While it received generally positive acclaim by videogame media, fans of the Max Payne franchise remain divided to this day whether or not to like the different tonal direction of Rockstar Games’ Max Payne 3. That game has been with us for more than seven years now. Time might move slow for Max, but it sure doesn’t for the rest of us. However, if there’s one thing all fans can agree on it is that Max Payne 3 has raised the bar for third person shooters with its innovations in storytelling and gameplay. One of the outstanding factors many critics and fans kept repeating is that the game’s soundtrack helped elevate the experience. Unbeknownst to many, there’s a whole story behind its conception and how it all comes together in the game. Two interesting enough topics to delve into deeper. That’s exactly what we’re going to do today.
The sound of violence.
One of the biggest challenges in game design is the unpredictability of the player. What happens onscreen and the pace in which events can unfold is largely up to the player. Games produced by Rockstar Games usually excel in the level of freedom and choice compared to other games. Ever since the release of Grand Theft Auto 3 in 2001 has the studio been opening up its gameplay. The idea to provide the player with more freedom and control didn’t scare the studio. It drove them. Gamers are allowed to use different tools, companions or even different approaches in order to reach their goal. In order to make sure the games remained immersive and atmospheric, innovations in sound design were needed. Now pacing was decided by the player, a much more dynamic score was required.
Max Payne 3 is Rockstar’s first attempt at creating a third person shooter. While largely linear, the player is still offered levels of freedom. Some sections of the game allowed for exploring or taking out enemies in stealth. In addition, gunfights could be big or small and with the game’s many flashbacks, Max Payne 3 also demanded music that could ebb and flow with various moods and settings.
Max Payne 3 is powered by RAGE, short for Rockstar’s Advanced Game Engine. It’s the same engine that powered titles like Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto IV. RAGE handles audio in a completely different way than any game engine that came before it. All of the music and sound effects for a RAGE game are recorded in so called “Stems”. Stems are sets of music or effects that flow in and out of one another depending on the action ensuing onscreen.
Shotgun bullets are bad for your HEALTH.
Max Payne 3 largely takes place in Brazil and required a score to match. Rockstar found that match in the L.A. based noise band HEALTH, whose non-symmetrical sounds have garnered critical acclaim from the music press. Mixing their signature percussive undertones and synth effects, HEALTH has created a dark and driving soundscape that perfectly reflect Max’s blurred and frayed mental state.
I’ve went on record many times before to state how genius HEALTH’s work is. It manages to stand out from the soaring orchestral strings and percussion overly used by other triple A games. The score’s callbacks to the sounds of the eighties and energetic Brazilian percussion add to its unique identity. It’s raw and adventurous and when needed, pays homage to the previous two installments in the franchise. It’s here where the band’s brilliance comes into play. As a small, unknown group of underground performers, contracting HEALTH was a risk that paid off for Rockstar.
In order to show you how audio in Max Payne 3 works, we’ve delved deep into the game’s files to extract the stems used in in the level “Ain’t No Reprievement Gonna be Found” (the cemetery level). There are six stems in total, all of which are recorded in stereo and are exactly 3:18 minutes in length.
Stem 1: Eerie violin, used as ambient background music.
Stem 2: Max’s signature heartbeat sound effect to amp up the tempo.
Stem 3: A baseline that provides more depth.
Stem 4: A melody that further increases tension.
Stem 5: Percussion to increase the tempo even further.
Stem 6: More ambient music (screaming Rose)
The game engine is able to play each stem individually, mixed together or speed up or slow down a stem in order to match the action or setting on screen. The above video will demonstrate how easy it is for the engine to layer these stems on top of each other. Each stem will kick in after about ten seconds. Even when all six stems are playing together the music will refrain from sounding distorted or noisy, proving how well the system was engineered to avoid this. If you’ve listened to the Max Payne 3 soundtrack before, you might remember these stems combined resemble the track “DEAD”. However, in DEAD the stems are mixed in a different order (namely 2, 1, 3, 4, 6 and 5).
In addition to stems, the game also makes use of so called “one shots”. One shots are short, high-volume effects that last no longer than seven seconds. Many of these can be heard in the game’s trailers but most are used for sudden pre-scripted events (like enemy encounters) or are blended together with the stems to add more suspense. The in-game dialogue is delivered in a similar way. Max’s inner monologue or conversations with NPCs are cut into pieces with a duration of less than ten seconds. The player’s actions can make it necessary to cut dialogue short at any given moment, only to be continued seconds after the interruption.
An overwhelming sense of Déjà vu.
It’s obvious HEALTH was inspired by the first two installments in the Max Payne franchise. However, while their score might sound unique, there are a lot more callbacks to those first games than you might realize. Composer often like to play around with pre-existing material. For example, “Ezio’s Family” a track from the Assassin’s Creed II score that got re-mixed and used in many Assassin’s Creed games that followed. Sometimes composers take the source material to a whole new level, making it indistinguishable from its source. Legendary film composer Hans Zimmer was inspired by a song heavily woven into the narrative of the film “Inception”. “Non Regrette Rien” by Edith Piaf served as a tool (the “kick”) for the protagonists to awake from their dreams. Zimmer slowed this classical track to such extent that the slowdown create a whole new musical piece. Henceforth, this track has become known as the “Inception horns”.
HEALTH has pulled off something similar. For the level “Anyone Can Buy Me a Drink” the band wanted suitable ambient music that would serve as a base stem and, at the same time, pay homage to the previous two games (after all, the level is a flashback that took place in New York). The Max Payne theme was used as a starting point. After analyzing the track, the band began to play around with the track’s pitch and tempo. It was eventually slowed by 600% for it was used in game. Here are two video’s for comparison. First, the base stem of the level, which is called “NY_BAR_SONG_02_1”:
Second, here’s the actual Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne theme song but slowed down by 600%
Feel free to alternate and switch between the two tracks while playing. You’ll quickly discover, apart from some minor differences, these tracks are identical. Rockstar Games was also kind enough to give us a sneak peek at HEALTH’s recoding of the Max Payne theme which was used during the game’s intro.
There’s one more instance where audio from Max Payne 2 was used, although it’s much less obvious when you hear it for the first time. The Funhouse theme was slowed down, altered and re-used when Max struggles to cope with the abduction of Fabiana Branco in his apartment. The screaming Rose sound effect as mentioned earlier, was also taken straight from Max Payne 1. Genius.
The rise of that old familiar feeling.
This article is a revamped version of one we did months after the release of Max Payne 3. It was quite popular at the time since it was featured on the Rockstar Games newswire. Besides reminiscence about the past there’s another reason we chose to re-earth this article today. We’ve recently learned that Remedy Entertainment’s Control will be using an audio system that will also make use of stems. Much like Rockstar Games, Remedy is introducing new levels of freedom and control (duh) in their upcoming game, which required dynamic audio. Fans of Control might want to learn more about stems, how they work and what their origins might be. Hopefully sometime near the end of this year, we could do something similar with the actual audio files of Control.