Note: Craig has officially completed his first trilogy on Playthroughline! All three Max Payne games have now been lovingly bestowed with Scripts. We also had a little back-and-forth regarding our interpretations of Max Payne 3's ending, which I have reproduced below. Take it away, Craig.
I don't envy anybody the task of taking over a property from the people who created it. Especially when the creator has, for better or worse, invested the work with their own distinctive voice. Do you give the property your own voice and hope for the best, à la John Wells taking over from Aaron Sorkin on The West Wing? Or do you try to mimic the writing style of the creator, as I preemptively imagine will be Rhianna Pratchett's strategy? Both of these approaches seem fraught with peril. In taking over the Max Payne series from Sam Lake, Dan Houser seems to have tried to split the difference and looked for the common elements in his and Lake's writing styles. Sure, Lake is kind of flowery and artsy-fartsy while Houser's always aimed for a more naturalistic, street-level kind of storytelling, but there's one big thing they share: grimness.
In Max Payne 3, Houser leans on the grim button and never lets up. It's kind of depressing, but it fits Max Payne I guess. The guy's life hasn't exactly been on an upward trend over the course of the games so far, and even if things were ever to go well you tend to doubt he'd be pleased about it. He's a brooding, miserable kind of guy by nature; as a hero he slides right past Byronic and sails all the way over to Eeyorian.
While it works for this game, at least for those of us who can get some satisfaction out of seeing a protagonist flail unhappily without ever being sure what he's trying to accomplish for ten hours straight, I have to wonder whether we could follow this guy through even one more entry. Each game seems to take another big chunk out of Max, leaving him a lesser man than he started. Each victory seems more hollow than the last. Each time he seems to wind up in a shabbier, dirtier location shooting at a scuzzier bunch of refuse. Simply put, you can only go so grim before even your most resilient fans wear out and leave you.
Maybe if they actually found a way to tell a Max Payne story that gave him a happy ending. Would that even be possible without betraying the character? Something where he did some unambiguous good. Something where, at the end, he still had a positive relationship with at least one living person. It's pointless to even speculate, what with Max Payne 3's poor sales and all, but I gotta say, I feel like Max is a guy desperately in need of a win.
I'm not sure I agree with your conclusion. Sure, this game puts Max through quite the wringer, but I get the sense that he comes out the other side with a sense of purpose, an intent to put his life back together. He single-handedly brought down a violent street gang, an organ harvesting ring, a corrupted police unit, and the evil politician behind it all.
Max used to run from his problems by diving into a bottle and wallowing in his self-loathing, but now he ends up on a beach, sipping a soda and walking off into the sunset. Given everything that led up to it, that seems quite upbeat and at least a less grim ending for Max.
I can see what you're saying about Max, but for me it comes down to what goes through his head right as he's about to finish things:
"So I guess I'd become what they wanted me to be: a killer. Some rent-a-clown with a gun who puts holes in other bad guys. [...] I wouldn't know right from wrong if one of them was helping the poor and the other was banging my sister."
Guy still sounds pretty down about the situation, if you ask me. And nothing really changes between then and four minutes later when he takes down Victor. But maybe I'm paying too much attention to what a guy says when he's covered in grime and blood and about to kill some asshole.
What I take away from Max' thoughts as he walks up to Becker's remains is that he realises that he's a killer. Not knowing the difference between right and wrong was lifted when Da Silva showed up and pointed his gun the right way. In the end, Max comes to terms with the fact that his violent handiwork finally resulted in something good (perhaps not for himself, but he did right a wrong in the world).