Max Payne 3 Dan Houser interview: on redefining a genre

Rockstar vice president of creativity and co-founder Dan Houser sits down with Polygon to talk about the ambition, character and story of Max Payne 3.

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On May 15, Max Payne will return from his eight-year hibernation. In a lot of ways, he's still the same depressed, drug addict booze hound that we saw in Max Payne 2, but Rockstar has put a lot of work into giving him more depth, more purpose. The goal is to create a video game leading man that feels, well, whole.

Dan Houser is the vice president of creative at Rockstar Games and was the lead writer on Max Payne 3. If anyone knows what's going on inside of Max's twisted head, it'd be him. Polygon's Brian Crecente and Russ Frushtick spoke with Houser in two separate email interviews. The transcription of those Q&As is as follows.

For more on the creation of Max Payne 3, check out our in-depth feature on the subject!

We wanted to use the massive energy, expertise and resources we normally dedicate to open world games on something narrower and more focused.

What were your ambitions for the game?

Probably two things - firstly, to make a Max Payne game, by which I mean we wanted to make a game that was true to the spirit of the original games. And that spirit in 2001 was to use cutting edge technology, design innovation, great mechanics and compelling narrative and characters to re-define the 3rd person shooter. That seemed a worthy and exciting challenge back in 1999 when we first discussed Max Payne with Remedy, and seemed equally valid and compelling when we began actively working on this game. At the same time, we wanted to use the massive energy, expertise and resources we normally dedicate to open world games on something narrower and more focused, so we could craft an experience that felt incredibly precise and detailed - a true high definition experience, which is something we have been chasing all this generation. That precision would impact graphics, of course, and shooting mechanics, but also character animation, control systems, facial animation and story and pacing.

What kind of story are you trying to tell?

On the one hand, a fairly classical noir tale of an ignorant dupe getting in, way over his head in a world he does not understand, only with the twist of the dupe being an American in a foreign culture he does not understand. On the other, a character study of a drunken middle aged man trying to figure out what to do with the second half of his life, having had his delusions firmly beaten out of him by fate!

How do you think the structure of the game (non-linear, back and forth with Max's past and present) helps support this story? Why not stick with a more traditional structure?

I think the non-linear chronology is a fairly traditional structure for other media, just not one that has been used that often in games. Thanks to the technological break through of being able to completely remove all loading screens between levels, we were able to jump between locations using some traditional cinematic editing techniques, which are pretty much unheard of in games to turn the transition between levels into part of the story. This let us structure the narrative in a more interesting way, using Max's memories as the driver of the story, and crafting a story and a game that is about Max's journey towards some kind of self awareness. The various flashbacks have been timed in such a way as to shed light on the things Max is experiencing at that moment in time - the game is about Max's emotional journey into the gutter, and his realizations about that journey, so events from the past are only relevant when Max remembers them. As with a lot of what we do, it is the combination of technology and design that makes this sort of thing possible. Thanks to the combination of a totally seamless, loading screen-free structure, incredible high resolution graphics, stunning facial animation, incredible character animation, cutting edge motion capture and so on, we are able to tell a story that is more nuanced and complex than would have been achievable previously. Of course, we do our best to live up to that opportunity, but it is the tech that is the star of the show - it helps us bring the story to life in way that simply was not possible before.

Max Payne has been falling for as long as we've known him, starting with the first few minutes of Max Payne and the death of his family. When we come upon him in Max Payne 3, he's pretty clearly at rock bottom. All anyone really knows about Max Payne is his, well, pain and self-loathing. But what kind of guy is he and what kind of story are you trying to tell in MaxPayne 3? Redemption? Him falling further into the gutter?

What kind of guy is he? He's a fairly typical ex- NYPD cop. World weary, corrupted in some ways but still with a core belief in right and wrong, a loner who has seen a lot of people close to him die. He's seen, and unfortunately, done bad things, and had his romantic optimism blunted by the streets and by the weaknesses within his own character. He comes from a world of childhood trauma and personal loss and he's never really moved past that. he wants to be a good person, but he does not know why any more and does not have a reason to stop drinking. At the same time, he's brilliant physically, as he was always was and part of him still yearns for a quest, a damsel in distress or some other simplistic and easy to understand scenario in which he can act like a heroic good guy once more, even though last time it did not turn out so good.

This let us structure the narrative in a more interesting way, using Max's memories as the driver of the story.

