.True, but I think it's all perfectly consistent. For one thing, in the game I played, Max was not a bulletproof superhero who routinely emerged unscathed from unfair firefights. Actually, he died a lot. Dozens and dozens of times. My Max did a lot of slow-motion aiming and a lot of graceful leaping, but for the most part nothing useful came out of it. He was as likely to end up sprawled on the floor, his torso filling up with bullets, as he was to take out five enemies with a procession of headshots.
My experience with the game was one of near-constant failure. I came away thinking that what happens to Max is what would happen to anybody who takes on impossible odds: he loses most of the time. The only difference is that, as a video game character, he's reincarnated until he gets it right.
Let's say, for the sake of argument, that my shortcomings as a player don't really count. That there is one true playthrough in which a single Max, and not his infinite multiverse counterparts, storms through all the action and survives. It's still true that Max's greatest asset is his desire for self-annihilation. Like Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon, he's a man with nothing to lose, and whose death wish gives him the edge against almost any opponent. Max's self-loathing narration, his alcohol and drug abuse, his continued willingness to confront armed gangs -- it's all of a piece. He wants to die. Why else would he do any of the ridiculous things he does?
In that sense, he's the most plausible videogame protagonist around.