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Beat with a joystick

With more than a year to go before it hits movie theaters, the Web is buzzing with anticipation for The Matrix Reloaded, the long-awaited sequel to 1999’s sci-fi hit The Matrix. Rumors are circulating. Fan sites have been created. And if you know where to look (pointlesswasteoftime.com), you can even peek at a supposedly purloined script.

But who needs another Matrix when you’ve got “Max Payne”? That’s right, “Max Payne.” After years of waiting, the mysterious “Max Payne” has finally arrived.

“Max Payne” isn’t a movie. It’s a computer game … arguably the most eagerly anticipated computer game of all time. “Max Payne” took Finland-based Remedy Entertainment nearly four years to complete. For rabid PC gamers everywhere, it was an agonizing wait … one that raised expectations to near Phantom Menace proportions. (Online yearnings for the game can be traced all the way back to mid-1998.)

But is “Max Payne” any good? You bet. After devoting two noisy, sleep-deprived weekends to finishing the game, I was impressed by the game’s photo-realistic graphics and absolutely sweat-inducing action sequences. The coolest part? Gunfights are played out in spectacular slow motion, like The Matrix or a Hong Kong martial-arts film.

But thankfully, Keanu Reeves makes no guest appearances here. Instead, the real strength of “Max Payne” comes from strong acting and — surprise! — a coherent plot. The game tells the tale of a scrawny New York City cop who has been framed for murder. As Max, you take a grizzly guided tour of the Big Apple’s seediest locations — including a rundown brothel, an illegal drug processing plant, and other, far more disturbing areas — all in a heroic effort to clear your good name.

It’s a decidedly adult — some might even say cinematic — approach to computer gaming. In fact, with its drug-induced flashbacks and “nothing’s what it seems” narrative, the game’s film noir style has more in common with the recent movie Memento than any video game.

And like a typical R-rated action film, the game is also amazingly violent. For example, Max’s wife and child are gruesomely shot to death early in the game. And later, our antihero finds himself strapped to a chair … while a sadistic mobster pummels him into unconsciousness with a bloody baseball bat.

Which invites the question: Who was this game written for, anyway? Certainly not for kids. The game’s box prominently sports a “Mature” rating. And the install menu boasts a handy parental lock, complete with password protection.

Could it be that “Max Payne” was actually created for adults? You know, “older” people like me?

According to the Interactive Digital Software Association (the electronic game industry’s trade organization), the average video game player is now 28 years old. And among players of computer games (played mostly on home PCs, which “Max Payne” was written for), nearly three-quarters are at least 18 years of age. A whopping 42 percent are over 35.

Old stereotypes die hard, but someone in the entertainment industry has finally figured out who is buying (and playing) these games. And it’s not the kids. It’s Mom and Dad.

Part of the reason may be a game’s price. “Max Payne” cost me $50, which would put a pretty big dent in the average teen’s piggy bank (not to mention most adult paychecks, mine included). And for that amount of money, I’ll admit “Max Payne” seemed a little short. I completed the entire game in just 12 hours.

But then I did the math. The price I paid for “Max Payne” works out to what most of us pay to see a first-run movie — about eight bucks for every two hours of entertainment. Certainly not cheap, but at least there’s a precedent.

I’m not the only one who’s willing to pay that rate. Last year, video games raked in $6 billion in U.S. sales — not that much less than the almighty movie industry with its $7.66 billion in ticket receipts. And if sales trends continue, video games will actually overtake movie receipts in 2001.

As Keanu once said, “Whoa.”

Plus with video games, there’s always another surprise around the next corner. For example, although the linear plot discourages any significant replay value, the programmers of “Max Payne” have cleverly included something called “MaxEd.”

This swell little freebie gives users the freedom to build their own missions. While that’s admittedly nothing new, the intuitive and user-friendly interface is a first for the industry. Now, video gamers have a tool for creating their own stories that doesn’t require programming skill to use. It’s just a matter of time before scores of free “Max Payne” follow-ups appear online — and unlike most remakes (read: Planet of the Apes) some of them will probably be pretty good too.

And that’s what’s fun about this. As the economic importance of video games increases, so will the input of the viewer. It’s already happening, really. My two favorite “popcorn” movies this summer were Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy. Both were inspired by video games. And one of them (Final Fantasy) was created almost entirely on machines.

It’s got me wondering. A third Matrix film is already in the works. But when it’s finally released, will people still care about movies you only passively watch?

If not … well, they can always install joysticks in the movie theater.

Adam Druckman writes about computers for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com

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