It’s been a couple months since I finished playing through LA Noire, but as I dig it out of the pile and take it over to Ty that he may undermine his productivity for a change, I find myself thinking back on it with real fondness and no particular desire to return. There aren’t a lot of things that inspire this kind in instant nostalgia in me.
Team Bondi and Rockstar Games' admirable LA Noire
It was my first Rockstar game. I am assured by those who know better that it shares the particular hallmark of Rockstar games: bad driving. I can see how in something like Grand Theft Auto, where mayhem is the joy of the game, that would be a lot of fun. LA Noire puts me on the other side of the law — not a criminal, but the policeman holding back chaos. My first thought when I had to pull up my map and plan how to drive from one location to the next was that planning routes is pretty much exactly my experience of being in LA. I realized that I was suffering a kind of failure of translation when I was off to investigate a crime scene and found myself in a line of cars at a red light, waiting to make a left hand turn. Eventually, I gave in to the mechanics of the game and zoomed everywhere with my siren on, blasting down the wrong side of the road or through back yards or train tunnels. It cost some of the verisimilitude, but it was more fun. (Ian Tregillis of Bitter Seeds fame apparently went so far as to “borrow” the fire truck during one of the arson cases.)
Eventually, I gave up the driving, making my partner take the wheel and reducing the time it took to complete a case by an easy forty-five minutes (and also avoiding untold property damage).
The game itself was an odd mix. Driving, as I said, but also a kind of search-and-find walkthrough of crime scenes, a lot of shooting and fighting action scenes, and the interrogation mini-games in which I was called upon to read the body language of the suspects. I’ve never played a game like that, and all in all, I thought it worked more often than it failed. The designers did, I thought, an admirable job of finding new combinations of these things to keep the play from feeling too repetitive.
Which is also how I felt about the story. The story plays through four rough arcs — patrolman, homicide, vice, and arson — with an overarching plot given mostly in cutscenes that the detective I played wasn’t privy to. I don’t suppose that kind of dramatic irony is new to console games, but it was pretty effective, if only in that it kept promising that everything would eventually come together. And it more or less did. More or less.
In his forward to the really quite lovely anthology The Best American Noir of the Century, Otto Penzler persuasively argues that noir and hard-boiled detective stories are actually different — and even mutually exclusive — subgenres of mystery. The hardboiled detective is a kind of knight (I’m borrowing from Chandler by way of Penzler here) who “can walk the mean streets without beng mean himself.” A hardboiled detective remains an honorable man in dishonorable times and circumstances. Noir, on the other hand, is about the frailty, moral compromise, and eventual destruction of the protagonist. To draw a comparison, hard-boiled detective stories are a revamp of epic fantasy in which evil has put the land out of balance, and a pure and rightful king must return to the throne to make the world right again. Noir, by that analogy, is a form of horror in which the universe is malignant by nature and degrades and destroys the protagonist.
Through that lens, I have to call LA Noire successful. The designers built the arc of the character of Cole Phelps in classic noir style. He comes in looking like the knight — the true and righteous man in a corrupt world — and then through the game, he’s taken apart bit by bit, until he becomes something pathetic and destroyed. Oddly, I find that kind of tragedy cathartic.
Was it perfect? No. The homicide arc in particular — while a decent self-contained story — fit awkwardly into the overall plot. I wanted the cases to give me more of Phelps along with the cases, so that when his character made his mistakes, I understood and sympathized with them more. I haven’t seen another game that tried what LA Noire tried though, and going first is always a challenge. If there are more games with this novelistic or cinematic bent — and I hope there are — LA Noire will, I think, be one of the games to study, both in what it needed to improve and in how it succeeded.
(NOTE: If you’ve come to this entry directly and it’s November 29th or 30th, 2011, you might should just check out the Last Days post too.)