Dec 7, 2012

Max Payne 3: Divine Terror & Social Responsibilty

Featured on Critical Distance.

One bizarre moment in Max Payne (2002) has the titular protagonist discovering that the Inner Circle, an X-Filesesque conspiracy of shadow men who offer him help, has hands in every major political event of the American century. With voice actor James McCaffery sounding unimpressed, Max rattles off vague lists of their deeds before moving on to his revenge. A narrative shrug, some might call it, but it’s the first hints of what the Max Payne trilogy is now about. 

The narrative effect the moment has is simple: it shows how single-minded Max really is about his revenge. Our government is not democratic, but maneuvered by a cabal of business men and senators who really run America? The implications of this for the country is staggering: government is a sham, who knows what is truly voted for by the people and what is controlled, etc.. But Payne just shrugs and mows down a few hundred more people. It doesn't matter to him.

What is missing in Max Payne (the character) is a social consciousness. That’s what personal revenge took from him—it is, after all, a selfish act. That’s why he continuously drifts around, sequel to sequel, and why he only goes deeper down a hole. With no responsibility to anyone, he has nothing. Alcohol and confessional calls to sex lines replace his life. 

Max Payne 3 presents us with Max's gradual acceptance of a social responsibility. 

Throughout the game’s early chapters and flashbacks, we can see why Payne is so miserable. He has no social connection, which is why he trusts Passos so willfully (the idea that he has a friend who cares and isn’t just a self-pitying drunk is understandably powerful.) Every character from the previous games are dead. 

When even your enemies are gone, what do you do? What is there left? 

 Max falls into pill popping and alcohol—just as the rich men and women around him do. Max willfully ignores the plight of the poor while he’s in this state—just as the rich men and women around him do, with the same self-centered humor. 

By making the third game not be personal, in the sense that no one from the previous games pops up in any capacity beyond a name on a gravestone, it drives home how far Max has drifted in trying to fill up meaning in his life and serves to show how driven he is to avoid the past.

If he couldn’t save his wife or Mona, then maybe he can protect Fabiana Branco, the rich wife of his boss. This too fails Max, as he’s still creating bodies and shooting people for an ultimately selfish reason: it makes him feel better. A distraction.

Max finally shrugs off his selfishness when he protects the sister of that same rich wife, Giovanna, and makes peace with Passos for betraying him. The sister is a clear symbol—obvious in that Rockstar way—of redemption and social responsibility: she does social work, helping the poor; she has a baby coming, just like Max and his wife had. To take one of Rockstar's own lines: "She's the good sister." 

By letting Giovanna leave Sao Paulo with Passos, putting the carnage behind for a peaceful life while he goes on to finish what’s been started, Max is moving on. More importantly, he is forming a social bond that's deeper than anything he's had in years. 

The gameplay component of collecting “clues” plays into this. By connecting with his environment, Max turns into a holistic detective:
In the chapter on From Hell, Moore cites Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – or at least the advertisements for it – as the source of his angle into the Jack the Ripper killings. “A holistic detective?” says Moore, “You wouldn’t just have to solve the crime, you’d have to solve the entire world that the crime happened in."
- Tim Callahan, "The Great Alan Moore 

Max is not just examining clues related directly to this mystery, e.g. blood stains at a crime scene, but pieces of society, like magazines and soccer memorials. One of the clues is simply just a talk with a retired cop (a supernatural character similar to the "Strange Man" of Red Dead Redemption), who provides not factual evidence but moral consolation. 
The difficulty with the mystery stems from Max being alienated from society--he could've paid attention to the relationships between people, he could've understood the culture enough from his time there, but instead he buried himself under whiskey.

(The multiplayer is an extension of this as well. A mode of play where people form “crews” (letting us emphasize with the lower class criminals, as we ourselves become them) and are encouraged to connect to each other plays in well with a game concerned with returning its protagonist to society in a functioning manner.)

