How the Max Payne series used horror

When people think of horror and Remedy Entertainment writer Sam Lake, the first thing that comes to mind is usually Alan Wake. Alan Wake is psychological thriller at its core, the game manages to tell a horror story while adding an action element to it. On the flip-side, we have Max Payne, which is more of an action story with a few moments of horror.

Yes, Max Payne is kind of a horror story.

A Film Noir Horror Story

Sam Lake is one of those writers who can successfully dive into multiple genres all at once. He creates worlds that range from deadly to nightmarish, and neither Max Payne nor Max Payne 2 are any exception. It's interesting to think of the original Max Payne as a horror story, because first and foremost, it's rooted in film noir. It's a detective crime adventure with themes of love, loss, betrayal, and corruption. Max Payne, with all of its gritty action and cheesy cut-scenes, is like a video game successor to a Raymond Chandler novel.

Max Payne is also a post-apocalyptic tale centered on the end of its titular protagonist’s internal world. After he loses everyone who matters to him, Max becomes The Last Man on Earth. Armed to the teeth, he transforms into The Omega Man, an unstoppable force of death and destruction against evil. Nothing matters to Max because, after the death of his wife, daughter, and best friend, he no longer has anything left to lose. Max Payne is a zombie apocalypse where the zombies are the endless hordes of armed petty thugs, mob bosses, and hired guns.

Max Payne's American Nightmare

Max Payne is split up into three multi-chapter parts, the first being titled The American Dream. That American Dream quickly becomes a nightmare as Max's family is slaughtered. We join Max in his living nightmare, and it isn't too long before the character begins to have actual nightmares in his drug-induced sleep. These nightmares are especially horrifying as they're based entirely around the death of Max's family, primarily his infant daughter.

Max appears in a black room with a trail of blood beneath his feet. In the distance, he hears the cries of his daughter. He follows the cries, walking along the trail of blood. The crimson path then splits, with Max's only lead being the constant, horrific crying of his daughter.

This is one of the toughest parts in the game, due in part to how easy it is to fall off the ridiculously thin blood outline. This sequence is also one of the most disturbing. It puts the player right at the center of Max's psyche, and we're tortured right along with him, forced to hear the loud, maddening cries of a deceased child. Though not particularly well-designed from a gameplay perspective — seriously, it's way too easy to fall off that blood path — the nightmare chapters in Max Payne are still effective in terms of sheer terror.

Max Payne 2 remedies the design problems of the first game's nightmare scenes by creating more linear, less punishing stages. Though still surreal, thanks in part to the intense motion blur and bizarre imagery, these are nowhere near as horrific as the dream sequences from the first game.

The Devil's Reject

One of the most iconic antagonists in the original Max Payne is Jack Lupino. He’s a mob boss who becomes addicted to the deadly drug Valkyr and, as a result of his addiction, loses his mind. The insanity that Lupino suffers from, or rather feeds off, turns him into a devil-worshiping madman who engages in ritualistic human sacrifices. Lupino is as a bloodthirsty as he is sadistic. In one instance, Lupino is said to have shot one of his underlings in the head just to see what his brains would look like sprayed on the wall.

The shootout between Lupino and Max is quite unsettling. Throughout the entirety of the boss battle, in a creepy Gothic nightclub called Ragna Rock, you hear Lupino screaming nonsensically at the top of his lungs about how he is the Fenris Wolf out to do the bidding of his demon mother. This isn't the only mention of supernatural demonic forces. As the fight continues, you constantly hear Lupino shouting the names of different demons. This is a dark moment in the game that blends the supernatural with the otherwise traditional crime themes of the game.

The Funhouse Massacre

The nightmare stages and nightclub showdown with Jack Lupino are no doubt creepy, delivering a hint of horror to Max Payne. Reaching further into the realm of horror, Max Payne 2 features a crazy funhouse level reminiscent of something you'd see in an '80s horror flick. Though the funhouse is based on Address Unknown, a fictional in-game TV show that reflects Max's hardboiled detective life, it plays out like a strange horror movie.

Cardboard cutouts pop out jump scare-style while you explore the abandoned attraction. Sounds of talking flamingos are heard throughout the mental institute section of the funhouse. There's even a moment where Max literally enters the Mouth of Madness as he walks through a giant mouth-shaped door. As if that wasn't enough, there's also a reference to The Shining.

When Horror Meets Noir

Sam Lake very clearly likes to play around with horror themes in addition to sci-fi and noir. Max Payne and Max Payne 2 are gritty detective action games, with both titles blatantly throwing around terms like “hardboiled” and “noir.” Yet, sprinkled throughout Max's battle against the entire New York underbelly, are moments of terror.

Calling these games straight-up horror would be a stretch, but there's no denying that Max Payne and Max Payne 2, at least in a few brief yet memorable moments, are influenced by psychological, supernatural, and post-apocalyptic horror.

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