L.A. NOIRE and the Story That Wasn't There
L.A.Noire is a videogame developed Team Bondi, Rockstar Leeds and Rockstar Games and published by Rockstar Games for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC. The Xbox 360 version was played for the purpose of this review. It was directed by BRENDAN MCNAMARA.
Touch of Evil (1958)
In most mediums, we can recognize the signature of the “author”. He is the composer, the director, well… the author! Games, however, are different. In gaming, the signature is more easily related to the development studio or even the publisher. Such is the case with Rockstar, an international company focusing its games on the many American mythoi – chief among them being the pursuit of the American Dream, as seen in the many GTA games
In some ways, a game based on Film Noir would be the anti-GTA. While the search of the American Dream is highly dependent on the optimist of the main characters to fight for success, the players of a Noir Film already know that what they are actually playing is a poker game of death. The world is merciless and unforgiving and they are already doomed no matter what they do. In the search of the American Dream, the fall from glory is a surprise; in Film Noir, the surprise would be not to fall from glory. Despite its name, that game isn’t L.A. Noire. Perhaps we were too anxious to announce the first bona fide Noir game since the satirical works of Grim Fandango and Max Payne. Perhaps it was the mere repetition of the information contained in more than five years of previews, announcements and announcements of announcements about the game while it was still being developed. But whatever the reason, what happened was that many game reviews felt into the easy trap of comparing this game to L.A. Confidential, a great piece of Film Noir. It’s a facile comparison – if there is anything L.A. Noire isn’t, it is Noir.
So, it’s disheartening to see Brendan McNamara’s interview where he defines Noir as the genre in which “someone who is put in a situation… he must do something he doesn’t want to”, which is as generic a way to define whatever conflict one can think of, but there you have it. There is more to the genre than just playing detective. If anything, apart from relying on devices such as a unique visual style and voice-overs, the Noir work is essentially a pessimistic one. There is always a sense of doom and perdition floating around, and the protagonist’s future is all used up. This isn’t the case in L.A. Noire: our hero, Cole Phelps is always optimistic. He truly believes that if he works hard enough, no criminal will be left unpunished. If he works hard enough, his professional future will be bright. …and then he falls. And he is surprised. And we wonder if we are still going after the American Dream instead of being in a true Noir.
Perhaps a better way to describe L.A. Noire is a bildungsroman: a coming-of-age story of someone looking for answers, a journey. We are supposed to see Cole Phelps grow wiser and more mature. And yet, there is something odd. We notice it right from the beginning, when there is a voiceover narration whose only purpose is checking off an item on the list of what McNamara considers to be Noir. The fact it is not Cole himself as the narrator is the first sign that certain things in this game aren’t where they were supposed to be. Is L.A. Noire hiding Phelps?
Phelps starts off as a mere patrolman and, due to his initiative and the fact the police department desperately needs a poster child – preferably a war hero who can bring results – he quickly rises, becoming a detective and passing through the Traffic, Homicide, Ad Vice and Arson desks. As a detective, your role is to collect evidence and interrogate people, occasionally chasing suspects or putting them down. Each of these activities feels like its own mini-game and they are, together with the character animation of men wearing hats walking down stairs, the best thing the game has to offer. Interrogation is particularly tricky not only because the right technique is hard to grasp as you never quite know exactly what Phelps is going to do once you decide to trust, doubt or call someone a liar (hint: in doubt, always call the perp a liar first because, even if you eventually find out that you can’t prove what Phelps accused the person of doing, you can still back down with no penalties), but also because we have this desperately need for “winning” and that every decision which doesn’t lead us to the perfect score is inherently wrong. But winning is silly, old video game logic, and restarting the game until the “right decision” is made is taxing not only to your enjoyment of the game but also to the very irrevocable nature that a decision should possess. In fact, I’m willing to say that all the core gameplay mechanics work really well – I was actually surprised to realize that after all the backlash and sometimes unfair criticism this game got regarding its open world nature and the interrogation sections.
Even if the plot does not require nor incentivize you to explore the entire city, there is nothing like the possibility of just stopping your car to see the window of a street shop if you so please – in fact, it’s the very source of the potential games possess. There is even a system of restraints designed to keep the player’s agency from become at odds with the protagonist’s characterization, which is perhaps the biggest challenge game developers have (or should have) whenever they try to tell stories. Overall the player is always kept on a leash. Cole can’t fire his gun when there are no criminals nearby, he is penalized by his superiors for any damage he causes in the city and is scolded by his partners every time he hits another car – which is deviously effective. Soon enough, I was actually trying to drive safely: an incredible accomplishment for any seasoned gamer, particularly in a city filled with red lights such as the game’s Los Angeles.
