Mad Max’s Split Ambitions
The following is a reprint from Unwinnable Weekly Issue Sixty-Two. If you enjoy what you read, please consider purchasing the issue or subscribing.
A souped-up muscle car, complete with two huge fuel tanks, speeds over a dusty ledge and down the opposite slope. Immediately behind it roar grotesque, scrap-covered buggies in hot pursuit, their engines screaming as they accelerate to meet their prey. After a short chase, the muscle car is taken down and its driver – Max Rockatansky, otherwise known as Mad Max – limps out of the wreckage.
This intro – with its heavy emphasis on engine noises, the physicality of cars and the brutality of the wasteland – is almost identical in both the latest Mad Max movie – Fury Road – and the new Mad Max game. But where Fury Road performs a delicate balancing act between restraint and ridiculousness, Mad Max the game loses its way.
Mad Max isn’t just one game. It’s two. And it can’t decide which it wants to be.
In visual art and design, there’s a duality concept known as positive and negative space. Positive space is an object or detail, and negative space is the gap between objects, or even inside of objects. Negative space is an important concept, as it helps to further define positive space. Negative without positive is aimless void; positive without negative is a jumbled mess.
This concept applies to mechanical design as much as it does to visual art. For every positive space action or event, such as violence or a massive set-piece, there needs to be downtime for the player to appreciate it. Without it, a game feels like busywork, an anthill teeming with supposed activity but without the necessary space to appreciate said activity.
Negative space is primarily expressed in Mad Max through the speed at which you do regular activities. Whether you’re collecting scrap, refueling your car, or eating canned food, Max takes his time, and as players, we are forced to watch each time Max stoops down to eat a can of dog food, refill his canteen or pry open a box.
These actions offer us a chance to slow down and enjoy the world of Mad Max and emphasize just how desolate and barren the wasteland is. Speed is always the best way to emphasize scale; the slower your progress despite your best efforts, the more insurmountable and vast your goal seems. The seemingly glacial pace that Max takes to do things is not a burden that prevents you from progressing, it is a respite from the breakneck pace of the combat.
This doesn’t just apply to on-foot sections like the scavenging locations either. Every time you destroy a car in Mad Max – at least until you complete a stronghold project called the Cleanup Crew – you have to climb out of your car and manually pick up the scrap generated by the car’s destruction. It’s unusually reflective for a game that places such an emphasis on explosions and speed, and once again serves to underscore just how dangerous and empty the world you live in is.
This dangerousness is emphasized in the early game by the lack of resources. Indeed, you have no stronghold to call your own, so all the benefits that come with it – free gas, free water and so on – aren’t present. You have to find your resources in the wasteland, just as you might expect in a survival game about the post-apocalypse, and managing those limited resources is important.
Mad Max’s first few hours convey a unique sense of danger, conservation and wonder, and it’s almost entirely because you aren’t powerful. Few games have the guts to actually strip the player bare of the power fantasy, the notion that they can defeat the bad guy. Even fewer actually stick with it, usually for fear of losing out on a potentially larger audience.
However, after you’ve scouted a few locations, earned access to a stronghold and completed a few stronghold projects, you are suddenly free to do whatever you want with little to no repercussions. This is when Mad Max develops a dissonance that taints the rest of the game and where the delight of those first few hours spent drifting and collecting fades into a steady background noise of explosions and punches.
This is a problem of negative space. When Mad Max gives players bursts of action followed by periods of downtime, then asks them to fill that downtime with laborious scavenging necessary to continue, it establishes the world as a fundamentally broken place, where the ruins of the old world are all that’s keeping humanity alive. When Mad Max discards this in favor of easing the use of gas, water and other resources, it blunts the whole point of the game. This is a broken land; it should forever be broken, no matter what you do.
One of the most common complaints about Mad Max is that “essential abilities” such as the Cleanup Crew require you to scavenge and discover project parts scattered around the wasteland. This complaint is rooted in the aforementioned dissonance between the stronghold-driven, action game that Mad Max morphs into and the granular, slow-paced survivalist game it starts out as. Mad Max’s basic actions, the core of its experience, are rooted in weight, in vastness, in a sense of slowness and scale that few games can outmatch. Then we are asked to clear a wasteland of tasks, a monstrously large undertaking that requires mechanics that are quick and punchy. Suddenly those basic actions become deadweight, a rock tied around your ankle as you try to run forward.
Is Mad Max a survival game or an open world action game? It’s both and neither. It never commits to a single design and while the experience is worth delving into based solely on the strength of the vehicular combat, finishing it is a chore. The survivalist start, so unique and interesting, gradually gives way to more of what we’ve seen before. The open-world vehicular combat, while excellent, doesn’t mesh with the glacial pacing of scavenging. Ambition was scaled back in favor of accessibility.
The first hour of Mad Max was the best experience I’ve ever had with an open world game and it’s almost entirely because of its willingness to fly in the face of conventional design wisdom and enforce slower pacing upon the player in between the action set pieces. Once that negative space dissolves, though, all you’re left with is dull checklists and tedious violence.
James Murff is a longtime game critic who currently lives in Seattle. He’s awfully fond of transhumanism, pacing, player agency, and metagaming. You can read more of his work at simplikation.com. Follow him on Twitter @Tegiminis.