That Max finally picks up a palpable outrage at the murder and arrest of the poor in the favela and hotel level chapter is, again, just an extension of what the original two Max Payne games began.
In the original 2002 game, the player frequently encounters lower class people reduced to insane puppets of violence due to being forcibly administered with a designer drug called Valkyr

Graffiti representing Valkyr stains the walls of subway tunnels, streets, crack houses, and burnt out apartmnts (amongst other run down areas with a definite "broken income" vibe). The areas these Valkyr junkies (and the word “junkie” itself carries the imagery of people so poor that they must steal to maintain their fix) reside in are obviously of the lower class: they’re bums warming hands on burning trash cans, they’re guys with non-descript shirts covered in the grime of a seedy neon hotel.

The drug is forcibly tested on these poor based on orders from Nicole Horne, the CEO of a corporation called Aesir that houses itself in a “sci-fi fortress” of cold ultra-modernist architecture. A startling contrast against the rest of the game’s level design. 

Aesir’s abuse of the poor—forcibly turning them into junkies in pursuit of war profit—is another thing that, like the direction of America occurring based on the whims of a power elite, Max ignores. If he does mention the junkies, it’s in the context of the city going to hell/the death of his wife. Revenge is all this younger Max is focused on.

Max Payne 3 brings the power struggles between the elite, like Aesir, and the poor, like the Valkyr users, to the forefront. 

In Sao Paulo we witness police playing out jack booted tactics, arresting whoever is convenient from a favela. If Rodrigo Branco and his conspirators turn the poor into propaganda, it is only the same effect that Aesir gained with the junkies. No one pays attention to the real crime, because a fake crime is engineered in its stead. 

Others in Sao Paulo are gunned down. Some have their houses shelled by tanks. It is far from Aesir and the Inner Circle’s subtle destruction of the poor, but outright warfare on the lower class. 

The police state/power struggle imagery amps up when Max investigates an abandoned hotel ("The Great White American Savior of the Poor") where some of the favela people have been taken. Here, the ruling businesses and government officials are covertly carrying out a form of class genocide: using the help of a famous plastic surgeon, they cut out organs/drain blood and sell them for profit, which in turn keeps them in power. 

The ruling class are literally running on the blood of the lower class. 

When the poor are no long needed, their remains are disposed of in furnace flames. It recalls Nazi methods of “population control” (another form of classism), where those financially-dependent on the state (the handicapped, elderly, those without relatives to care for them) were exterminated on the basis of freeing up funds.

Wartime, Adolf Hitler suggested, "was the best time for the elimination of the 
incurably ill."...The physically and mentally handicapped were viewed as "useless" 
to society...ultimately, unworthy of life....The "euthanasia" program required the 
cooperation of many German doctors....The doctors also supervised the actual 
killings. Doomed patients were transferred to six institutions in Germany and Austria, 
where they were killed in specially constructed gas chambers....the bodies of the 
victims were burned in large ovens called crematoria.
 - United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 

What Branco's conspiracy does is also an extension of what Aesir did in secret: kill the poor

The difference is that what Branco and his cronies do in Brazil is "freely" reported on TV channels, but twisted into propaganda; the similarity, then, is that both Aesir and Branco create crime in an attempt to eradicate it. The Inner Circle/Aesir/Nicole Horne create and prop up New York mob bosses like Vladimir Lem and the Punchinello crime family, while Branco forces favela citizens into kidnapping and murder to survive through social pogroms.

Violence from violence.


By finally admitting that men like Rodrigo Branco and women like Nicole Horne are the real problems, Max Payne 3 cuts out the middle man. The gangsters and kidnappers are not your enemies—the people who create gangsters and give people little alternative but to commit crime to survive are your enemies.

The last chapters of the game play out like a one-man revolution. Payne attacks symbols of oppression—guns down police officers, shoots up a police station, destroys a tank, and assaults an airport (a symbol of commerce), complete with blowing up a luxury plane (the actual final boss of the game), before the lower class murder Rodrigo Branco in prison.

This is the Aesir corp. assault from Max Payne (2002), then, as Max even connects the present with his past during his narration: “Another dark, rainy night…another police station…another futile crusade for amends...” 

