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.