“The Use and Abuse of Drugs in Max Payne” – Guest editorial by Katherine A. Baskin.
By now, I think you’ve gotten the message that drugs are bad. If you haven’t, back up and examine the culture of prescription drug use around the world. Go ahead, young scholar, approach google with that question in hand and learn. To enter the discussion at all is a bold step. It was even bolder in 2001, which saw the release of a video game called Max Payne. I recall the usage of “painkillers” (abundant in puns, Max was) being extraordinarily liberal, but somehow acceptable in the moment. In the 20 years that narcotic prescriptions have dominated our society mental and physical health treatment cycles, an early voice in the conversation on the nature of addiction was the author of Max Payne’s tale, Sam Lake, now creative director for the same studio, Remedy Entertainment.
In the game, Max sustains heavy damage from his injuries, both literally and metaphorically. He’s a police officer, attempting to be an emblem for good, and he’s robbed of his wife and child for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As the story catches up with the player in an incredibly cinematic show, you discover that Max has been broken by his experience and uses prescription medication to numb his inner demons, while simultaneously using them to treat his physical injuries. Most games provide players with health packs, healing herbs, sprays, poultices, or some other magical, mystical object of instant healing. Max only had drugs. At the tender age of fourteen, how did I rationalize a character’s use of prescription drugs in this almost self-destructive nature? For the sake of the tale.
“To beat the game, you have to use.”
What struck me upon revisiting the game in 2020 was the fact that Max, when injured by non-player villain characters, is damaged all the time. He never really has a chance to recover from his injuries but sustains more and more, and the player is encouraged to hoard painkillers and frantically smash a button when Max comes dangerously close to losing his life. It’s this constant yo-yo between frenetic, bullet-dodging gameplay and constant monitoring of Max’s wellbeing that leaves the player in an almost out-of-breath race to solve the narrative puzzle surrounding the character to ensure his agency and success. To beat the game, you have to use.
And you have to encourage the usage, the hoarding, the stumbling, tired walking corpse of the player character as he works to piece together his shattered life. Setting aside that his work is entirely a revenge quest and involves graphic violence, the drugs are the most disconcerting metaphor in the game. Perhaps the one that remains with me longer than that of the violence. It was this self-destructive trait in Max that drove me as a player to fix what had been broken. The story is about finding peace and breaking free from a self-destructive cycle.
Powerful metaphors roll out in a video game where the object isn’t to, say, jump on a block or punch a bad guy, but to restore the soul of a man at the edge of oblivion. Max Payne’s true pain comes quickly in the narrative, sparing no time before gut-punching the player with a cold reality: a nice person just lost everything. Where does he begin rebuilding? First, by infiltration. After his family’s murder, Max becomes an undercover cop in a very Se7en-styled, noir New York City. He finds the people responsible for these crimes, and he makes them pay with their lives. It’s a simple setup, but the complication is in how much the player wishes Max to succeed.
“He’s caused his namesake’s worth of damage in revenge for his lost loved-ones. Now, he just deserves a break.”
What’s the motive behind helping a junkie undercover cop get revenge? What separated Max’s cause enough to distinguish this game from other games in a narrative way? Easy. We are witnessing these events through him. The player is truly blended into the character through the powerful, albeit stylized, writing. We are broken with Max. We are popping pills into his mouth and dragging him in Bullet Time down the hallways of anyone’s worst nightmare. It is no short hallway, either – it’s long, littered with the dead, and blossoming with the ideation that we have crippled our hero as much as we’ve helped him. By the end of the ordeal and emotionally draining story, we only wish for Max to find rest. He’s caused his namesake’s worth of damage in revenge for his lost loved-ones. Now, he just deserves a break.
But does that excuse the unabashed usage of prescription pills? Of course not. The player excuses it on behalf of the narrative. Max is somehow excused because his suffering is great enough and enough empathy has been developed that we have no issue keeping him sedated as he mows violently through his enemies.
This isn’t to say drug use should be excused casually, but there’s nothing casual about MaxPayne’s plot details. They are grim, sobering reminders of both the real and fantastic aspects of life. It is difficult to imagine how the loss—a universal experience—of an entire potential family (young wife, young cop, infant) like a branch falling away from a dead tree, might hit us. Years on, the drug use in Max Payne remains one of the strongest motifs to gain empathy with players, and it has contributed to the enduring realism and popularity of the game.