HEALTH – Max Payne 3 soundtrack

To round off the year, I thought I’d quickly take a look at my top albums for 2012.

Most of it isn’t too surprising, except for the Max Payne soundtrack.  What can I say here?  Obviously due to my modding background and past ties with Remedy, I had high hopes but low expectations for Max Payne 3.  It’s been almost nine years since the last game, and the idea of a bearded Max Payne with a skin head, shooting gangs in Brazil seemed wrong on paper.

Yet Rockstar exceeded them on almost every front — both in singleplayer and multiplayer.  Say what you want about the story, McCaffrey is in fine form and delivers some wonderfully cynical put downs (my favourite: “Rich parasites with delusions of humanity.“).  Maybe I just identify with bitter and broken anti-heroes a little too much these days.

But what took me, and clearly many others, by complete surprise was the soundtrack.  Of course, it shouldn’t have — Rockstar have proven many times that someone in their office knows their music, both old and new.  What’s evident though, is that they clearly understood both what made the Max Payne soundtrack work in the past games, and what was missing from them.

The first two Max Payne games were scored by Kärtsy Hatakka & Kimmo Kajasto, who set the tone of the series with dark, ambient pieces, mixing electronic, rock, and classical arrangements.  The second game also closed with a single from Poets of the Fall, a Finnish band who have continued to work with Remedy on their next game series, Alan Wake.

While I love these soundtracks, when it came to making new levels for them (particularly in Mona The Assassin) it became apparent that there are actually very few action tracks in the score.  Max Payne 2 literally has only one track , and as a level scripter you simply can’t use that one over and over again.  Considering that this is a game series that revolves around violent gunfights — mostly in slow-motion — it’s a strange omission.

What HEALTH have successfully managed to do with Max Payne 3 is carry over the dark, melancholic ambience from the first games, and inject a pulse into it.  From the moment you load the game up, the music immediately sets a steady pulse going and it never lets up as the action intensifies.  During gameplay, as Max takes cover you become aware of a drum rhythm, which then builds to a frenzy — mirroring the on-screen violence.  It reminds me of stories (I’m not sure of the origin) of warriors or soldiers driven mad, because of an unrelenting drumming sound in their head.  The drums of war, so to speak.  Certainly, when I hear it now, my pace quickens and my focus sharpens.

Modern game designers often talk about a concept called ‘flow’ — the careful control of tension and release in conflict based gameplay, which (if done skilfully) can heighten the experience.  Although it’s an obvious thing to do, Max Payne 3 is one of the few games I’m aware of that very consciously uses its soundtrack to manipulate the feelings of the player.  The audio is layered into the game in such a way that the transitions between chaotic gunfights and ambient introspection are subtle and go mostly unnoticed.

But it’s not just the use of percussion that makes the Max Payne 3 soundtrack great.  The game has many melancholic and reflective tracks, that evoke (for me anyway) that dark electronic sound you hear in 80s films like Manhunter.  For me, the more introspective tracks like Pain, Torture, Dead, Panama, and Future are the most interesting to listen; and as a whole, they give the album a sense of balance.  That’s important, because it feels like a complete music piece – a concept album – rather than just a movie or game soundtrack.

It’s not an easy album to listen to, and ambience and noise is always an acquired taste, but I think it more than stands up alongside other releases this year.  That said, it’s a dark album, and in the context of the game there are undertones of loss, regret, failure, violence, and self-hate.  This is the soundtrack to a man who indulges in self abuse, labels people as “chumps” and “parasites”, and unconsciously sets himself up for repeat failure — which he then wallows in.  It’s a soundtrack to a man who finds escape and release through being shot at.  In some respects, Max Payne is exploring just how far down the downward spiral he can go before reaching catharsis; and HEALTH’s soundtrack perfectly reflects the pain, anger, and conflict of a man trying to piece back together the fragments of his broken psyche, cutting himself on the shards in the process.

On a personal level, it’s a  dark soundtrack to what has been a surprisingly difficult year —  full of failure, change, uncertainty, doubt, and loss.  Bleak as this record might sound, it’s important to remember that when facing difficulties, the message is not to wallow in self-pity, alcoholism  and violence.  Max Payne isn’t an ideal hero, nor is he a protector — a role he continually miscasts himself as.  When stripped to his core, Max Payne is a fighter.  If there is a message to take from the story, it’s to keep fighting.  Keep fighting for what you believe in;  fight for change; fight for hope; fight to make a difference.

Whatever it is you think is important, don’t give up on it, no matter how bad things might seem.  A simple message, but one that gets clouded in the day-to-day haze of modern life.  This is something I learnt many years ago, and having faced absolute failure in the face on more than one occasion, I believe you have to match difficulty with the tenacity to keep on going forward, to never give up, to keep fighting.  This record somehow captures that sense of hope,  surprisingly enough in the track entitled Pain.

You can listen to the whole album on Spotify here: Health – Max Payne 3 Official Soundtrack