Max Payne and Sympathy for the Heartless

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By Phil Wiebe

When Francis Bacon condemned revenge, he nonetheless dubbed it a “wild justice.” Vigilante action is a pursuant of such a justice, but one that eclipses mere revenge. The law is an imperfect system to bring about justice, and I argue that revenge and vigilante justice are a purer, better means of justice in fiction.

Aesthetically and philosophically, these motivations provide more compelling and satisfying narratives while offering up a critical commentary on the vengeful individual, his targets, and the state in which this conflict occurs.

Equally depraved

To apply Aristotle’s four causes in an analysis, the abstract metaphysical concept of justice, perhaps in the sense of Plato’s forms, is a formal cause whose final cause is recompense. The solutions of a legal system may masquerade as a representation of formal justice, but their efficient cause is inextricably bound up with their material cause, if we take laws, statutes, and ordinances as a building block that are used to construct some semblance of formal justice.

After all, the law is not in and of itself just – sometimes all it has to offer is a poor mockery of justice. According to the state, a vigilante is a criminal who fights other criminals solely because they are criminals; he is a criminal because he fights criminals – to quote Jubal Early of Firefly, “Does that seem right to you?”

In fiction, vigilante justice and revenge circumvent these systems and offer efficient justice, unadulterated and unmediated. The vigilante is basically a Rousseauian hero who casts off the shackles of civilization in order to serve a higher good. His natural setting is the frontier, where each man, equally depraved but equally liable, must fend for himself and make the choice to redeem his liberty or subvert it (no doubt experiencing the Kierkegaardian anxiety that arises from the ‘dizziness of freedom’).

Max squints because he is deciding whether you deserve to be shot a whole bunch.

However, these frontiers do not exist so much anymore, and video games are perhaps the last avenue to experience visceral, guided revenge and justice for ourselves, and of our own accord.

Like Jeff Wheeldon, I will be using the Max Payne series for my treatment of justice in video games. That said, my reading of the series is markedly different, and I will comment on some of his assertions. In my view, Payne’s story blurs the lines between revenge, vigilante justice, and legislated justice.

Who watches the watchmen?

While he certainly does summarily dispatch the junkies who killed his wife and baby shortly after the fact of their crime, it is a full three years later before he continues his vendetta, and this time not merely for matters of revenge. In the meantime, he had transferred to the DEA and only worked within his legal boundaries to achieve justice for the victims of drug abuse.

Isn’t Max a fine, noble character? This irony provides the forward movement for the plot, because a close colleague betrays Max and shoots his partner. Who watches the watchmen, after all?

Tragic back story means you won’t think less of him when you see the image below.

At this point, hunted by the law and criminals, Max continues his investigation of the case while killing his way up the hierarchy of Mafia before discovering that his real nemesis is embedded in a corrupt pharmaceutical company and government conspiracy. It is true that Max achieved perfect vengeance by the end of the story, but his method was not self-seeking revenge but rather his willingness to pursue justice through both legal and illicit means.

Max Payne 2 picks up 2 years later while Payne is working for the NYPD again, and contains no tale of revenge or unwarranted justice, but rather deals with betrayal and intrigue. Max undertakes several questionable endeavors, such as romancing a known assassin and killing his partner, but in the end, all is vindicated (his partner is corrupt, and his lover ends up dead regardless).

Max Payne 3 blends all the previous elements of both stories; here we see the highest highs and lowest lows of Max Payne’s career. Nine years after Max Payne 2, he fled the United States after killing a mob boss’ son, Anthony DeMarco. In retrospect, it was a mostly unwarranted killing. Although Anthony had repeatedly antagonized and threatened Max with deadly force, he lacked the resolve to ‘force the moment to its crisis’ and Payne, jaded cop that he was, could care less about DeMarco’s insecure showboating.

Only after Anthony slaps a woman who rejects his advances does Max impulsively gun him down. On a psychological level, this is one of the most satisfying moments in the game. While legal justice makes no dispensation for this kind of deed, and cultural justice would deem Payne to have overstepped his bounds in punishing minor violence with fatal repercussion, the player and the narrative both know better.

See what I mean?

Uncharacteristic mercy

The everyman can easily quip that the arrogant, misogynist mobster had it coming. Once in Brazil, Max becomes embroiled in a war between favela gangs, unscrupulous mercenaries, and a corrupt elite polite force after his employer’s wife is kidnapped. The havoc Payne wreaks in the ensuing rampage is only rivaled by the amount of restraint he shows in dispatching his nemeses. Rather than being obsessed with revenge or equal punishment, he shows mercy to Serrano, the original kidnapper, twice and ultimately lets him live.

Max does not necessarily kill the two ‘big bads’ of the game either – after disarming the corrupt police captain in a gunfight, he can choose not to execute him, nor does he kill Victor, the ultimate villain behind everything. Sure, he breaks Victor’s leg for his impudence but Victor ends up hanging himself in prison rather than face trial. Passos, who betrays Max and is responsible for getting him involved in the entire mess, is rebuked with nothing more than some strong words. Max Payne’s extreme violence is offset only by uncharacteristic mercy – those who he spared deserved much worse.

Sympathy for the heartless

Such a narrative provides both sides of the coin. It shows us the gains and losses of unhindered justice. Rather than glamorize the vigilante, most revenge stories paint their protagonist as an anti-hero – dark, brooding, isolated, addicted, and/or unhappy. As for his victims – if we were to put ourselves in their shoes, we would probably find them unwilling to put themselves in anybody else’s shoes.

Is that not the basic definition of what a criminal is, beyond legal frameworks? Someone who is selfish beyond all things? Just like trying to reason with someone who does not acknowledge the value of logic, you won’t get far sympathizing for the heartless.

He feels bad about that earlier picture as well.

Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire – a vigilante is someone who provides solutions to crime with the tenacity of a criminal. He who is willing to die by the sword in order to live by it is a disturbed but necessary hero: “It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it.”

The fantasy of revenge

I’m not opposed to games that have forgiveness and reconciliation as their ultimate theme, but the reason we don’t see many is because such a concept asks the player to internalize a belief, rather than perform an action.

People are going to pick ‘press RT to fire weapon’ over ‘press X to forgive and Y to rehabilitate’ not only because firing a gun is easier than forgiving someone but because generally we don’t play games that are just a rehash of life.

In life, we will have to forgive and be forgiven many times over, because in general, everyone is pretty awful. Revenge fantasy is just that – fantasy – and it allows us to understand and experience revenge in a context outside of ourselves.

It allows the player to contemplate what the true meaning of justice is, and whether that is attainable through vigilante justice and revenge. Whether that leaves us sobered or wanting more is the choice of the player.


To comment briefly on Wheeldon’s article, the idea that the junkie murderers wouldn’t be found responsible in court is not a reason against vigilante justice but for it. That criminals could be excused from the consequences of their serious crime due to preceding vices is repugnant and only reinforces the notion that legal systems are basically ineffectual in doling out complete justice. It is just as unfair to force forgiveness as it is condemnation.

Boris the Hangman, in Blazing Saddles, proclaimed “Welcome to Hanging House. Not to worry – everyone is equal in my eye.” In the same way, vengeance and vigilante justice are egalitarian. From junkie to CEO, all are treated equally, which is more than the justice system can say for itself.

Sic semper tyrannis.


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