In preparing to play Max Payne 3, I had set out on a quest to complete Max Payne 1 and 2. This wasn’t too difficult a task; not only are Max Payne 1 and 2 fantastic games with manageable lengths for quick playthroughs, I know and love them both and can quote Max’s spectacularly cheesy/awesome monologue ad infinitum.
SIDE NOTE: My favorite line in the series is from the final level of Max Payne 2, in which Max picks up the fallen weapon of the main villain and declares “I was gonna give [him]his gun back- one bullet at a time.”
This was a feat I easily (and gleefully) accomplished, and with that same amount of glee, I headed to my local Gamestop on a wet Monday night for the midnight release of Max Payne 3. I knew I wouldn’t be playing the game until the next day, but for some reason, I needed it.
SIDE NOTE: Are midnight releases boring for anyone else, or are they exciting somewhere? I’ve been to three midnight releases each in different Gamestop locations spanning across nine years, and every single one has entailed getting an arbitrary number and awkwardly standing around outside trying to make small talk with the other psychopaths up buying toys after dark.
It’s no wonder, with this level of excitement, that I gunned my way through Max Payne 3 in an almost shockingly short amount of time. I was rocked and shocked and thrilled and awed and I wore a big grin on my face for much of the adventure, but for some reason, I didn’t feel the satisfaction at the game’s conclusion like I had with the games preceding it.
The reason why was something which had been on the tip of my tongue, but never quite spoken, when I was asked what I thought of the game as I played: it’s spectacular, but it’s not all that fun.
I know, I know: grabbing a goon, diving through a window, and shooting up a dance floor in mid-air is awfully fun. I don’t mean to say the game is a snorefest, nor am I implying that it’s going to drive someone to suicide.
Way back when, I was in an Irish literature class and studying the works of playwright Martin McDonagh. McDonagh’s works are categorized by brutal, blunt, and black humor offset by pockets of sudden, disturbing violence. The general flow of his works was eloquently vocalized by my teacher as, “Hahahah- oh God.”
This style is defined by ripping the rug out from under the viewer just as they think they can relax and enjoy the work they’re experiencing. In Max Payne 3’s case, this came through in the form of slick, stylized action often interspersed with moments characterized by shock, horror, revulsion, or despair, with the first three typically brought about by Max’s enemies and the final descriptor almost constantly brought about by Max himself. How, then, is it possible to walk away from the experience with any kind of levity if the strong feelings of horror still stick with you?
Sure, shooting up a ton of dudes is cool, but can the experience be characterized as “fun” if the payoff is discovering a huge, gory pile of brutally murdered civilians?
Max Payne 1 and 2 played it the opposite way, generally. The underlying story was always kept serious- at heart, there’s nothing funny about a man who from a pit of desperation attempts to find bloody satisfaction after drug addicts slaughter his wife and baby- but interspersed would be pockets of levity. Max Payne 1’s comic book cinematics, starring whichever random employees could be plucked from their cubicles to try and look serious; Max Payne 2’s show-within-a-show featuring the game’s (male) writer dressed as a dapper, perpetually grinning Englishwoman; the incessant references to Norse lore and the possible implication that Odin himself lay within the cast of characters. These are great, legitimately funny moments. They provide relief when the tension of combat and the weight of Max’s despair become too much.
So, about seven hundred words in, I approach my point:
Max Payne 3 made me realize that too many games aren’t fun anymore.
Yes, I realize that is not in the running for top front-of-the-box quotes.
Rockstar Games is already an offender in this regard. Grand Theft Auto IV was a dark turn for a fun franchise, and in David Kushner’s Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto, former Rockstar employees are cited as saying that the game was “so dour” and that “it’s become a very serious franchise.” Speaking from a personal standpoint, GTA3 was a landmark game for me as a child (when I was far too young to be playing the game) and I had been a die-hard fan of the franchise for a while; nowadays, however, I declare myself a Saints Row loyalist.
Thusly, I enter these recent works of Rockstar Games into my list of Games Which Are Becoming Too Serious.
Why are companies doing this? It all seems to stem from the idea of pushing games into the category of “art,” but I think a diatribe from one of my professors is relevant here:
“The question here is ‘what is art?’ And that’s a bullshit question, really, which only ever results in circle-jerk answers, because the definition of ‘art’ is different for every single person. Take the filmmaker: a director can devote five years of his life working on a film, sacrificing his health, his friendships, his family, everything, for this creation. And imagine the film is truly great- what does he get? A two hour long product and if he’s lucky, ten minutes of applause at a film festival. The viewer’s definition of art would be the film, of course, but it can’t be that for the director or he’ll go crazy. For him, it would be the process of creation. And both are valid. But their definitions of art are wildly different.”
What I mean to say here is: the pursuit of driving gaming towards becoming an art form is leading some creators to believe that the way to do it is grimdark the shit out of their games. This is not really all that necessary, however.
Take Flower, thatgamecompany’s pollination simulator (?). There is nothing dark about Flower. Flower is so optimistic about the world that I would turn to its preview music on my PS3 dashboard after playing Heavy Rain in order to relieve the tension (and/or stop crying). But is Flower a work of art? I, and seemingly many others, would argue yes. And when this definition is used, citing Grand Theft Auto IV as a work of art actually seems rather silly whereas in another light it could make perfect sense.
Weight and emotion and darkness for the sake of turning gaming into an art form will not necessarily do the gaming industry much good, so for the developers who are swinging games in that direction for that reason, or at the very least for trying to make this a more “serious” medium, I say: stop. Or, at the very least, take a break and give us something light once in a while.
I am unabashedly a fan of Suda 51, and while I am rarely impressed by the quality of his works’ raw gameplay, I always respect his commitment to creating experiences light, off-the-wall, and/or rarely by-the-numbers. His repertoire beyond a shadow of a doubt contains heavy themes (one of the first games he was involved with, Super Fire Pro Wrestling Special (that is the title, I am not making this up), ends with the main character committing suicide because he only wrestled to fight of depression), but Suda attempts to hold the heaviness which plagues so many games at bay by twisting the dark themes into striking, often bizarre black humor. He is one of the people who is making Games Which Don’t Take Themselves Too Seriously.
This is the glorious category of games which remember that games are games, and games are fun. These are the Deadly Premonitions, the Saints Rows, the Minecrafts. These are the games which, instead of making you scared or depressed or tense, allow you to unclench that knot in your stomach brought on by the Big, Scary World and forget that the Big, Scary World is right on the other side of your bedroom window. These are the games which allow you to be a superhero, a paramour, a genius, a mining wizard, a mystery-solving Japanese schoolboy.
These are the Atlus games which effortlessly combine dark and light in their writing, the Platinum Games games which allow you to tear enemies apart in as stylish a manner as possible, these are the Capcom games which let you become a super-flashy defense attorney. These are the games I play when I want to remember what games were, and are, supposed to be.
I’ll never claim that “serious games are bad,” and I hold many of them near and dear. But I’d appreciate it if, just maybe, the game industry as a whole could remember to quit being so gloomy- and to maybe crack a smile now and then.