From 2001 to 2003, it wasn’t just a thirdperson camera that made the world revolve around Max Payne. Nor was it the mere sight of its excellent graphics, or of PCs taking a sideways leap into console land from where they would never fully return. More than anything, it was the man. A propulsive thriller made by just two dozen people in Espoo, Finland – a “garage band”, according to writer Sam Lake – it was the story of a man imploding. The door opened on that scene of devastation, the wife and and newborn child slaughtered by drug addicts, and in one New York minute gaming had acquired a new thirst for revenge.
“For me, the starting point was this archetype of the private eye, the hard-boiled cop,” says Lake, whose portrait need never be printed so long as Max, for reasons you either know already or will soon learn, appears in a screenshot. “The team wanted images and ideas seen in countless action and crime movies, even in pop culture generally. Just something that hadn’t been seen much in games.”
“John Woo had this action where all this trash was flying in the air – we just wanted that style,” says programming lead Olli Tervo. “Lots of things had to be happening.”
“One of the first things we did technologically was the particle system,” adds Sami Vanhatalo, the game’s lead technical artist. “And once you started seeing the particle effects with this huge slowdown it was like: ‘God, something good must come of this.’”
Lake, however, was concerned more with the bad – the creeping, contagious bad of a modern film noir. He wanted a “deeper, more psychological” story than existed in action games of the time, something preoccupied with both outer and inner turmoil, the city as well as its people. Much of what sets Max Payne apart today is the quite alien, Scandinavian air that rips through its New York streets, rapping on its windows as an impenetrable blizzard devours the skyline. Ragnarok, the Norse vision of the end of the world, was as natural an association, suggests Lake, as any squalid crack den or alleyway.
“Max’s journey is a revenge story about a man who’s been pushed so far into a mad, impossible situation that normal, everyday life has lost its meaning. It’s disappeared. So you couldn’t describe what was happening in that context – or at least Max couldn’t. All that’s left are archetypes and metaphors, monsters and demons. It becomes a myth. So it felt like the right thing to do to bring all those references to it.” Plus, as we remind Lake, no small degree of comedy – not something you’d automatically find in discarded needles, dead babies and baseball bats. “We didn’t want to avoid that over-the-top feel because the player is going to create comical situations in any case, always. Humour is a natural part of playing games and, as a writer, you’re always trying to match the gameplay experience. If you’re too serious about it, that simply doesn’t happen.”
Development of Max Payne spanned several years, with ’96 and ’97 seeing the leap from Quake II-era 3D accelerators to cards capable of, as Remedy would discover, near-photographic realism. Until technology intervened, the game was a more cartoony affair drawn entirely by hand. “But if we wanted to set the game in, say, some sleazy motel in New York, we needed some kind of reference,” says Vanhatalo. “We’d already sent the art guys to some really nasty neighbourhoods with a couple of bodyguards, and then we realised that we had all these photos. Why not use them as the basis for our textures? There were a lot of art tricks you had to do to get those textures to work: getting all the unnecessary light information out, for example. But once we’d decorated part of the game, everyone was like: ‘Wow. This is what we’ve been trying to make.’”
Well, not quite everyone. To some, explains studio co-founder and development director Markus Mäki, the arrival of real-world textures felt less like the start of something than the end. “To them, you weren’t an artist any more if you did something like that. But if you’re basing things on the real world, it’s just the sensible thing to do.” Were there ever fears that it wouldn’t work? “I don’t think that was an option.”