On The Level examines one small part of a larger video game.
During its six-season run, MTV’s slanderous, ongoing hit piece Jersey Shore did incalculable damage to a state that already hurts for dignity. The story of eight orange-ish Italian-American housemates, whose continued existence rebukes the viability of natural selection, set us Garden State natives back decades. Hurricane Sandy had just one silver lining: As a more recent coastal disaster and one fresher in the mind of the nation, it washed away some of the oily residue left by those Staten Island dipshits.
Like New Jersey, the titular hero of Max Payne 3 is also short on respect. A former NYPD cop and DEA agent, Payne has fallen on hard times. He’s still haunted by the death, many years prior, of his wife and young son at the hands of homicidal junkies. His days of working deep undercover and wasting bad guys have left scars, both physical and psychological. Like many wayward lawmen before him, Payne seeks solace at the bottom of a bottle. In Chapter IV of Max Payne 3—Anyone Can Buy Me A Drink—it’s just his bad luck to have picked a dive in Hoboken, the douchebag capital of New Jersey (apologies, Belmar).
“Trouble finds us the same way you found me: slumped in a bar, drunk on self-pity,” Max muses to his partner, ruminating on their shared proclivity for sticky situations. “I had been sitting at the bar for three hours—or about five years, depending on how you looked at things.” In a flashback, a slightly younger Max sits at a bar called Walton’s. The only other person in the place, besides the bartender, is a Real Housewives extra in a leopard print coat. It’s the kind of wrap that never goes out of style in Jersey, apparently.
Suddenly, the gin-infused ambience is shattered when three guys who may or may not be second cousins to The Situation strut through the door, carrying on and acting like they own the place. We’ve all encountered the type before, although empty bars devoid of insecure young girls are not their usual habitat.
“These pricks had been annoying me for days,” Max laments. “They were typical Jersey rich kids. The ringleader, I think his name was Tony, his dad was some well-known hood. Drug dealer. Racketeer. Pillar of the New Jersey community.” It’s not totally clear whether Max is being ironic here. These well-worn caricatures throw jibes at Max, insinuating an untoward relationship between police officers and donuts. The clock is ticking toward a Happy Hour showdown. The weapon of choice is tired stereotypes.
Max takes the bait. “This kid had a well-developed sense of humor. For New Jersey,” he quips. The conflict quickly escalates, and Tony pulls a gun on Max for insulting the honor of his terrible family. Just as the evening looks to be degenerating past the point of no return, an old cop acquaintance of Max’s comes through the door and temporarily defuses the situation. Tony and his goons vow to return, which they do in short order. When they come back, they’re waving guns in the air.
The aforementioned bespotted debutante says what we’re all thinking, calling the notoriously thin-skinned Tony a “spray-tanned guido douche.” He hits her. Max shoots him. The mafia descends, and the revenge fantasy begins.
It’s difficult to describe the emotions raging inside as I shoot my way through an unending string of goombas on my way out of Hoboken. Under normal circumstances, the extreme violence of shooting games leaves me feeling numb. Super mutants. Aliens. The Russians. I have nothing personal against any of these entities. It’s just a game, lining up heads to crosshairs and racking up points. But this one hits close to home. I feel like an avenging angel for the 99 percent. That is, the 99 percent of New Jersey residents who are not tracksuit-wearing assholes.
The feeling is unsettling. I’m a peaceful man by nature, slow to anger and quick with a joke. I try to judge all people on their actions, rather than how they look or where they come from. Yet here I am, grinning like a maniac as I shoot up the bar in what feels dangerously close to something like ethnic cleansing. I tell myself it’s because I’m defending the honor of my ancestral homeland. I hope it’s that simple.
I could burn down a million of these guys, though, and it won’t do a thing to change New Jersey’s status as an evergreen punch line. (Thanks for the assist, Governor Christie.) Snooki is just one dimwitted bird in our flock of misfit albatrosses, no different than dear departed Tony and his sycophantic Hoboken bros. New Jersey was a reflexive joke long before Max Payne 3, and it will be long after Max Payne 3 has been forgotten.
When the smoke around Max clears, and I’m myself again, I’m vaguely ashamed of what I’ve done. My massacre-fueled catharsis is diminished. It occurs that these morons aren’t really my enemy. These are my people—embarrassing relations to be defended, not scorned. New Jersey is a progressive state with good schools, great produce, beautiful beaches, and Springsteen. (And yes, walking, talking Italian-American clichés.) It’s not always the most dignified place on earth, but it’s more charming than most. After a few drinks, some gunplay, and a much-needed cultural exorcism, it looks even better.