Playing a Role

Schizophrenic Storytelling


A cinematic cutscene starts the game.

A tumultuous blizzard has fallen on the city. Swarms of police cars hurry through the snowy streets of Manhattan, accumulating around the base of a skyscraper. Atop the building stands Max Payne – gun in hand, a beaten mess. He looks weary, but stands defiant.

A voiceover intrudes over the soundtrack.


“They were all dead. The final gunshot was an exclamation mark to everything that had lead to this point. I released my finger from the trigger – and then it was over. To make any sense of it all, I have to go back three years. Back to the night the pain started.”

Graphic novel panels pick up the story.

Three years earlier, Max is a detective with the NYPD. With a wife and newborn daughter at home, Max has given up smoking along with undercover work – “Michelle and the baby come first,” he tells his partner. But arriving home to his house on the Jersey side, Max gets an uneasy sense of foreboding.

Voiceover. “I didn’t like the way the show started. They’d given me the best seat in the house – front-row center.”

Gameplay picks up the tale.

You enter the house to find it in disarray. Furniture is overturned, graffiti is strewn about the walls. A telephone rings nearby, and you approach the phone.

Illustrated panels. Max answers the phone, telling the caller to notify the police. “Is this the Payne residence?” she asks. “Yes,” Max replies. “Good. I am afraid I cannot help you.” The phone disconnects with an ominous click.

Gameplay. You hear gunshots followed by your wife’s scream and charge upstairs with your gun drawn. Two drug-addled thugs emerge from the baby’s bedroom, and you take down the intruders before finding the tiny body of your daughter lying lifeless in her crib. You hear more gunshots and hurry to the master bedroom. Inside you dispatch another assailant, but you’re too late.

Cinematic. Max sobs uncontrollably as he finds Michelle’s dead body slumped across the bed. He bellows a final heartwrenching scream as he holds his wife for the last time.

Voiceover. I am Max Payne. This is my story.

Gameplay. You are Max Payne. This is your story.

Cinematic and illustrated vignettes. He is Max Payne. This is his story.

It’s a rather schizophrenic experience if you stop to think about it. From the very opening moments, Max narrates the tale in the first-person: “I released my finger from the trigger”; “I didn’t like the way the show started.” Yet at the same time, the game provides a second-person narrative by asserting that you, the player, are Max Payne, that playing allows you to inhabit both the body and persona of Max, and thus suggesting that “you enter the house” and “you dispatch the intruders upstairs.” And just to further complicate matters, the player must intermittently relinquish control of Max during cutscenes, illustrated passages, and other moments of third-person action, moments when Max is not providing the story nor the player inhabiting the role of Max: “Max answers the phone”; “Max kneels over his wife’s dead body.” As a result, the game provides an eclectic mix of first-, second-, and third-person address – all in reference to the same character!

And yet, it somehow blends together smoothly. The gameplay is tight, the narration is compelling, and I never think twice about the fact that I’m being told the story that I’m playing by the very character that I’m playing. However, it does beg the question: How exactly am I supposed to inhabit the role of Max? It’s difficult to imagine myself experiencing the story from Max’s point-of-view, as I must exist both outside and within the narrative simultaneously, watching Max, listening to Max, and being Max all at once.


This curious phenomenon occurs because videogames offer a unique form of storytelling, one that very few media have accomplished in the past: second-person narratives, stories in which the audience is positioned as a character. Yet at the same time, videogames frequently adopt the narrative conventions of other media – media that tell their own stories in very different ways.

Books, for example, do first-person address very well. They center on a speaking voice that controls the entirety of narration, and as a result, can easily reveal the interiority of character. “I live in New York, and I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go?” In the course of telling his own story in The Catcher in the Rye, the fictional Holden Caulfield can let us in on his innermost thoughts and feelings, something only his narrating voice can accomplish. This isn’t to say all books only use first-person, of course – plenty of books do otherwise. Yet the written word is exceptionally good at allowing one character to provide the entirety of the story, to relate an experience from an individual point of view, and this is especially evident in first-person storytelling.

Movies, on the other hand, do the third-person very well. They show us “someone else” – not the author, nor the audience – and let us vicariously follow that character’s actions. “Here is Luke Skywalker, and he is perilously maneuvering his X-Wing through the trenches of the Death Star.” Luke is not telling me the story of Star Wars, and the movie is not suggesting that I am Luke. Rather, Luke is merely “someone else,” a third person.

But videogames do second-person very well, and they do so by providing a special type of character – an avatar – and telling us that “this is you.” The packaging of Metal Gear Solid tells us “You are Snake.” The game-over screen of Resident Evil tells us “You died.” The text-based Zork begins with “You are in an open field west of a big white house” and the immersive POV of Half-Life implicitly tells us that “This is what you see.”

Let’s think about that last example for a moment. “First-person shooter?” Yeah, it’s the most prominent genre of the medium and the label will last forever, but truth be told, it’s a misnomer. Half-Life doesn’t say “I’m Gordon Freeman” and Halo doesn’t say “I’m the Master Chief.” Instead, they say “You’re Gordon Freeman” and “You’re the Master Chief.” If we wanted to be accurate, they’re really second-person shooters, digital descendants of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novels and other second-person narratives that place the audience in the role of hero.

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.


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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