T he music overwhelms. The lights are so white they bloom and bleed together. Colors separate, glide apart to form double, triple visions of the same scene. Max Payne needs a drink. Max Payne needs a pill. Max Payne can't cope without a glass bottle in his hand, or a plastic one in his pocket.
The latest game from the people who created the rich, wide-open world of "Grand Theft Auto" is a comparatively singular experience, the story of a man whose wife and daughter were killed, who has taken hundreds of lives and who survived so many shootouts with a seemingly endless supply of painkillers.
"Max Payne 3" is, in the vernacular of video games, a third-person action shooter, but in the hands of Rockstar's deft artists the game approaches an interactive character study, an antidote to the consequence-free, non-reality of most video games.
Max Payne is a functioning alcoholic and drug addict, a byproduct of all of those lives lost in previous games. This sequel doesn't just remember that, it embraces it.
At first glance, "Max Payne 3" may look familiar to fans of video game shooters. You play as a solid, gun-toting ex-cop shooting it out with a bunch of bad guys in a variety of settings from the alleys of New York City to the favelas of Sao Paulo. But everything from the deep narrative to the stunning visual effects of the game were informed by Payne's dual addictions to painkillers and alcohol, said Dan Houser, vice president of Rockstar Games.
"From a narrative standpoint, (addiction) is entirely central to the game -- the story depends on it, and it is built into the story, and the entire flow of the game is built around it," Houser told Polygon. "From a visual design perspective, we wanted the visual effects to give the impression of a blurred somewhat hazy look that would give a sense of someone stoned on booze and heavy painkillers."
Signs of Payne's clear addiction to both whiskey and painkillers are threaded throughout the game. The game's cutscenes often involve Payne with a bottle in his hand. We see him passing out. We see him waking up. He hallucinates moments from previous games, remembers himself as a younger, more fit, more hygienic Payne.
In gameplay the world seems constantly in motion, as if twitching around him. When he pops a painkiller, something he has to do to heal himself in the game, a fog seems to fall around Payne and the world for just a second, everything seems to dull.
The goal in creating the visual twitches, filters and effects of the game was to give the impression of a "middle-aged, functioning but somewhat addled drunk," Houser said.
In layering a character study about a man warped by the violence he has both witnessed and inflicted, onto a violent video game, Rockstar has created something surprisingly complex.
The end result is a game that weighs the violence of video games and dishes out real world repercussions to its conflicted hero.
"He wants to be a thinker but he's much better as a doer," Houser said. "When he thinks he gets wrapped up in himself or makes mistakes. When he acts, he is brilliant, almost super-human. That is his character, and the dichotomy between the two is the reality of his life, and at the heart of the game. He cannot seem to move forward emotionally, but physically he is relentless."