Writing about videogames is a frustrating profession. I will brook no argument over the medium’s status as art, or its eventual position as the dominant entertainment form of the 21st Century. As I see it, these aren’t topics for discussion, but facts. It matters not that they belong more to the near future than the immediate present – the cheque is in the mail, as they say, but my feelings of frustration are borne from not knowing when that cheque will arrive.
I continue to brave the perplexed stares of my family and friends when I discuss my job, safe in the knowledge that the future belongs to the gamers. But I don’t begrudge their lack of interest, because unless you enjoy mindless mini-games or testosterone injected action the majority of videogames can be an alienating experience. I am confident the future will be different, so I tend to greet games that challenge the reigning paradigm and give some small indication of what that future might be like with a near maniacal fervour. L.A. Noire is one of those games.
In a previous incarnation I was trusted with the features section of a prominent videogames magazine, where I supervised an investigation into why this medium is so besotted with violence. The answer was screamingly, depressingly simple: it was the easiest thing to simulate. Be it Mario jumping on koopa troopa or an Allied soldier firing a bullet at a Nazi’s head, the tyranny of violence is a by-product of a simpler time ruled by simpler technology. But we don’t live in that world any more, and L.A. Noire is one of the few blockbuster games of recent years to recognise that fact.
The year is 1947, and Los Angeles is a dazzling mire of glamour, greed and corruption. You take control of Cole Phelps, a World War II veteran starting his new job with the L.A.P.D. The game is structured around the cases Phelps is assigned – all of which are inspired by real-world crimes - as he works his way through the L.A.P.D.’s various “desks” – traffic, vice, murder, etc. Each case is a self-contained chapter, but each one will reveal another piece of a much larger overarching story.
The spectacularly realised post-war setting is a welcome change from gaming’s usual roster of apocalyptic wastelands, Tolkien-esque rural fantasias, and identikit contemporary cities, but where L.A. Noire truly stands apart is in the focus of its gameplay. Hand the basic description above to the vast majority of studios and you’ll get the same duck-and-cover shooter, but Rockstar - always so keen to venture beyond its own comfort zone - has done the unthinkable and made a game about talking.
I saw one of L.A. Noire’s first cases played in full, and in the hour it took to complete the car chases, gun battles and fistfights so familiar to gamers occupied only a small fraction of that time. Rockstar set out to make the videogame equivalent of Chinatown, James Ellroy and Raymond Chandler, so L.A. Noire’s moments of high action serve to punctuate much longer passages of finding evidence, questioning suspects, and, y’know, actual detective work.
This is enabled by some truly remarkable performance capture technology called “Motion Scan”, which renders the faces of L.A. Noire’s characters with unprecedented fluidity and detail. For the first time – in my experience, at least – the player is able to perceive if a character is lying simply by examining their behaviour, so what was once relegated to cut-scenes can become the bedrock of the gameplay experience.
Make no mistake, you will kill people in L.A. Noire, but only after you’ve earned the right to do so through investigation, observation and interrogation. What’s more, you also have the freedom to ask the wrong questions, miss a key piece of evidence, or rashly accuse an innocent of the crime – your mistakes never stop the story, but simply change the way it develops.
A game where violence takes a backseat; a game where concepts like winning and losing hold no relevance; for better or worse, these are still radical ideas for a videogame to explore. Only time will tell if L.A. Noire can deliver on its own ambitions. Until then, I’m content to stand back and admire the sheer daring of what Rockstar is trying to accomplish. If it works, my professional life will be a far less frustrating place.