That quote is one of the most famous opening lines in all of literature. Sure, its popularity is owed largely to being the first sentence in Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick. But that introduction is also memorable because you're learning about an important character from the very second you start reading.
Earlier this year, Max Payne 3 did the same trick, letting players know about Max's nihilistic wit and gallows humor before they ever fired a bullet or did a slo-mo dodge. If you never played a Max Payne game before, you still knew for the most part what kind of game you were getting in terms of mechanics. But the journey was about who you were playing as, which wasn't neccessarily something you could learn about just from shooting dudes.
I was reading an issue of Mark Waid's excellent run of Marvel Comics' Daredevil when I stopped to think about how great first-person narration is as a storytelling tool. One that games should use more of.
Look, let's acknowledge that games unfurl their experiences in different ways than books or other media. Games can deliver story through interaction rather than scripting. But, the ones that want to tell tales have a great under-used tool in voiceover narration. Most video games struggle with telling you about their characters. They stop the thing you've shown up to do—solve tricky puzzles, shoot lots of alien invaders, explore vast landscapes—to roll out a cutscene where you finally get to see emotions play out on the front of a character's face. That's usually where you get to hear about what's motivating a hero or a party member. And these moments usually bring the play of a game to a dead stop. No wonder people skip through them.
That's why the narration of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time or Bastion (which, granted, isn't first-person) works so wonderfully. You can still be bounding around a crumbling castle or hacking away at a random enemy while getting fed information about the protagonist and the world. Even Metroid: Other M—controversial as its version of Samus Aran was for some people—let you into that character's head in a way by virtue of narration that previous games hadn't. In fact, I've found that narration heightens the action with a personality-driven filter. I cared more about getting Max past a wave of enemies than, say, Master Chief because I'd had his voice and his pain ringing through my head before the shots rang out.
First-person narration gets used a lot in detective fiction and its very existence imparts a subliminal knowledge that the lead character makes it through okay. You're hearing the tale told after the smoke clears. Where that might rob some of the tension from the proceedings in a book or movie, you're the one that has to navigate to resolution in a video game. That character's voice becomes a catalyst for closure.
So, more narration, please. After all, if I'm going to spend 10, 20, 100 hours with a character, I better feel like I know him or her.
It fits with the game's noir overtones, I guess, but given so much of Max Payne 3 is spent in the ridiculously over-saturated Rio, it seems almost a crime to rob your eyes of the city's lush colour palette.
The New Jersey sections, though? Well, they're just about perfect for it.
For Neo, moving faster than bullets was a matter of realizing the Matrix's rules could be bent. For most of our video game heroes, bullet time is a popular mechanic that has appeared on titles like Max Payne, Red Dead Redemption, Vanquish and more.
It's not possible to slow down time and perform amazing feats—not yet, anyway. Still, most of us have probably experienced that feeling of time slowing down. We know it as the result of a severe adrenaline rush. It's the closest we have to approaching bullet time in real life, and arguably what bullet time is based on. And there's a reason it happens.
Our adrenaline starts pumping when we're in danger, or when we're scared. What follows is that more information is committed to memory by the brain (the amygdala to be specific) in an effort to help us keep safe. This memory overload makes our recollections seem richer and denser than they actually were.
It's an illusion that tricks your brain into thinking that the more memory it has of an event, the longer it took to pan out. Time slows down for you, only it doesn't in reality.
When we get older, time seems to fly. This is based on a similar phenomenon to the one drawn above. We store more memories from childhood because every experience is fresh, and there's more information to soak up. Experiences we have when we're older are at risk of being lost in the fray, because we've racked up so many similar-looking ones already. This is why childhood seems to take forever and adulthood seems to zip by.
Giving us false memories, deceiving us into thinking time moves slower (or faster!) than it actually does: the brain is pretty
crazy amazing, eh?
Max Payne's life might be full of misery, but at least the special effects are pretty awesome.
Max Payne: Bloodbath [YouTube]