Max Payne: A Cynical Noir Hero

Max Payne is a video game series which started in 2001 with the release of the original title of the same name. Following the exploits of NYPD cop Max Payne, the game centers around his undercover infiltration of the Punchinello crime family. The subsequent events that follow are like a roller coaster ride of twists and turns, as we learn of Payne’s tragic past and dark future.

“A man with nothing to lose.”

The setting of New York city aids in Max Payne’s noir identity, as we are treated to dark, gritty visuals. These visuals complement Payne’s dark sense of humor, which he uses in various sequences throughout the game. Much like Humphery Bogart’s character Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, Payne is a quick witted detective who is out to solve a seemingly endless mystery. As the story develops it is revealed that a drug named Valkyr is the key to a much larger drug syndicate in New York. Consequently the drug also played a part in the death of Payne’s family, as the addicts who gunned down his wife and daughter were high on the drug at the time. Needless to say the story takes many twists and turns as Payne’s initial investigation turns into a quest for vengeance on those responsible for the death of his family.

Breaking the 4th, 5th, and 6th walls.

Enter our main antagonist and femme fatale in Nicole Horne, who, through her working on the drug Valkyr and subsequent orders to kill Payne’s wife, makes her the target of his vengeance. She remains quite mysterious for a majority of the game, as it takes time for Payne to unravel the path of clues which inevitably lead to her. She is not alone however, as the equally mysterious Mona Sax is also a key player within the narrative that screams femme fatale as well. A contract assassin who has a thirst for the Punnchinello crime family’s blood, Sax is as independent and dangerous a woman as they come. When you first meet her character within the narrative of the game she has drugged Max and knocked him out, femme fatale style. By games end it is Sax who has the best shot (sorry for the pun) at killing Payne. Instead of pulling the trigger however, she relents and is consequently shot herself. Another seemingly noir element of the story, Sax’s act of compassion within the games narrative is rewarded with death.

Mona Sax

Ending on a rather ambiguous note, Payne kills Horne and is subsequently arressted for his actions. The games ending leaves what happens to the main protagonist up in the air, as the player is never sure of what happens to Payne. This another element of the Noir stylization which Max Payne seeks to emulate, the not so happy, rather confusing ending which gives us little closure. Don’t worry though, this wasn’t the last time you would see the name Max Payne on the front of a game box. Releasing in 2003 with a similar taste for noir flare Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne continues the saga of the NYPD detective. In similar fashion to the first game, the second entry into the series had several plot elements which only served to confuse the player more. One such element was the second playable character, the aforementioned Mona Sax. But she was dead right? Well……no, I guess not. In this story Sax is revived as more of a hero in line with Payne (if you want to label him that, which I have). Sax and Payne work together throughout the story to get to the bottom of the Inner Circle, a plot element from the first game that was hinted at but never explored. The Circle is an Illuminati like group which seeks to exert its power over all elements of society. They are corruption manifested into an organized body, and they don’t take kindly to being brought out into the light for the world to see.



The quintessential video game noir couple.

While the game released to much critical praise it failed to do well financially for its publisher Take-Two Interactive. This lead to its eventual stagnation as a series until its revival by Rockstar studios in 2012. Now under the guidance of a new developer, the Max Payne franchise shed its more ridiculous narrative underpinnings for a more realistic story in the third entry. Masters of their craft, Rockstar games revitalized Max Payne for a new generation of gamers. Just as the franchise had faded into obscurity, so to had its main protagonist Max Payne, who’s life had taken a decidedly bad turn. Drinking heavily daily, we are introduced to a man who has lost his purpose in life. Chronicling Payne’s journey to becoming a private body guard for the Branco family in Sao Paulo, Max Payne 3 was an even more realistic take on the noir protagonists roots from 2001.

Focusing on the glitz and glamour of the upper echelon of Sao Paulo, the story descends into the decidedly less glitzy favela, where we see how the rest of the society lives, in squalor.  As the plot unfolds we learn of various betrayals within the Branco family, as well as the corruption that has spread to the local police, who have been bought off by the main antagonist. Kidnappings, gun fights with paramilitary soldiers, and more drinking ensue, as we see Payne struggling to keep his head above water just to do what is right.


All in all the the Max Payne video game series has left its mark as the definitive noir series with in gaming medium. With its hard boiled roots, gritty settings, and wacky plots about corruption, these games have defined what noir is for many gamers including myself. Check out this video by YouTube user  CptnFreud, where he lays out some excellent points about even more noir traits in Max Payne 3.