Although the game immerses us in the party grounds of the ruling class and the Bagdadesque slums of the lower class, for the finale it throws us into a technology-dominated police station and the previously-mentioned airport. You could even call the police station a “sci-fi fortress.” The police of Sao Paulo are directly equated to Aesir and their conspiracies by game design: a boss that can only be defeated with help from a lethal inanimate object, lasers, cold metal architecture, its enemies consisting of privately-sanctioned militia. 

As Payne notes in the “another night” line above, at the police station/conclusion he is once again out for revenge. But this is given a crucial twist: he is not on a personal revenge trip, but is instead seeking vengeance for the favela

Letting the lead kidnapper, Serrano, kill the plastic surgeon who harvested his eyes and organs (recall the Nazi doctors?) is Payne’s way of forgiving him, of moving past being the drunk, “Yes, sir” Max Payne who enforced the violence of the ruling class by “killing so many of us.” It’s his transformation into the revolutionary of the final two chapters, into someone who is willing to fight for a specific cause. 

In enacting this violence, he is connecting to people; violence does not mean the same thing in every fictional context.

The final chapters ascends Max's violence to balletic proportions. No less brutal than before, full of slo-mo zooms on terrified dying faces and tearing sounds as bullets break enemy skins, they are presented with more stylish flourish. To put it simply, it flaunts a "badass" tone the earlier levels shy from.

Max dives across a locker room bench, taking out snipers. HEALTH's "Tears" kicks in as he runs down the final length of the airport. Max jumps from one moving tram car to another, through glass, while firing pistols in bullet time. Blowing up the luxury plane, the camera goes to extreme slo-mo before Zach Snyder speed ramping it. These acts coincide with the revolutionary acts.

This is what Slavoj Zizek and Walter Benjamin term the "divine violence of terror," or terroristic violence:
When those outside the structured social field strike "blindly," demanding AND enacting immediate justice/vengeance, this is "divine violence" - recall, a decade or so ago, the panic in Rio de Janeiro when crowds descended from favelas into the rich part of the city and started looting and burning supermarkets - THIS was "divine violence"... Like the biblical locusts, the divine punishment for men's sinful ways, it strikes out of nowhere, a means without end - or, as Robespierre put it in his speech in which he demanded the execution of Louis XVI: "Peoples do not judge in the same way as courts of law; they do not hand down sentences, they throw thunderbolts; they do not condemn kings, they drop them back into the void; and this justice is worth just as much as that of the courts."
(Interestingly, in the first lines of "A Fat Bald Dude With a Bad Temper," Max compares himself to an "avenging angel.")
The Benjaminian "divine violence" [is] divine...NOT in the perverse sense of "we are doing it as mere instruments of the People's Will," but as the heroic assumption of the solitude of sovereign decision. It is a decision (to kill, to risk or lose one's own life) made in the absolute solitude, with no does not give the agent the license to just is JUSTICE, the point of non-distinction between justice and vengeance, in which "people"...imposes its terror and makes other parts pay the price - the Judgment Day for the long history of oppression, exploitation, suffering....

At the end of Max Payne 3, Max has a purpose. As his homeless neighbor Brewer says before blowing himself up to save Max: "Don't be afraid of the fires. You think they'll hurt ya. You think they'll char your skin and char your bones, but it'll make you clean in the long run." Max has morals.  He has thrown aside himself, and in doing so has connected deeper to himself by gaining social responsibility through the violence of divine terror.

all images courtesy of the users of


Anonymous said...

Victor Branco is the bad brother, not Rodrigo.

Ricardo Marin said...

Pure marxist proganda, why should productive people just give away their money to non productive people? Would you raise a corporation and then just gove your money to the lowest of the people? Money that would likely be spent on drugs, fast food and liquor.

Andrew Lavigne said...

Do you seriously have no moral fiber at all? Go to church, son: "But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?"

And you don't know what Marxism is if you are calling me a Marxist.

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