Most men who find themselves in a foreign country drunk, injured, and pursued by foreign gangsters and paramilitaries alike would not stop in the middle of an action scene to pick out a tune on a piano, but then again, Max Payne would be the first to admit that he’s not one for careful planning. And therein lies the main difficulty of composing a Max Payne soundtrack; it’s a shooter that’s just as focused on the protagonist’s inner turmoil and his story arc as it is about the slow-motion bullet-ballet.
Thankfully, L.A.-based noise pop band HEALTH proved they were more than up to the challenge. Their unique approach is the main reason why this game simply sounds different from the majority of other AAA action titles. Chances are, if you’ve played this game, you noticed the music, and that’s quite an accomplishment in itself.
Like Max himself, the soundtrack for Max Payne 3 is dark and visceral, simmering with anger and infused with enough angst to capture his tortured mindset. In tracks like Shells and Painkiller, harsh glittering synthesizer notes float above brooding bass lines and menacing drums that crest and wane in sync with the action scenes. Other tracks such as Torture or +90 feature mournful string bass or guitar riffs distorted heavily by electronic effects, or incorporate the sounds of clanging metal or hissing air. It sounds like the score to an 80s science-fiction movie rather than that of a video game, sort of like Logan’s Run meets the end credits track of Blade Runner. The whole thing is driven by a kind of seething momentum, each song fueled by an adrenaline born of painkillers and grim resolve which perfectly mirrors Max’s state of mind.
HEALTH’s sound, which makes heavy use of “tricks, effects, and any weird stuff we can find,” is well-suited for this style of music – and working on the Max Payne 3 soundtrack has undoubtedly helped them to expand their range. Their approach also represents a departure from business as usual both for the band and for a game soundtrack in general. The band, which includes a few gamers of its own, recorded the exhaustive score while watching gameplay videos to ensure that they “made sense” together. As a consequence, each level has its own distinctive sound — almost as if the score was written as a concept album, with a plot and development, but made up of segments of sound that could be looped and cut up and rearranged to match the action instead of tunes or motifs. Normally, an action game’s soundtrack sounds a lot like that of a big-budget action movie — sweeping cinematic scores and a Top 40 hit or two. In this case, however, you get an edgy body of work that manages to be fresh and original and still meshes well with what’s going on on screen, which definitely helps set Max Payne 3 apart from the pack.
The track called TEARS, which was used extensively in the trailers, is a good example of this. This groove just sounds like it was designed to play during one of those scenes where the hero walks towards the camera, scowling and in slow-motion, while explosions go off in the background. It simply exudes badassery and stoic cool. You first hear it near the end of the game, during a scene in which Max calmly walks into an airport and proceeds to obliterate roomful after roomful of pissed-off rent-a-cops. The mood it creates is largely the reason why that particular scene, which is otherwise an unremarkable shooting sequence in a game full of shooting sequences, feels so cathartic and satisfying. It represents the culmination of Max’s efforts to pull himself out of his self-induced mire of failure and self-pity and set his life back on track, and gives the resolution to his story that the actual plot, which starts to unravel towards the end, fails to do.
Along with HEALTH’s compositions, the soundtrack features a smart selection of other works, including a hip hop track written for the game by Brazilian rapper Emicida. 9 CIRCULOS explores both internal conflict (“It’s me and my demons, like always | What is worse, to hit rock bottom or to keep falling?”) and the harsh reality of favela life (“In the hood, it’s tear gas and flash bombs from those who haven’t got enough morals to say anything), drawing for inspiration from Emicida’s native city of Sao Paulo and its “chaos, the insecurity, [and] the fear that revolves around this atmosphere of corruption, crime, poverty….” The song plays during Max’s first foray into the favela, and despite –or perhaps because of — being entirely in Portuguese, packs quite a punch.
The other favela song, played during the block party that Max wanders into, is a funk-flavored beat called “Sorriso Favela,” also by Emicida. The in-game diegetic music samples a wide variety of styles ranging from blues (“Bright Lights” by Gary Clarke Jr., during the New Jersey bar scenes) to house, the latter of which provoked Max to make the following comment:
“Look at me. I’m standing in a night club, listening to music I can’t stand, I’m 5,000 miles from home, I’m armed, and I’m drinking.”
But then again, Max isn’t really one for the club scene; he seems to prefer hanging around his apartment wallowing in despair to the lugubrious accompaniment of his cello theme. A lyrical piano version of the theme shows up during the main menu, and is “discovered” by Max after much experimentation on the various pianos found throughout the levels, during what alcoholics refer to as a “moment of clarity.” Despite all the false starts, he got it right at the end. That’s what matters. Or, at least, that’s what he hopes will matter.
The soundtrack is a bit like Max himself in that regard; it takes a lot of risks, it meanders all over the place, but in the end it all comes together. Despite what you thought about the game itself (and I thought pretty highly of it), one thing is for sure – when you’re in control of Max and you/Max are/is walking off into the tropical sunset with your personal badass groove playing in the background, you know for a fact that you are Max Payne, you are still a decent human being, and this is your song. And that, my friends, is a good feeling to have.