The first and foremost being how psyched I’d been personally for the title. Between the debut trailer way back in 2006 and its eventual release, I became smitten with the genre, so much so that when the title reared its head after a few years of radio silence, I was a ready and willing accomplice. The second reason is the initial shock and confusion that took a hold after I finished the game; how can a title manage to do so much right, yet lack a certain, essential cohesion between its narrative and gameplay?
The third reason is the irrefutable fact that this game is a new breed of gaming experiece, a rip in time of sorts. Like Marty McFly smashing out a barnstorming Chuck Berry impersonation; It’s a worm hole through which we’re afforded a glimpse at what narrative delivery in games will be capable of, even if we’re not quite ready or indeed willing, to get to grips with it yet.
To say the gameplay of L.A. Noire eventually gets repetitive falls on the darker side of generous. Three cases into the Traffic desk (Of the four that would be available via pre-order bonus) and the experienced gamer in me realised that the outline had been chalked; I’d experienced the bulk of the variety as far as my input was concerned. After a case briefing, an opening investigation, the follow up of several leads the last of which was generally bookended with a by numbers chase, it was a simple formula. Although initially I was fairly surprised at a few little switch ups as I changed desks (notably the point-and-click-lite puzzling of Vice) it could generally be explained by the anteing up of plot as I fleshed out my role in the darker, more gruesome fare I was investigating.
To be so engrossed in a narrative that I was willing to be bored, literally by duty, was a gaming epiphany.
After a relatively early play session (around 3-4 hours through the 20 overall) I found myself wandering through a meticulously designed period accurate apartment looking for the remaining clues I seemed to be overlooking. Half an hour passed and end game frustration loomed. I began combing the apartment one more time before I was to give it up. It was that exact thought which morphed into a pretty heady realisation. I was Investigating. I was wading through mounds of books, forks and match boxes that didn’t have anything to do with the case. The pressure that pulsated down through office hierarchy when my investigations lacked evidence. The weight of Cole’s conflict bearing down and straining away at the quality of my deduction. To be so totally engrossed in the narrative that I was willing to be bored, literally by duty, was a revelation. It feels as cringe inducing as it sounds when I say this; during the (admittedly overdrawn) time I spent partnered with him, I was wholly invested in Cole Phelps.
The nuanced and character driven whole, is a strong, even shining example of its genre… just not of its form.
Yet, just as soon as I was realising quite how closely LA Noire was mirroring the themes, motifs and indeed quality of the chandler-esque crime fiction that inspired it, I realised just what was holding it back. Videogames. The form itself. It isn’t a novel or a short story, a poem or otherwise. The modern videogame by this point, deservedly comes with its own set of restrictions, processes and structures. The nuanced and character driven whole of L.A Noire is most definitely a strong, even shining example of its genre, just not of its form. Like a wolf in lambs clothing, the mechanics push, pull and jut out of the paradigm, creating an ultimately important yet deeply flawed experience.
It’s a game that had no intention of presenting me with arcade thrills and a story shoe horned to provide retail units with an eye catching cover. The weight and speed at which Cole Phelps approached a crime scene was infused with a literary purpose. Collecting evidence, talking, collecting more, chasing, interrogating all made sense in its uniformity but not in realm of the modern videogame.
Theres no question that this is a game doing something different and progressive with narrative. It’s something that we hope and expect all developers to be doing behind closed doors, the big leaps, the game-changers we trust them to come up with. Ultimately it’s here that L.A. Noire becomes a Hattori Hanzo of double edged swords. At the very same time experience proves that big ideas can be explored through games, legitimising and helping the medium progress, yet it also makes the call that remembering what exactly constitutes a game at the moment, is just as important.
All said, I cant stop thinking about my time with L.A Noire. It was in equal parts interesting and frustrating, wondrous and broken; and just like the shadowy dames that drape through the offices of post-war gumshoes, its as flawed as it is integral.