Is Max Payne Crazy? Observations from Two Classic Games

I think Max Payne might be crazy. And I think he might have murdered his wife.

I don’t think that that’s the canon interpretation of Max Payne — after all there were two games after the first, from which I started to draw that opinion — but having played both Max Payne and Max Payne 2 for the first time ever during the last two weeks, I’m struck by the underlying subtext that Remedy weaved into those two noir stories about love, betrayal, revenge and shooting mobsters.

So yes, I think Max Payne could be crazy. I think there exists some subtle subtext that suggests that his understanding of reality is definitely skewed, and I wonder how much Remedy wanted us to take away from those hints. What’s more, I’m fascinated by the fact that nine years later, the Max Payne series is still poignant and relevant in its storytelling, and its gameplay is still fun and exciting despite a decade’s worth of games that have iterated on its core concepts.

Why Max Might Be Nuts

Max’s Dead Wife

Remedy sprinkles in quite a few little hints that, I think, are meant to get us questioning the sanity of Max Payne, or at least his grip on reality. These start primarily with the flashbacks Max has of the deaths of his family in the first game, in which Max is running through a maze made up of the hallways of his apartment, or through a bloody series of pathways in a huge, darkened room. Max maintains through the story that his family was murdered by Valkyr-tripping drug users (at the behest of Max Payne 1′s primary antagonist), but the ins and outs of that story seem a little weird — especially when the “Oh yeah, my wife worked for the DA and she knew too much” bit seems to come forward only later.

More fascinating is the voice-over dialog of Max’s wife, Michelle, during these hallucinations. Crying in the distance, her actual words are, “Max! No, don’t, Max, please! I’m sorry! Max!” (There’s a video clip a little further down that demonstrates the actual dialog.)

What grabbed me there was the delivery — it doesn’t imply Michelle calling for Max’s aid, or Max blaming himself for not being there when his family needed him. The way it played in the game, for me, was much more like a classic battered wife apologizing for some supposed slight under the threats of her abusive husband.

It played like Max killed his wife.

This is a little thin, obviously, but it was definitely an interesting choice on Remedy’s part to present Max’s wife’s dialog the way it did. And then there’s the whole John Mira thing from Max Payne 2.

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4 Comments on Is Max Payne Crazy? Observations from Two Classic Games

BRBonobo

On May 11, 2012 at 6:27 pm

It is clear in Max Payne 1 + 2 that Max is losing his sanity. I think that even he would agree that his grip on reality slipped more than a few notches in the first one. But I don’t think that it shows that he killed his wife. The references to him being the killer are things that are in his subconscious. He believes that he is responsible because he was unable to protect her. There is even a scene in one of the drug sequences where he shoots the killer only to see that the killer has his face (IIRC).
I think that if he had literally killed her himself, there would have been a lack of dead junkies in his apartment when the cops showed up and his story wouldn’t have held up (he would not still be a cop and a free man).

Phil Hornshaw

On May 11, 2012 at 6:55 pm

@brbonobo

I don’t disagree, which is why I mentioned that that interpretation isn’t pretty clearly not canon. I’ve talked with numerous people about it and “survivor’s guilt” is basically the answer they’ve all given me. However — the dialog is weird. It’s a weird delivery, it’s weirdly written, and it seems to imply much more than what happened. She’s begging Max to stop; there’s no situation in which I see that as being derived from his guilt. It’s…it’s just weird.

Granted, however, at least in Max’s memory — junkies did it. But then again, in John Mirra’s memory, his Double did it. But anyway, this whole discussion is just about how nuanced the writing is.

Segun

On May 12, 2012 at 6:54 am

Ever seen The Fugitive? ‘Nuff said.

SupremeAllah

On May 13, 2012 at 6:10 pm

Mirrors are more fun than television.