Players learn a lot about Payne's past and what motivates him, but not a lot about Payne himself in the previous games. What was the process of deciding what to include, what not to include and how to fill the years between Max Payne 2 and Max Payne 3?

Those games are pretty old now, so to judge the character as unrealized is perhaps a little harsh. At the time they came out, they set a new benchmark for narrative in shooters, but Max Payne 1 came out 11 years ago, before people even did things like motion-captured cutscenes or any of the other storytelling devices that are staples today. Of course, we may expect more now, but it is because of games like Max Payne 1 and 2 that we not only expect it, but also as designers, know how to implement it.

For all of us at Rockstar, the character was pretty clear - and we had no interest in changing his character, as the character was so central to the game. We just wanted to make a game using the most up-to-date technology and design methods we could, using that character so he could be more fully realized. That character is one we all found compelling - a world-weary romantic, self-absorbed, burdened by memories, but also with a sense of humor, and with a great propensity for, and skill at violence. In other words, he's like most of the ex-ops we've met over the years researching games! Kind and chivalrous but also deeply cynical emotionally and beaten up by what they have seen. And, because we wanted to make a contemporary game, we had to imagine where Max would be several years after Max Payne 2. His career in the NYPD was clearly destroyed by the events of Max Payne 2, and given his love of Scotch and painkillers, his grief and his guilt.

At the same time, in some ways, we wanted something of a blank slate, so people new to the franchise after all this time would not be intimidated - so the events of the previous games serve as Max's personal back story, but they are easily picked up - all someone really needs to know is that here is a man who wanted to be a good guy, but has suffered and made mistakes and is struggling to live with those mistakes and with the cards the universe has dealt him. All of these played into the idea of Max as a washed up drunk. It was hard to see him as anything else after all he had been through, and who he was.

Is Max Payne addicted to painkillers?

If he is, he is in denial about it. He is certainly dependent on them, but he's mostly convinced it is a medical need, after years of throwing himself headlong into gun fights. He's like a former athlete who won't admit quite how much Vicodin he uses.

Is he an alcoholic?

Probably, but again, he's perhaps not fully aware of that. He's confused as to whether he drinks to forget things or drinks to dull the hangover from the previous day's drinking. He's living on his own, he spends his days visiting his dead wife's grave and then sitting around in bars. He doesn't have a job any more. He can't really see a reason to stop drinking, even though he knows it is killing him. His liver is starting to hurt. So yes, he is probably an alcoholic but even more than that he is so burdened by guilt, remorse and grief that he cannot get his life moving forward.

If so, how did addiction inform the way the game was designed? How did it impact Max Payne's look and temperament? How did Payne's past shape these addictions in terms of your narrative?

From a narrative standpoint, it 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. 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. At the same time, we wanted Max's hazy drunken perspective to also feel vaguely similar to when he is in Bullet Time, as if Bullet Time, which is when he is at his best and almost super human, is also something of an addiction to him - like the moment when he feels most himself. From a mechanical perspective - the drink not particularly - he still has a steady hand, but the painkillers are very much part of the game design. It is playing the game (and the previous games) that has, to some extent put him in this state.

I really enjoy the visual presentation of the game, especially how the game seems to sort of twitch and jitter between colors and perspectives a lot, both in cutscenes and gameplay. My assumption is that it's the gamer viewing the world through the eyes of a man heavily addicted to drugs and alcohol. That essentially, Payne is a mess and this is how he perceives the world. Is that accurate? How did you come up with this treatment? Can you explain how you decided on the idea of color separation and camera movement and when to use it? What impact do you think it has on the way gamers may absorb the game's story?

Thank you. Yes - it was partly to give the impression of a middle-aged, functioning but somewhat addled drunk. One of our earliest phrases on the game, in terms of production design and developing a tone for the game, was ‘digital noir.' We wanted to make a noir-ish game not just in terms of narrative, but also in terms of look, but, partly as were simultaneously working on a classic noir (LA Noire) and mostly because we wanted the game to feel very contemporary, we were determined to find a look that felt noirish and also contemporary, and alluded to Max's comic book panel heritage.

So after a long period of experimentation, our production designers came up with three parts of the look - odd bits of text on screen, distortion effects and the 3D comic book panels - which could be used together or on their own. Then our programming team had to figure out how to make this stuff actually work in real time, which was enormously complex. We then did multiple passes working over the game frame by frame and word by word and placed each of the effects where wanted them to highlight things and the animators put them in in several passes. It was a massive amount of work, but it gives the game a unified and unique look, and, we hope, will help players absorb the story in a slightly different way. It was something that was only possible in a linear game, because of the absolute precision it requires, so it was exciting for us to work in such a way.

