The Best Movie Critic + TIME

L.A. Noire

Hi folks, Justin here with a look at the new videogame, L.A. Noire and why it matters to movie people.

The problem with a lot of videogames is that they are conceptually confused. For example, maturity gets confused with gore and sex. Realism refers to HD graphics and not emotional content. Challenge means cultivating technical prowess and hand-eye coordination, not a challenge to the player’s thoughts and beliefs. I honestly don’t think there have been any major advancements in how videogames use the medium to tell stories since Super Mario Brothers came out some 25 years ago. That’s not to say that every videogame since then has been some variation on “The Princess is in another castle” so much as story has been the connective material between action set pieces. The games that tried really hard to be story focused lost track of the game – Heavy Rain. A lot of games needlessly tried to tack a story onto games that didn’t need it – every Mario game from Sunshine on and Portal 2.

L.A. Noire is in my estimation the first game to fully use everything the medium of videogames has to offer. This is the breakthrough that videogames has desperately needed. Simply put, L.A. Noire is to videogames what The Birth of a Nation was to movies, a giant leap forward for the medium. A great story told competently that makes the most of the tools it has. L.A. Noire takes some of the best ideas that came before it, revitalizes and rearranges them, and also adds many new ideas to the mix.

In L.A. Noire, you take control of Cole Phelps. At the start of the game, Phelps is a patrolman working the beat. Quickly, Phelps is promoted to detective. As the player solves progressively difficult cases, Phelps is promoted from the traffic desk, to homicide, then vice, and ultimately arson. Between cases, the player catches glimpses of Phelps’ recent history as a marine lieutenant in the pacific during WWII. Developers, Team Bondi, did a fantastic job creating cases that work as stand-alone episodes and further the overarching plot of the game. After a couple of hours of solving cases, I found myself as invested in Phelps’ rise and fall as I was in busting perps.

I try to be the first person to admit my biases. I absolutely love film noir movies. I’ve watched countless crime and detective movies. Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, and Mickey Spillane are some of my favorite writers. Playing L.A. Noire was like living out one of those stories. It’s clear that Team Bondi loves that aesthetic as much as I do. However, there were very few direct homages and the allusions were very subtle. In the later parts of the game, you visit an insurance agency that I swear was modeled after the one in Double Indemnity. Team Bondi walks a fine line between giving us fantasy and facsimile. Their Los Angeles was recreated street for street from vintage aerial shots, street maps, and photographs. They studied traffic patterns to give driving around an authentic feel. The soundtrack is a mix of period songs, radio shows (damn you Charley McCarthey!), and original compositions in the style of late 40’s jazz and pop. I played the game in color, but there’s an option to change the world to black and white to capture that magical film noir feel. That said, the game knows that it is retro noir like L.A. Confidential or Chinatown. While the game is very stylish and pulpy, it always takes itself seriously. The seriousness here really helped sell the universe in a way that the welcome but wry humor in Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series never could.

Some of the major criticisms being leveled at L.A. Noire is that unlike Grand Theft Auto, there is less freedom in Noire. In GTA IV, a player can drive around aimlessly playing through story missions in a relatively loose order. If you get bored in GTA IV, you can go postal and massacre civilians and cops with little penalty. In L.A. Noire, you’re kept on a pretty tight leash. The cases must be played through in order and you can’t go on indiscriminate killing sprees – after all, you’re supposed to be the good guy! We’re only with Phelps when he’s on a case. Though his personal life plays a part in the narrative of the story, we never see the inside of his house. Personally I didn’t mind the restrictions. I think that if anything, a game like GTA IV was made slightly boring and overwhelming because there was so much to do. The world was big and open, but the missions in GTA are very brief and usually fairly inconsequential. L.A. Noire does something much bolder by giving you the starting point of a case to investigate and largely letting the player determine the order of subsequent investigations.

The most interesting game play mechanic of L.A. Noire though is the interrogation system. The facial animations are so good, that a big part of the game is trying to determine if the characters Phelps is investigating are being truthful, withholding information, or flat out lying just by watching and listening to them. These sections are far and away the most challenging parts of the game. But what makes them so exciting is that this is a skill that everyone coming to the game should have. Everyone has learned something about reading people. I feel like I could have my parents or grandparents or someone who doesn’t play videogames play these parts and be about as successful as I was. The driving and shooting parts of the game do take a modicum of skill, but if you find yourself failing at those parts again and again, the game allows you to skip them without penalty.

The other awesome thing about questioning people: you only get one shot. If you miss something during questioning you may have to take a much more roundabout path to the solution. You may arrest the wrong person. Luckily though, the story does go on even if you totally screw the pooch. Beyond that, the writing and acting are both excellent. I can legitimately say that this is the first game I’ve ever played where the cut scenes did not bother me. It’s all part of the story. Everything deserves your attention. The more you are cognizant about what is going on, the richer the experience is. I’m not going to go out on a limb and say that the story was wholly original or even the best I’ve played in a game (see: Grim Fandango), but it is the most engaging story of this generation of games and everything about it works better than anything I’ve seen before. Your actions have meaningful consequences beyond moving some bar on a morality indicator. Like all good noir, L.A. Noire is about grey areas. And just like in real life, sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re doing the ethical thing or not.

So, why do I think that L.A. Noire is as big a leap forward for games as The Birth of a Nation was for movies? Simply put, because there is no difference between the story and the game. More technically, the interactive and non-interactive elements combine into a seamless whole and inform one another. It’s seamless and creates a new standard for story-driven videogames.

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L.A. Noire + TIME