You’re hurtling through a corridor – thigh deep in armed thugs – with only a fraction of your health bar left when suddenly everything seems to stop. The dull, elongated thuds of a half dozen gunshots and the bell-like ringing of 9mm casings cascading to the floor fill your ears. Bullets glide through the air like paper airplanes – the idea that one of these sluggish specks could kill you seems almost comical. And then, with a pronounced whoosh, everything’s back to normal. The thugs keel over one by one as you rush past without so much as a second glance – you’re too busy scouring the next room for a medkit.
Nowadays, this minor videogame miracle rarely elicits more than a half-hearted nod of approval – or, depending on the execution, a groan of disillusionment. Another lousy shooter with “Bullet Time?” Haven’t developers figured out more interesting ways to give players the leg up on their opponents? It’s been the better part of a decade since Max Payne. Hasn’t the novelty worn thin?
Maybe not. Looking past all the Max Payne derivatives that have flooded the market in the intervening years is to realize there was something revolutionary about that trench coat-wearing, pill-popping, slow-mo diving bastard. Certainly, there was more to Max Payne than Bullet Time; the game oozed noir atmosphere and told a compelling story (blood-drenched drug sequences notwithstanding). Nor was it the originator of the concept; movies like Blade and The Matrix predated Remedy’s break-out hit by a couple of years. But Max Payne‘s interpretation of temporally-enhanced gunplay managed to crystallize everything that was appealing about the concept – and place an indelible mark on the shooter genre in the process.
Let’s Do The Time Warp Again
There’s an obvious reason why the Bullet Time effect was such an immense part of players’ overall enjoyment of Max Payne: the eye candy. There was simply no other game at the time that made it possible to enjoy watching the bodies hit the floor the way Max Payne did. But slowing things down is only part of the equation; the game’s brutal physics takes care of the rest of the show. What might have been little more than an expeditious way to clear a room instead becomes a rare instance of poetry in motion.
For a slightly more mainstream take on slow-motion physics porn, watch an episode of Time Warp, an ongoing Discovery Channel series that pairs an MIT-trained physicist with a high-speed camera technician in the name of science. Out of their entire body of “research” – including holding propane-filled balloons next to a Tesla coil and recording the (rather predictable) results – it’s the footage involving humans that stands out. Whether you watch the precisely coordinated movements of a pair of swing dancers, the immense force of a Muay Thai knee-strike or the fleshy shock waves after a solid punch to the gut, you’re left with the startling realization that our bodies are just as susceptible to the laws of Newtonian physics as trebuchets and watermelons. It’s weirdly exhilarating.
Max Payne offers the same rush, albeit with less fidelity. Bullet Time lets you observe not just the stopping power of your arsenal, but its sheer force as well. In slow motion, you could watch your target hover in the air for a moment after a well-placed shotgun blast – in fact, if he was the last of his posse to bite the dust, the camera would pan around him to give you a 360-degree view of your handiwork. It’s not sadism. It’s simply the enjoyment of game physics in a way that watching events unfold at normal speed can’t accommodate. And really, it’s no less scientific than Time Warp‘s antics – unless there’s a department at MIT dedicated to water balloons that I’m unaware of.
His Neuro-Kinetics Are Way Above Normal
Bullet Time doesn’t just give you a better way to admire Max Payne‘s carnage – it communicates something intangible about the game’s protagonist as well. Where most games of the time were only concerned with how much damage you could dish out and how much you could take, Bullet Time added a psychological dimension to combat by suggesting your character’s superior reflexes. You can be vastly outgunned and on your last legs but still survive thanks to a surplus of mental acuity. Forget dual Uzis or automatic shotguns – in Max Payne, your most powerful weapon is your mind.
While developer Remedy cites Hong Kong action movies like Hard Boiled and The Killer as influences rather than the Wachowski Brothers’ 1999 blockbuster, it’s hard not to see a bit of Neo in Max’s half-speed hijinks. After all, despite his superhuman strength, it’s Neo’s ability to dodge bullets that yields some of the movie’s most iconic images. The Matrix‘s rooftop gunfight wasn’t just a fantastic tech demo – it played with our perception of time to give us an entry point into its protagonist’s singular perspective.
In The Matrix, Neo’s hyper-perceptive mind unlocked abilities foreclosed to everyone but the Matrix’s A.I. Unfortunately, there’s no such tidy in-game explanation for Max’s uncanny reflexes. Instead, we’re left to speculate. Perhaps it’s the product of some kind of painkiller-and-insomnia-induced trance state, or maybe it’s a conscious manifestation of Max’s all-consuming desire for revenge against the gangsters who killed his family. In either case, it plays out the same; whenever you activate Bullet Time, you’re exercising your character’s mental supremacy over his enemies. They see a blurry angel of death who never misses and has a penchant for gratuitous diving maneuvers. You see a carnival shooting gallery minus the stuffed animals. Aren’t painkillers great?
A Man With Nothing to Lose
Of course, Bullet Time offers more than eye-popping visuals or an unspoken storytelling device. At the end of the day, it’s a game mechanic; it’s there to give you a new tool to play with, to open up new tactics and to encourage you to take risks that you wouldn’t otherwise take. There’s a sweet spot in shooter gameplay between excessive caution and reckless disregard for your health and safety; Bullet Time helps nudge you into that zone by acting as a sort of trump card over logic. Common sense suggests that jumping headfirst into a room full of heavily armed hoodlums would be foolhardy, but with enough Bullet Time in your reserves, any other course of action seems woefully inadequate.
That’s not to say that Bullet Time is a cop out – like health and ammo, it’s another limited resource that you must carefully manage to guarantee your success. The mechanic didn’t start out that way: In a 2003 interview with IGN, Lead Designer Petri Järvilehto explained that the concept was originally conceived as a part of the environment rather than an ability inherent in the character: Players would enter Bullet Time “zones” where combat would take place entirely in slow motion until Max was the last man standing. While that implementation ensured that players got the most mileage from the slow-motion effect, it had the unintended side effect of rendering high-octane gunfights into low-speed chases whenever there were stragglers.
It’s a good thing the developers opted to put Bullet Time in the hands of players, because it allowed for one of the most stylish – and effective – techniques in all of shooter-dom: the slow-motion dive. In a stroke of genius, Max Payne‘s default control scheme bound the “Bullet Time” and “dive” inputs to a single button, making a grand entrance into any room a mere keystroke away. You’re vulnerable the moment you hit the floor, but with a steady enough aim, your assailants are usually dead by then anyway. It’s glorious.
Perhaps that’s why, eight years after Max Payne hit store shelves, developers are still offering their own unique takes on Bullet Time. With one simple maneuver, videogames sprang into a new mode of player expression; suddenly, navigating only three dimensions seemed quaint by comparison. Perhaps videogames are due for another paradigm shift. Until then, however, we’ll watch the shell casings hang suspended in thin air and listen to our 90-decibel heartbeats as we wait for the effects to wear off.
Jordan Deam is Features Editor of The Escapist.