The game feels designed to be rushed through. I don't mean that in a bad way, just that it constantly pushes you into situations that you can't retreat from, both figuratively and literally. It feels like to succeed in the game you have to throw caution to the wind and dive into the thick of things. That feels to me like a clever use of gameplay mechanics to help highlight a character's take on the world. How would you say this aggressive approach to gameplay serves as metaphor to Payne's character, addiction and current life?

Max is who he is, and who he is, is very conflicted. He wants to be a thinker but he's much better as a doer. 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.

Max is who he is, and who he is, is very conflicted.

Over the years Rockstar has taken on some very serious topics in their games. Is this Rockstar's take on addiction?

No, it's Rockstar's take on Max Payne. Sorry if that sounds glib, but this game is character-driven, not issue-driven. The character has a problem with substances, and that is part of the game's story and design, but only a small part of it. We don't hunt down issues to make games about, but if a character demands us to address certain things, we will do so in what we hope is an appropriate manner. Max is more of a hero than we're used to working with, but he's a hero with flaws, and above all a hero who is unaware of exactly what his flaws are. The drink and the drugs obscure the issues, but they aren't really the issues.

How do you balance the need to entertain the audience with the desire to tackle important topics in meaningful ways?

No idea! We think of a game we want to make, work on the tone for that game (which at all times should enhance and support the gameplay as best it can) and do our best to build that out into an interesting experience which people will enjoy, in which everything - gameplay, characterization, story, production design and so on gel together. Everything exists to enhance the experience, and the experience is gameplay driven. If that gameplay is best served by a pill-popping drunk, then we will consider the life of a romantic, grief stricken pill popping drunk. If the gameplay is best served by an almost faceless professional table tennis player, we will do that too. Our subject matter is not issue driven, but nor are we interested in presenting the world in a black or white way, as not only is that unrealistic, but it also makes for excessively binary gameplay.

Our subject matter is not issue driven, but nor are we interested in presenting the world in a black or white way.

Do you think an interactive medium allows you to address things like addiction in a more meaningful way then more traditional media? Why or why not?

I'm not sure there is anything quite like addiction. That being said, any medium can find a way to tackle any issue, if that is what the creators want to do, and they can all do so well or badly. All mediums have strengths and weaknesses and advantages and disadvantages. Games are relatively young as a medium, but that does not mean you cannot address any topic you want to, you just have to find the tone and the mechanics to do so, just as you would in music, or film or literature.

In this game, however, we are not tackling the issue of addiction, but we are looking at the character and actions of a man who has problems with substances, but also a lot of other problems. There is a subtle but important difference, not because we don't think addiction is interesting or important or we could not tackle it or games are not worthy of it, or any of that, but simply because it was not what we set out to do in Max Payne 3. It's a shooter about a drunk, somewhat morose, widowed ex-cop, trying to find some kind of peace with himself. It is not a game about the realities of being a drunk in terms of the need to drink. It is game about being Max Payne. Making a game about alcoholism, or drug addiction or sex addiction or any habitual, compulsive behavior could be fascinating, and entirely possible, but I probably would not recommend choosing the genre of a shooter to do it! The challenge of designing a game about addiction would be adequately expressing through mechanics and consequences of those mechanics the conflict within any addict, in which they desperately want to do something and simultaneously desperately don't want to do that same thing, and both choices seem somehow a matter of life and death, but those would be the same challenges faced by any medium - it's just how you would address those that would be different.

Flaws provide friction, and friction and conflict is what drives stories.

Why have a game starring a character with such an obvious character flaw? Wouldn't it be easier to create a game with a less imperfect lead?

Well, by the standards of our other games, he's positively angelic! We like flawed people. We've never made a game about an unambiguous villain, and we're not going to make a game about an out and out hero. Flaws provide friction, and friction and conflict is what drives stories, so for us, it would be harder to make an interesting game about a more perfect person. In the case of Max, you have a guy who wants to be a good guy, a hero, but his special skill, his talent, is running into a room full of bad guys and shooting them all dead. A man who has spent his life killing, even in the service of his idea of what is right or wrong, is going to be extremely damaged. That seemed the only way to approach this game and it is who this character is.