There’s some kind of irony to be found in the fact that one of the main pursuits of L.A. Noire is to reconstruct, in exact detail, a few square miles of 1947 Los Angeles, because everything else about the game is so modern. Ahead of its time, even.
Produced by Team Bondi and Rockstar Games and intended to be part radical reinvention of the point-and-click adventure games of yore, part tech-demonstration for new performance capture breakthroughs, the game also winds up having something that nobody expected: an unprecedented amount of intelligence. I would imagine that the game’s intelligence presented one of Rockstar’s biggest problems when it comes to selling the game to a wide audience. The company’s name has become synonymous with violent, open-world action games. Games that may have grand, sweeping narratives, but also have lots of blood, guts and other “exploitable elements” to keep the more reptilian-brained of their audience satiated.
The bulk of the gameplay is comprised of searching crime scenes for evidence and then interviewing persons of interest. The intimate nature of the interviews is where the game’s performance capture is employed to its fullest extent, as the player is asked to judge the validity of a P.O.I’s statement based on their facial tics and tells. It’s not terribly hard to discern when a character isn’t telling the truth (there’s lots of eye rolling, furrowed brows, etc.) but a player does have to use their deductive skills when it comes to determining whether they have sufficient evidence to prove if a perp is lying or not. Because all the characters a player meets are motion captured by real world actors, expect to be staring down many a familiar face over the course of the game. Either the producers got some kind of package deal or they wanted to capitalize on the warm post-war period connotations of Mad Men, because it seems like the entire cast shows up in L.A. Noire.
One of the complaints I’ve heard leveled at the game is that player choice holds very little consequence, with the game’s overarching story reaching the same conclusion whether you’re a master sleuth or a doorstop. If this setting and story were approached in the more “choose your own adventure” style of Bioware’s games, I don’t think that it would have worked half as well.
Players are placed in the shoes of war-hero turned beat cop Cole Phelps, and we follow his progression up (and down) the ranks of the L.A.P.D. at the same time that we learn about his past through flashbacks. We also watch helplessly has he makes mistakes that we as gamers would probably never choose for him. But that’s noir, baby. It’s in the damn title (albeit with an extra ‘e’ for classiness): this is meant to be a dark ride through a corrupt city, and I for one am glad the producers had the guts to take a certain amount of agency away from the players so a more compelling narrative could be told.
Closing cases is supremely satisfying, the technology is mouth-watering and the attention to detail makes you feel like you’ve stepped onto the screen in The Big Heat or into the pages of a Hammett novel. Could it possibly get any more enticing for readers of crime fiction? No, it couldn’t. But crime fans represent a really small percentage of the population, and with a game this expensive (the marketing costs alone must have rivaled those of this year’s big summer blockbusters) building upon such a niche core audience is a bold, brave move. It’s the kind of faith in narrative and an unproven-genre that would be a rarity for Hollywood, and is unheard of in the stodgy, “sequelize in order to turn a buck” game industry. That the game exists at all is an aberration, that it’s this good is something else.
If the fact that L.A. Noire is a big budget video game that takes cues from a film and literary genre that had its heyday over half a century ago is hard to believe, then the book tie-in is a minor miracle.
Regardless of your own feelings on “tie-in” fiction (I like them, but hey I’m a geek), the label usually translates to “paycheck” for authors and “garbage” for snobs. With a list of contributors who among them have racked up enough awards to sink a boat full of snobs, L.A. Noire: The Collected Stories certainly defies the “tie-in” trend.
The stories range from plot-heavy (Francine Prose’s “School for Murder”) to subdued (Lawrence Block’s “See the Woman”) but because there are such a manageable number (8) and the writers are of such choice-stock, all of the pieces are worthwhile. My personal favorite, because it is the bravest and most experimental, is Joyce Carol Oates’ (You Must Remember This) “Black Dahlia & White Rose.” Oates crafts a revisionist history story in which Elizabeth Short and Norma Jeane Baker were roommates, before Norma became Marilyn and Betty became the tragic Black Dahlia.
“Black Dahlia & White Rose” also perfectly encapsulates the tone and intent of the anthology. This is not a collection of stories that try to flesh out the characters or events from the game (although there is mention of some of the game’s notable people and places), instead the authors all work together to flesh out the feeling of 1946/47 Los Angeles. There are lavish and depraved Hollywood parties, down-on-their-luck bit-players, racial inequity, beleaguered beat cops and haunted veterans, each story told with each author’s signature flair. In Charles Ardai’s introduction he mentions that there is not a single author in the collection who hails from L.A., but that doesn’t matter, as they all succeed in imparting that sweaty, desperate feel that is unmistakably the City of Angels…even if Joe Lansdale brings his Texas, tall-tale sensibility with him.
L.A. Noire’s performance capture may not revolutionize the way games are made, but the mature approach that the producers took to the source material, that they took the time to create a tie-in where the stories will outlast the game itself, is a clear sign that games are growing up. And I couldn’t be happier.
Adam Blomquist writes fiction and nonfiction. His film criticism has been published in Paracinema (www.paracinema.net) and his fiction has been kept almost entirely in markets that specialize in the horror genre. He spent four years on a film degree, another on a master’s and all he got was this lousy blog: www.adamblomquist.com.