Playing a Role

Playing a Role
Schizophrenic Storytelling

Robert Buerkle | 20 Jul 2010 11:55
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But although videogames are the first medium to perfect the second-person (thanks to their interactivity), they rarely offer it in pure form. Sure, there are exceptions - Half-Life, Portal, BioShock, and Myst all seamlessly place the player behind the eyes of the avatar and never wane from this perspective, always telling the player "you are the hero, this is what you see, and this is what you are doing." But like Max Payne, most games choose a more varied approach.

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Videogames have arrived late to the narrative party - after all, books and movies have been doing it for years - and not surprisingly, games have looked to their older siblings for inspiration. So we get cutscenes: third-person passages of digital cinema. We get voiceovers: first-person passages descended from written and oral storytelling. And these get stirred into the pot alongside the natural second-person perspective of videogames.

Max Payne is just a little more overt in this recombination, openly paying homage to its roots in film-noir, hard-boiled literature, and graphic crime novels. We see Max in cutscene ("Here is Max as he enters his house"). We hear Max narrating his tale ("I didn't like the way the show started."). And we're handed control of Max as he moves through the story ("You run up the stairs"). It might seem a schizophrenic way of experiencing a story, but this is a big part of the pleasure of role-playing.

There's an undeniable narcissism in videogames, and this results from being allowed to watch "ourselves" as characters onscreen. You are Kratos, or Niko Belic, or Nathan Drake ... and look at what a badass you are! Much like looking at a great photo of yourself ("Look at me, I'm totally awesome."), videogames allow us to see an idealized figure onscreen - skilled, strong, witty, confident - and recognize that figure as our own embodiment.

This pleasure is especially evident in Max Payne's landmark use of bullet-time, allowing the player to watch themself in slow-motion, to feel super-cool in a way that one can only experience onscreen. This is not the same experience as watching Chow Yun-Fat diving sideways, guns blazing, in the John Woo films that inspired the technique, as the audience can take no credit for Chow Yun-Fat's badassery. But I control Max Payne. I pressed the button that made him dodge those bullets. I take full credit for Max's actions - take on the very role of Max - and look how bad-ass I am.

Many assume that the ultimate videogame would be something akin to virtual reality - complete and seamless immersion in a character. But Max Payne demonstrates that this isn't what many games aspire toward. Instead, games like Max Payne champion a different manner of role-playing: a dual-positioning, a modulation in and out of character, a sense of being in the game, but also outside watching "ourselves." This is what makes Max Payne such a joy to experience. I see Max onscreen, and he's clearly a bad dude. Max talks to me, delivering charismatic monologues and reinforcing his cool. And I am Max - who we've already established as a bad dude. Hey, I'm a bad dude! Sweet.

Robert Buerkle is a visiting professor of videogamery at the University of Pittsburgh (where he also teaches film studies). When he's not teaching, he writes stuff.

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