The Ugly Paulistano
“Why did you come to kill Rodrigo Branco?”
“We came to kill you!”
Max Payne 3
Max Payne has always communicated through bullets. In Max Payne 3, the only difference is that he is now restrained from relying on any other means. As an ignorant foreigner, unwilling to learn the local language and expecting the impoverish locals to know his, Max forces us to play the role of the ignorant foreigner.
I’ve been living in São Paulo, or Sampa for short, for almost a decade now. A German friend of mine asked me how it felt to play as an alienated foreigner while being able to understand everything being said by the locals at the same time. In São Paulo, I answered, being an alienated foreigner is the only way of life.
São Paulo has 11 million people, but most of them were not born there. They come from all other parts of Brazil. They come because the best colleges in the country are near São Paulo; they come because the heart of the Brazilian economy pulsates from São Paulo’s clogged streets. In other words, they come for their dreams. And the city grows bigger and stronger because of these dreams. In fact, São Paulo is so huge, nobody has a firm grasp of the city’s mazes. The average Paulistano can count the names of the streets he knows in with one hand. In São Paulo, we are all ignorant foreigners.
I wasn’t raised in São Paulo. As a kid in Brazil, was taught in school that the reason for a criminal being a criminal was society’s. Mostly leftists and believers of determinism, these teachers have preached you years that favela gangs should not be blamed by what they do. Who is to blame then? Well, I was.
After all, they said, they have so little, whereas I have so much. I had the opportunity to have a decent education, to be raised in a family with so few needs and so much love. If there is crime, it’s only because of the social gap. You see, they said, you should feel ashamed for what you have. If you flaunt, you will be asking to get mugged and, when that happens, the fault will be yours only.
I actually felt that way until the time I was mugged. Now I realize this is pure intellectual cretinism – and teaching that to kids should be a crime. It’s not about the money you need, but the choices you make. It’s always about the choices.
Being mugged is a dramatic event in anyone’s life. It’s that moment you see a new universe, one that parasitizes on your existence while denying it at the same time. Three were times my world collided with Brazilian criminality and though I was harmed in none of them, these instances shaped the man I am today.
The first time I wasn’t even there.
I was about 12 and living with my parents in Campinas. My mom used to have a black cape I loved. It was one of those you only see at fashion shows and rarely outside it. I called it the Dracula cape. One day my parents and my grandmother went to a party in São Paulo. When they came back, my mom couldn’t stop crying and she wasn’t wearing the cape anymore.
It turned out that they all had spent the last 3 hours going to every ATM they could find while three other individuals keep them under a gun the whole time. In Brazil they call those “Lightning Kidnappings”. These kidnappers hold you hostage a few hours, and either make you get money with them in your car, or make you call someone you know to do this instead.
I was already studying in São Paulo during the second time. One day, while waiting for the bus, this kid wearing white came from behind and touched my back with the barrel of a gun. He was smaller than me; weaker too. There were two other people also waiting for the bus, but I didn’t have any voice to say anything. The perp insulted me the whole time. He then took my wallet, entered my bus and went away. From that day on I’ve started to wear a decoy wallet. In the following months, the most pleasurable image I could conjure in my head was one of me smashing his face on the concrete. I actually still imagine escapades of revenge in which I stop being the hunted to become the hunter.
The third time, my mom had given me a lift and was dropping me home when two guys came shouting for her to leave the car. The scariest thing was how desperate they looked. Mom froze, she couldn’t unstrap the seat-belt. I was already behind my house’s fences when they came, screaming at her to wake up, stop being an idiot, and leave the car. One of the criminals wore a mustache.
These memories now fuel the sadistic pleasure I have with Max Payne.
Max Payne 3 stirs something inside me and makes my darkest, most violent side to resurface. It makes me forfeit my values. I revel in the game’s brutality; I want to shower in its gore. When you shoot the last enemy in an area and camera lingers voyeuristically on his body getting pierced by bullets, I never release the trigger. Ever. I keep unloading and unloading until the game says stop. I take pleasure if the bullet enters one ear and exit through the other. I love it even more when his face becomes indistinguishable by multiple shots between the eyes – the mark of Cain.
The primary enemy for the first half of the game, Comando Sombra, is an analogue to a group called PCC (Capital’s First Commando). The PCC first became notorious when they started a wave of fear in the city, a few months prior to the election, by burning buses and shooting the fronts of banks and stores. This June they have started to kill cops – good cops – when they were off work. Fighting them is not like fighting zombies, Nazis, terrorists of any other evil empire. For me, these are no abstract concepts of evil. They are frighteningly real. They are my monsters.
Oddly enough criminals might feel their way of life is just “part of the game”. There was a magazine feature in Brazil that interviewed a bunch of prison inmates. Their stories were different, but there was always one thing in common: they never blamed themselves for the lives they took. It’s not like they had a choice, see? It was the circumstances: more precisely, the victim’s fault. The victim didn’t behave as they should have. They haven’t played their part in the “game”. They may have tried to scream, to fight back, to run, or perhaps they were simply unable to take their seat-belts off in time. It doesn’t matter. In the minds of the inmates’ interviews, that was justification enough.
I guess that there really isn’t such a thing as “gratuitous violence”. We take Max Payne 3 always from Max’s perspective and, for him, much like the real-life inmates, nothing is without justification. Max is a character defined by his loss. I haven’t really lost a thing and, even still, the mere idea of losing makes me justify any gratuitous stance I take on that game. Max must take even more bitter pleasure in the violence he causes than I do.
I imagine that, like Max, the majority of players won’t be able understand what the in-game Brazilians are saying. They won’t be able to tell they are being cursed from when they are being mocked or praised. They won’t know whether their actions are making Comando Sombra scared or angry. Spewing bullets is the only form of communication left for them – and yes, that restriction may have left some of them upset. Me, however, I understood. The Portuguese, however, didn’t make me relate to the enemies more – quite the contrary. I refute their existence and am even more determined to extinguish it. For me, pulling the trigger was not the only option; it was not a product of the consequences. It was a choice. And one that I’ve made with gusto.