A few months ago, I sat down with a good friend and spoke at length about the ease of avoiding work, of turning on my computer or a game console and slipping into another world rather than face the difficulties of improving my skills. I'm an artist; a writer and a programmer by trade, a dabbler in smaller things like music as well. But I often fall into the comfort that comes with escapism, leaving the world behind and cheating myself of true success in place of an audio-visual stimulation of the same centers of my brain.
It's easy to avoid doing the hard work when that kind of thrill is available at your fingertips. I was relieved to find my friend felt the same. But we both acknowledged how damaging escapism is when, in the back of your mind, being more productive would benefit us greatly.
It is an addiction. Not a life-threatening or financially-damaging kind (although the cost of games and the plethora of platforms to purchase them on do strain the wallet), but it is debilitating nonetheless. I can't say I know how a drug addict or an alcoholic feels - that would be an unequal parallel - but I can speak to what I know: the quick, simple satisfaction of succeeding in a game rather than struggle for success is not unlike the chemical release drugs can afford an addict.
My friend and I pondered together how our respective addictions affected us. We both work as independent developers in the game industry, but how much of our time should be spent playing games? Should we play at all, or focus our small amount of time on work? Should release come from the work itself?
I questioned whether my time would have been better spent creating rather than consuming. My friend asked me a simple question in response, something he asks himself with each game played:
Were those memories worth it?
Paraphrasing his explanation (and shortening it considerably), my friend believes the narrative or mechanics experienced by playing a game may turn out to be worthwhile, removing the feeling that his time was wasted rather than utilized to accrue practical knowledge or focus entirely on work.
It was this question that convinced me that this article needed to be written. As the topic concerns video games (what else?) and ends with the prospect of breaking the habit, I think it's the perfect combination to dissect one of my favorite games, a grim tale of an addict's inability to cope with the world around him.
That game is Rockstar Games' Max Payne 3.
The third entry into the classic series, Max Payne 3 stars the titular hero as we find him eleven years after the murder of his wife and child.
Summarizing the first two games as quickly as I can (which is a disgrace as they deserve their own complete article), Max's wife and child were murdered by a corrupt government group responsible for introducing a violent drug into streets. Max finds and kills their murderers and most of the supporting cast (I can only remember three characters living by the credit roll), giving himself up to the police only after rampaging through New York. In the opening of the second game, Max has returned to police work as a detective thanks to a shadow organization he befriended in the previous title. This Max, two years older and with nothing left to live for, finds himself enamored by a femme fatale named Mona Sax, whom he desires out of grief for his loss.
Max Payne 3 places our "hero" in a Hoboken bar with more than a chip on his shoulder and in one of fiction's rare police retirements. Max has hit his lowest point in years. He's a man unable to find peace at the bottom of a whiskey bottle. Addicted to painkillers, and lamenting the life he could have had, he wakes up with the desire to inebriate and ends his day in a haze of confusion.
Enter Raul Passos, an old friend come to offer Max a chance to getaway from his past. After an unfortunate incident in which Max drunkenly murders a mafia don's son, he's forced to leave New Jersey behind and travel with Raul to Brazil, acting as security for a rich family. But before he leaves, he says goodbye to his wife and child. In Max's own words:
By now, she had been dead for longer than I knew her.
This statement hits at the thematic core of the Max Payne series. Max, unable to mentally cope with the loss of his family, refuses to let them go. The alcohol and painkillers he consumes daily are not a means to forget. Contrary to other depictions of addiction, Max's habits stem for a desire to not let go of the past, to place himself into a personal purgatory - or hell, judging by the events surrounding him - that he cannot escape.
While traveling in South America, Max is dragged into the family conflicts of the Branco family, whom he has agreed to protect. There is more than meets the eye to this family (and the patriarch's 'trophy wife' seems to get kidnapped suspiciously often), but Max doesn't seem to care.
His self-pity prevents him from interacting with a world around him. São Paulo and the citizens in it have moved on to the present while Max cannot shed his past. Throughout the first half of the game, Max is strung along by forces working the strings because his indifference blinds his detective training. The clues are there (as players running a second-playthrough will notice). But Max refuses to open his eyes and see the machinations of the people around him.
Max's addiction, as it is, prevents him from growing. It turns him into a heartless creature consumed by a death wish (but exhibiting a supernatural ability to avoid death when it comes for him).
When Max finally decides to sober up and piece together the shambling Branco family, he becomes more focused. Max, rather than sitting around waiting for the plot to happen around him, he pursues his only leads and finds the men responsible for the chaos around him.
Max chooses to throw away his addiction in the face of absolute rock bottom. It takes the death of his employer to force him to face his own demons. By the end of the Max Payne 3, our hero chooses to remain sober and leaves his family behind, lying in snowy graves in New Jersey.
Games have an affect on us. It's sounds like a crazy thing to do, relate to such a character, a pastiche of action heroes with a chip on his shoulder. Clearly, neither my aforementioned friend nor I face serious health addictions and I cannot claim that I've been in a gun fight before. But the art medium allows us to make parallels.
Growing up, I never found myself too involved in the world around me. I was introverted, afraid to join others in social circles. I imagine many younger adults felt this way; not all, but those that turned to entertainment mediums to cope with unhappy homes, difficulty in school, puberty, etc. Games continue to provide an escapist route through life, living out the fantasy lives of characters who manage to make the world a better place or characters whose world seems to revolve around them.
But, there is a limit to such indulgence. Given too much weight, video games can consume your time and make it more difficult to pull away. And why would you? That release I talked about earlier? It's much simpler to accept its limited affect - lasting only as long as the gaming session does - than to struggle to better yourself.
There's no magical sound accompanying learning something new that tells you how good you've done. Any pride in accomplishments must come from yourself. A rare number of artists become famous, so fame cannot be the keystone of your desire to improve.
Playing games is an activity that can be fun and engaging. But like any rewarding hobby, it cannot be a compulsory thing, an itch that diverts your attention when you know you should stop procrastinating and create that song you've been humming or start to write that short story you've been kicking in your head for a year.
Chances are the days you used video games to escape are long behind you. Think about the accomplishments you want to leave behind and set out to make them happen.
The toughest part of breaking addiction is the fear of losing it.
- Johnny Toxin