And if there is something Los Angeles feels ridden with it is cases to be solved. So we start to crack these cases, one after the other. But slowly, as the cases pile up, you begin to notice something’s wrong. Instead of developing characters, you notice that each chapter introduces its own assortment, only to completely drop them on the following case. The impression is that the chapters are nothing but set pieces, parts of Cole Phelps’ daily routine that ultimately don’t matter. In a way, it’s a feeling akin to watching L.A. Confidential for the first time. We are not even sure that there is a plot and how the many pieces will fall into place – the difference is that, in L.A. Noire, the pieces aren’t connected after all. There is too much fat in a game that is already long (but could have been even longer, with McNamara claiming in that same interview that it required 6 CDs at one point).
Every once and a while, during an investigation, Cole can find newspaper clues that show us events that, though unrelated to the case at hand, may be related to the overarch du jour. These segments are particularly troublesome because, despite Phelps reading them, they were meant for the player. Eventually, one newspaper will foreshadow a plot twist, and yet Cole Phelps has no choice other to walk into the trap set up for him. Worse still is the feeling of the player being in the wrong place. While he is controlling Phelps, the newspapers show that the real mystery is happening somewhere else, which brings up the question: why isn’t the player where the story is taking place?
And suddenly, there is our answer: it’s not that the game is hiding Phelps, but that the story is hiding from him.
It’s a bildungsroman, sure, but a failed one, because none of the cases you get to solve ever played any hand in it. From the three major case arcs – concerning a serial killer, a real estate scam involving the city’s big shots and a conspiracy among returning war veterans – none of them have any impact on the main characters.
Whatever change the bildungsroman required to happen was not plot-related. The game never shows Cole’s evolution, and the key to his motivations sadly comes too late. We are left with the chronicles of Cole Phelps rather than the journey of Cole Phelps. Even the relationship with characters like Elsa Lichtmann and Jack Kelso, the heart and consciousness of the game respectively, who should serve as triggers to Phelps’s growth, are relegated to the side-lines of the game, much like Phelps’ own personal life. Thus, when the climax arises in the form of the Moment of Truth, the moment where Cole must demonstrate his maturity in a plot-defining act, we find ourselves questioning why. Did he do it because of any change that took place during the game or was he ever ready to do it? There are no answers, only conjectures, because the plot of L.A. Noire hides its story. After this, there is no dénouement – and how could there be one when the Moment of Truth feels gratuitous and random?
Some of us tried to come up with justifications for that, but justifying a problem doesn’t solve it. L.A. Noire plays as if Citizen Kane were a movie about newspaper management rather than the rise of a newspaper tycoon.
Despite the failure of the bildungsroman, it is still a good game and there is plenty of charm to be found in the chronicles of Cole Phelps, or rather, in the whole 40’s setting of L.A. Noire. This is a world the men must pick up their hats from the floor after going into a brawl. Though this never actually happens, you can sense they are always tightening up their ties when nobody is seeing. It is contagious: soon enough you will start to care about fedoras, suits and ties. A new suit is not merely a reward for some collectible, but proof of your professional ascent.
The ultimate hidden gem of L.A. Noire is Courtney Sheldon. Sheldon, who works as the main antagonist through much of the newspaper segments, is alienated and acts as a catalyst to all the plot events – and more importantly, he takes part in much of the story, which is something that can’t be said about Phelps. It’s funny how many interesting themes there are to explore in L.A. Noire, and yet the game keeps getting in the way. Now Courtney is the quintessential Noir lead, not Phelps. His actions are born of a noble purpose and yet each one ends in disaster while the world tightens up its grip on him a little more.
It’s interesting to see Phelps in the light of Sheldon. Cole is often antagonized by his partners and colleagues for being an unabashed glory hound and for only solving cases so that he climbs up the career ladder faster, as if that was bad. Meanwhile, Sheldon is praised for being altruistic and always thinking about his peers. The difference is the results. Regardless of whatever intention either one might have, Phelps is a man of results and Sheldon is not, despite Phelp’s detective tactics being highly questionable: traumatizing witnesses, tampering with evidence, breaking in people’s home without a warrant. In many ways, he reminds me of McNamara himself – a man that destroyed his own studio in order to launch his game. Alas, he marketed it as Noir. McNamara shouldn’t have chosen the guy whose cases always ended alright as his protagonist. Nothing ends alright in a Noir.