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The History of Max Payne

Rus McLaughlin | 11 May 2012 16:00
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He'd won. Everyone else was dead, especially his friends. Now cop-turned-vigilante Max Payne stood on the edge of an abyss, listening to the sirens coming for him and waiting for the end of the world. But this was just the beginning... for him, a fledgling developer, and their groundbreaking, bullet-rich quest for vengeance.

The American Dream

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Barely a year old and with only two dozen people on the payroll, Finnish developer Remedy Entertainment scored a solid hit on their first try. Death Rally, a circuit-race variation on Twisted Metal's automotive carnage, helped them find a publishing partner in Apogee, the name behind smash hits Commander Keen, Duke Nukem, and Wolfenstein 3D. Everyone wanted to keep the momentum going. Remedy soon pitched Apogee founder Scott Miller three new ideas: another racing game, a Decent: FreeSpace- like space-combat sim, and Dark Justice, an isometric, neo-noir shooter inspired by Interplay's twisted death-a-thon, Loaded.

Miller went with the shooter, but he wanted changes before he threw any weight behind it. A decade in the industry had given Miller very specific ideas on how to build a marketable game.

He insisted Dark Justice go full 3D just like the biggest release of the day, Tomb Raider,... only with a decent camera. Not a problem for Remedy; they'd made the bulk of their capital on landmark 3D-graphics-benchmarking software. It also needed a hook no other game could claim. The team drew one from action-film director John Woo's trademark slow-mo shootouts. Most importantly, the name "Dark Justice" had to go. Miller wanted everything built around a strong lead character with an iconic name that doubled as the game's title, a la Duke Nukem.

That one proved a little tricky. Miller threw out Max, but nobody knew what Max's last name was. Eventually, for lack of anything better, they went with Max Heat and spent $20,000 securing the worldwide trademarks on it.

Then someone from Remedy suggested "Payne" as an alternative. Max Heat and his expensive trademarks went straight into the trash.

Max Payne got the green light in 1997. Miller provided funding and guidance, and would publish under Apogee's 3D Realms and Gathering of Developers imprints. A team of designers scouted seedy Manhattan locations escorted by a pair of ex-NYPD bodyguards while, back in Finland, Project Lead and Remedy co-founder Petri Järvilehto turned to his old buddy to write the story:... the same guy he'd brought in to help script Death Rally.

Sami Järvi -- better known by his professional name, Sam Lake -- brought big ideas to the table. He started with Max as the typical Chandleresque hard-boiled detective, then systematically destroyed him. Hunted by his fellow cops, haunted by his murdered wife and daughter, Max's most violent and self-destructive impulses kicked in. Lake wanted players to experience that implosion first-hand, peppering the game with Max's staccato narration (provided by New York actor James McCaffrey) and nightmare sequences set deep inside the character's own psychosis. For good measure, he set Max's blind hunt for revenge against an apocalyptic winter storm -- a none-to-subtle reference to Ragnarok, the mythical end-of-the-world battle between gods and one of many nods to Norse mythology.

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Lake also suggested using comic strips instead of fully animated cut-scenes, both for artistic purposes and to save resources. The team could implement story changes in days, rather than weeks or months. Unfortunately, the budget didn't stretch far enough to cover so many actors. Remedy's employees, their friends, relatives, even loose acquaintances became the game's cast of mobsters, cops, and assassins, with Lake himself drafted to model Max.

To Lake's surprise, the art team also wrapped his face on Max's in-game model, complete with a grimace that inspired more satire, ridicule, and homage than any other facial expression in gaming history.

Everything clicked into place. They had the right name, the right hook, the right game. But nobody, not even Scott Miller, gave them a hard deadline.

A Cold Day in Hell

Max Payne's debut trailer landed at E3 in 1998. The high-impact action and stunning particle effects sold attendees on its potential, but Max's ability to enter a super-slow-motion state to gun down multiple enemies in style sealed the deal. A target release set for summer 1999 felt too far away ... and then Remedy failed to keep the appointment.

Instead, sci-fi smash The Matrix took over both the summer box office and pop culture with its own surreal "bullet time" slo-mo combat. Max's hook wasn't original any more, but amazingly, no other games picked the effect up. Järvilehto tapped into The Matrix's success, appropriating the "bullet time" phrase and even throwing a few callbacks to the film into the game as part of a graphics update that ate up most of 2000, causing themRemedy to miss a second release date. Dropping a planned multiplayer mode didn't speed things up enough.

One thing did. Nobody at Apogee or Remedy had experience porting to consoles, so they contracted the job out to a relative unknown: Rockstar Games. Nobody knew at the time that Rockstar's parent company, Take-Two Interactive, was in acquisition mode.

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