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In search of the magic of maps.

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Mad Max and the open world game as character study

Press X to grow a beard.

I'm not sure I fully understood the Mad Max game until I read one particular loading screen tip. Not that on the surface there's a lot to misunderstand, of course. The plot of Avalanche's Mad Max game can be summed up as follows: man beats up other men in order to rebuild his car. Mechanically, it's pretty straightforward too: you drive about, you beat up men, you upgrade things so that you're better at driving and beating up men. You explore, you solve simple physics-based puzzles you encounter as you explore. You unlock the map so that you can explore more, and solve more puzzles. And drive further. And find more men to beat up.

It's a standard open-world game, in other words. Strip out the post-apocalyptic brutality and it's wonderfully comforting stuff. And yet it has really, really got its hooks into me, so much so that, faced with a month off work, I'm pretty much playing through it for a second time. Partly this is because Avalanche is better than most at making an open world sing, I guess. Partly because being a Warner Bros game has meant that Mad Max's man-beating-up has been able to lean very heavily on the Arkham template. But there's something else in the mix too. And that tip on a loading screen finally made it clear to me.

Man, I wish I could remember the wording. But the gist of it was this: If I wanted to grow a beard, I would have to pour points into Mad Max's personal upgrade screen. Or maybe it's the other way around: as I upgraded Max, I would also grow a beard. Either way, the genius of the thing is this: mechanically, the element that's important is the upgrade system. But the dream that's being sold? The dream that's being sold is growing a beard.

Cover image for YouTube videoMad Max - Savage Road story trailer

And this is what makes Mad Max so special. It's not just an open-world game, it's a Mad Max, The Person, simulator - as wonderfully brutal and camp as that sounds. He beats up men. He grows a beard. His car is a junker, but it's also amazing. He is angry and driven by revenge, but he'd also probably be doing this stuff anyway. Did I mention the beard?

All open worlds could be character pieces, of course. But so few of them truly are. Arkham games? Those games get it: there's a plot, and there are mechanics and gadgets, but there's also that essential promise: in this game, you get to be Batman. Just Cause? That just about gets it too. You get to tie objects together, but you're also this glorious stereotype who gets to do good while having fun. Mad Max, though, Mad Max takes it to new heights. I'm not sure this game had a vast budget to play with. Its wilderness is rather empty and its set-pieces are pretty repetitive, but to get past that, to make the most of its double-A-ness - and isn't double-A always better that triple-A anyway? - it channels absolutely everything it has through the character, to the point that it is first intoxicating and then deeply, deeply endearing.

Here is how you open locked doors in Mad Max: you press and hold A. Here is how you smash up enemy propaganda in Mad Max: you press and hold A. Here is how you take out the characters who buff other characters in battles: you press and hold A. And yet look at what Mad Max is doing while you're pressing and holding A.

Here is how Mad Max opens locked doors: he kicks and kicks and kicks the hinge until the door bursts open. Here is how he smashes up enemy propaganda: he slams his fists against it until it is splintered into pieces. Here is how he takes out those buffing guys: he smashes the crane wheel that holds them in the air, all while they ask him to stop, and once he's finished smashing that wheel, the whole place is on fire.

It continues. To create shortcuts back to his car he boots ladders down from their ladder clips. To finish off a fight double-quick, he'll bust a guy's head against a wall. If he's out of health, he'll eat maggots and dog food from a tin - no second-thoughts, no cutlery, he just scoops it up and whacks it in his mouth and chews. And he feels pretty good about it. You can tell.

After a few hours of this, I found I was playing in character. I was being unnecessarily mean in fights. I was searching through each camp for every last bit of scrap. I was doing needless angry donuts out there in the irradiated dirt, because that's what Max would do: that's what a man who eats this much dog food and tops it off with maggots does, when his car is almost rebuilt and then are no men around to punch. He does donuts in the dirt.

And then occasionally I would climb into the sky on a hot air balloon. These are Mad Max's ways of dealing with the classic Ubisoft map-unlocking towers. But given all of Max's anger, and given the sheer strength of his characterisation in this game, they become much more. Up here, above the carnage, the landscape looks beautiful and serene. Sure, there are mission markers to tick off and the promise of more mayhem to come, but I swear that up alone in bright blue, Mad Max stands a little differently, breathes a little easier, and lets go of some of that rage.

Listen! Up there alone in the clouds, you can almost hear that beard growing.