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‘Max Payne’ Was the Game That Understood My Depression

Remedy's neo-noir romp rippled with Norse mythology proved an unlikely companion when life was at its darkest.

by Ed Smith
Mar 9 2015, 4:33pm

Used to be I couldn't sleep. I was 17, had girlfriend trouble, test anxiety—all that shit. I lived on my own, so most nights it'd just be me and my thoughts, pottering round the house together from midnight until nine. There were a few films I'd re-watch to steady my nerves, things like Mean Streets, Oldboy, and The Godfather, but they'd only a last a few hours, and after about ten viewings each, they got a bit stale.

The same could be said for my game collection. From about 3AM through the rest of the night, I'd slump it in front of the PlayStation. But the big hitters of the time—Stranglehold, Resistance: Fall of Man, Dead Rising—weren't much, and, inevitably, my mind would start to wander. I'd just been diagnosed with depression and I was on SSRIs. Even the myriad distractions afforded a middle-class white kid weren't helping.

Except for Max Payne. This older game, first released in 2001, spoke to me at this point in my life, firstly because its main character, the eponymous Max, was having such a hard time. In a classic example of that awful narrative trope "fridging," Max's wife and infant daughter are killed at the beginning of the game and he sets out to avenge them. It's dumb and big and comic book–esque, and it was hardly comparable to the life of a teenage boy getting ready for tests, but it meant Max and I were, in a roundabout way, on the same wavelength. He was suffering.

In my own way, so was I. Plus, all the characters in the other games I owned were gorgeous, uncomplicated heroes. In the same way that the constantly fucking, constantly getting high-off-their-balls teenagers from Skins made me feel alienated, I found the square-jawed protagonists in Modern Warfare and Uncharted intimidating.

Max Payne, despite its stupid, sexist narrative setup, was a bit nuanced, a bit dialed down. It wasn't a game where everybody was having a fucking good time, all the time—alongside Max, the ex-alcoholic widower, the characters in Max Payne were variously drug addicts, prostitutes, and murderers. Maybe it was genuinely the illness, or maybe it was just the adolescence talking, but I felt more at home in this virtual world. My life wasn't as bad as the characters', but we were all, respective to our situations, having a pretty poor time.

And then there was the setting. Again, a lot of the games I owned at this time, excluding, perhaps, The Darkness, were sunshine-y and "fun." Even the blood-soaked action-horror hit Gears of War was pretty shiny—the colors were deliberately desaturated, but the monsters were big and the guns were loud, and aesthetically it wasn't such a downer as Max Payne.

Max Payne took place across nightclubs, motels, drug dens, and car parks. It was a low game. A base game. A grubby game. In hindsight, the adulteration feels shoehorned, piled on, and a bit desperate. But if you've ever had depression, you'll know that, more than you want to get better, you want to roll around in your filth. It's a masturbatory slash masochistic impulse, this desire to imbibe the world in all its fecundity, but I remember very specifically deciding that if my life and the lives of a lot of other people were bad, there was no use pretending otherwise—it was my responsibility to confront the world and its various shittery, and not back down.

Max Payne, in its cartoonish, video game way, helped with that. It let me explore a world where vice, ruin, and death predominated, a world that wasn't all right. Playing it, I felt like I was starting to understand life, and my problems and my illness a lot better. I felt less like I'd been chosen, specifically, to suffer, and more like the world generally was just a bad place a lot of the time. I'm not sure thinking that way was necessarily helpful, or hopeful, but it certainly helped me stop feeling alone. Looking back now, I can see that Max Payne doesn't really "get"—or care about "getting"—the kind of world it represents, but it certainly got me as a teenager, and was good company when I was low.

And of course, I loved that it was all set at night. I was playing Max Payne while I had insomnia, so the constant darkness, and Max's remarks about not being able to sleep, ingratiated it to me very quickly. Again, it felt like it was there for me—like the game had somehow been designed around when and why I'd be playing it.

I don't want to credit Max Payne with much grandeur or artistic credibility, because it is after all a game where you can use hand grenades to blow up drug addicts, or shoot a man to death while he's got his pants around his ankles. But there's a quote from Alan Bennett that reflects largely how I feel about the experience: "The best moments in reading are when you come across something—a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things—which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours."

When I turned Max Payne on at night, I was in a deep, dark place. By the time I switched it off, I'd seen reflected a place that was similarly deep and dark, and I didn't feel so alone any more. I'd never go so far as to say Max Payne cured, or even helped cure me of depression, because it was doctors, tablets and the support of friends and family that did that. But on the long nights, by demonstrating to me that not everyone was happy, not everything was good, and that I wasn't being singularly punished because I was an especially bad person, Max Payne was the game that helped me sleep.

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The Game That Made Me
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