header is screenshot from Halloween Horror 2018
The Nightmare Was Always the Same
Ed Smith

The term “nightmare logic” typically denotes absurdism and unpredictability, an inversion of sense, reason, and expectation, resulting in a volatile experience that’s specifically frightening because anything—any awful, inconceivable, unprecedented thing—could happen to you at any moment. As popularly interpreted in art and entertainment, particularly the work of Salvador Dali and David Lynch, nightmares attend a combination of abstractness, terror, memory, and epiphany. They rearrange and convert moments from your waking life, moments you may not have previously, consciously noticed, into stark, emotionally and cognitively digestive visions. Nightmares are awful and traumatising, but often also illuminating; on television, we see characters like Twin Peaks’ Dale Cooper and The Sopranos’ Tony Soprano sweating and panting, awakening from their nightmares either having disposed of an old pain that has been rotting somewhere in amongst their subconscious, or with a clarified sense of what they need to do: a break in their case or a decision about who does or does not need to be whacked. 

The word “logic” is often used ironically, to emphasise nightmares’ complete departure from the rules of reality’s road, but they also represent a process of sense-making. In the darkest eras of my own misery and bewilderment in regards to how my life could possibly continue, let alone progress, so long as I had the time to do so my restitutional tactic was to basically get into bed and sleep for fifteen hours straight. I knew that I would have terrible nightmares. I also knew that when I woke up I would likely feel psychologically lighter, as if something that had been laying on my mind had been chewed, swallowed, and excreted. My doctor at the time called it “dream work”, and considered it a fundamental part of my getting better.

In the first, eponymous game, Max Payne suffers from a recurring nightmare, whereby he’s running through a warped and bloodied version of the house in which his wife and baby daughter were murdered, trying, and always failing, to locate them before they die—a grotesque of the night when they were actually killed, when he returned home from work too late to save them. His dream contains most of the hallmarks of nightmare logic. The architecture of the house becomes vast and impossibly disjointed, comprising corridors that appear to stretch to infinity and an enormous, bottomless chasm which may only be crossed by walking solid, but also razor-thin, trails of his child’s blood. Seemingly trivial elements from Max’s waking life acquire massive and warped significance: the alphabet blocks from his daughter’s bedroom levitate and order themselves to accusingly spell out the word “DEAD,” while his wife’s diary, which during the game’s prologue level can only be seen and not physically read, in the nightmare world becomes accessible, revealing an enormous clue about the identities of her killers—the implication being Max has glanced at and subconsciously absorbed it, but as is common, it’s only during the grim tribunal of his nightmares, when concepts of what is important and what makes sense are subverted, that it may properly find its way into the light.

The communication between his waking and nightmare lives, and the relevance they are supposed to bear upon one another, is most apparent in the fact that despite navigating this obscene, backwards, and delirious phantasmagoria of his “house”, both the character and the game Max Payne still operate precisely the same as during their “normal” sections. Contrary to the surroundings, the mechanical, videogame logic—push forward to move forward; press X to jump; tap L1 to do a combat roll—remains completely, incongruously intact, creating a physical interpretation of the idea that when he dreams Max is an interloper into his own mind: when he’s in his nightmares, rather than a participant or subject, he’s more of an explorer, excavating his own psychological depths, looking for something either emotional or informational in nature that he can take back and maybe use to improve his waking world.

The tragedy, however, is that Max’s nightmares appear to repeat; though they may yield new facts about his wife, daughter, and investigation, the same, aforementioned mechanical consistency between Max Payne’s normal and nightmare levels also implies routine and attrition, the unbreakability of Max’s oneiric pattern and by extension emotional state. Although the imagery may change—throughout Max Payne, different voices, faces, and startling details enter and exit Max’s dreams—the staples, especially from the perspective of a player, remain constant. Running. Jumping. Completing those platform puzzles inside the chasm. When he dreams, Max Payne continues doing the same things, his feelings about the events as abstracted by his subconscious presumably not advancing or progressing or being processed at all.

The effects of this, Max’s lack of dealing with things, become increasingly evident as the series continues. In the first game, guilty about his family’s death, he is self-destructive and suicidal, the box art aptly surmising this condition by picturing him as behind police tape embossed with the words “DO NOT CROSS. A MAN WITH NOTHING TO LOSE”. In the second game, still guilty about his family’s death, he is also still self-destructive and suicidal: “Death is inevitable,” he narrates. “Without passion, you are already dead.” And in the third game, still guilty about his family’s death (in the opening cinematic, he cries over their photo) he has also become extensively less prepared to address that guilt—emphasising how fundamental a psychological defence mechanism his family’s murder has become for Max, and by proxy how impossible it is for him to relinquish it, in the single greatest image from the entire Payne series, when he’s attacked in a graveyard by a cadre of New Jersey gangsters, furious at him for killing their boss’s son, Max takes cover from their bullets by jumping behind his wife and daughter’s headstone. Not only does this moment reflect that on some validatory level Max needs the guilt, wants it, and so will never, ever give it up; like the floating baby blocks it’s also a literalisation of his mental state, a mental state that is now even more acutely tragic because it’s no longer confined to his subconscious, and has bled right into his waking life.

The repetitious and formulaic nature of the nightmares in Max Payne thus lends them a final and crucial characteristic of nightmare logic: foreboding. Walking on rails, completing the same actions, in the same style, is premonitory of Max’s future. Like negotiating those platform sections over and over, he will remain trapped in a cycle. Like retaining his physical moveset between the real-world and nightmares, and between the individual nightmare levels as well, he won’t ever be able to “do things differently”. The most terrifying aspect of the whole proposition of nightmares is that what you witnessed or experienced within them may somehow be accurate; may somehow come true. And these are nightmares as endured by Max Payne, predictive of his own self-perpetuated doom. When he says that they are “always the same,” he is referring, also, to the events of his life.


Ed Smith contributes to Edge, Rolling Stone, Paste, GamesTM, and PCGamesN.