The story behind Late Goodbye, the song that defined Max Payne 2

As a Max Payne 2 fan, the opening chords of Late Goodbye by Finnish band Poets of the Fall always give me a shiver of nostalgia. The atmospheric song plays over the end credits, but has always felt like the game’s theme to me. When I think about Max Payne 2, I think of that acoustic guitar and those low, swelling strings. But in an example of developer Remedy’s knack for clever world-building, Late Goodbye is more than just a credits song: it’s threaded into the game itself, and deeply connected to the story.

“We have in-game television shows in Max Payne 2 that become a larger part of the world, such as the Address Unknown theme park,” says Sam Lake, creator (and face) of Max Payne, lead writer at Remedy, and co-writer of Late Goodbye. “In the same way, I didn’t want this song to just play over the end credits. I wanted it to exist in, and be a part of, the world we created."

You overhear snippets of Late Goodbye throughout Max Payne 2. A janitor sings it as he scrubs graffiti from a wall, and you can hear the song blaring loudly from his headphones. Later, a contract killer plays a beautiful rendition of it on a piano, over which the body of one of his victims lies slumped and bloodied. And after making his way through the Address Unknown funhouse, Max hears his love interest, Mona Sax, singing it to herself in the shower.

“It all comes down to world-building,” says Lake. “How do you create an imaginary world that feels like a real place? In a contemporary setting, things like music, television, and movies are very much present in our daily lives. And when you’re building a world, these details become opportunities to bring colour to it and add to and comment on the story’s themes.”

While studying screenwriting at the Theatre Academy of Finland, Lake wrote a treatment for a movie script that would eventually become Max Payne 2. “Coming up with these stories is a winding road,” he says. “You try something, it doesn’t work, and then you go a different way. Early on, the idea was that Max would be involved in some kind of traumatic event and forget all about it—except for a snippet of a song called Late Goodbye.”

Lake worked on the script for a month before deciding to take it to Remedy and turn it into Max Payne 2. In the earliest version of the script the song would awaken Max’s memories of this traumatic incident, and he would realise that it was playing on a car radio while it happened. But in the end, it didn’t play such a pivotal role in the storyline—an example of that winding road.

Now Lake needed someone to write the song. Luckily he was close friends with a songwriter, Marko Saaresto, who had just formed a new band. “Sam and I have been friends since childhood, so the connection was already in place,” says Saaresto, co-founder, lead vocalist, and primary songwriter in Poets of the Fall. “Then one night while driving we started talking about the possibility of the band writing a song for his new game, Max Payne 2. In the end we wrote three songs, one of which would eventually become Late Goodbye.”

“At the time, Poets had just formed,” says Lake. “Marko and I go way back, and he’s interested in writing too. He writes the lyrics for all the band’s songs, but he has written other stuff too. And we started talking about this idea of writing a custom song for the game. I had never written lyrics before, but I had this poem that contained elements that I wanted to be in the song. I sent it to Marko and gave him permission to modify it to make it work as lyrics."

I'd never written any lyrics before, but had a poem with elements I wanted in the song

Sam Lake

“Sam sent me one of his train of thought-style poems to illustrate the mood of the game,” says Saaresto. “Then I took the overall atmosphere of the piece and the phrase ‘late goodbye’ and wrote the lyrics around those themes. Working with a writer like Sam is a relief in many ways, because he’s someone who can really understand what you go through as an artist during the creative process. With him it was especially fun because we’ve been best friends since forever and know each other really well. The process was very free and open-minded.”

As well as capturing the dark, downbeat tone of Max Payne 2, Late Goodbye also contains some direct, if subtle, references: namely the line about staring at yourself in the ‘john mirror’, which anyone who followed the story of Address Unknown will understand. But Saaresto prefers people to interpret the lyrics for themselves. “That’s how humans operate,” he says. “We experience the world through our own lens. So even though I sometimes shed light on what our songs mean, I like people to have their own theories.”

Late Goodbye became a huge hit for Poets of Fall, and put the young Finnish band, suddenly, in front of an international audience. “We’re very grateful for that,” says Saaresto. “It was a great stepping stone for us to get that kind of worldwide exposure. It was also a really tough test for our music. If people hated the song I don’t know what would have happened. But they seemed to love it, and that gave us a nice confidence boost early in our career."

“It was great to get the band’s music out there, and I love what we’ve done together throughout the years,” says Lake. “They had an even bigger role in Alan Wake. There was a Poets of the Fall song, but the band also assumed the role of a fictional band called Old Gods of Asgard, which was really a logical progression of using music as an element that’s inside the world. We just went a lot further with it in Alan Wake than we did in Max Payne 2.”

Years later, Poets of the Fall still plays Late Goodbye at their live shows. “It definitely has a special vibe to it, since it was our first single release,” says Saaresto. “We played it so much in the early days of our career that, for a time, we didn’t really want to perform it live anymore. But it’s been back on the setlist for some time now and it’s a fun song to play.”

“I’m always looking for ways to get Poets of the Fall into our games,” says Lake. “The band wrote a song for Quantum Break called The Labyrinth, but unfortunately we didn’t have time to put it in because of some contractual issues.”

Andy Kelly

If it’s set in space, Andy will probably write about it. He loves sci-fi, adventure games, taking screenshots, Twin Peaks, weird sims, Alien: Isolation, and anything with a good story.