L.A. Noire: Art Ahead of its Time

Its difficult to write about this game, if I’m being honest. I’ve spent hours watching old and new film noir, listening to the music of that period, and spending a total of 36 hours replaying this game because it deserves to be talked about. I wrote a very short and overall unconvincing post years back about why the game doesn’t deserve to disappear like it has, and I’m eager to make that right. But its so hard to talk about a game carrying so much good and bad, especially when much of those pros and cons are distinctive to this one game. But I’m going to do my best to talk about what makes the game matter and why its a testament to the power of bothering to do something different. I’m not sure that this is my most well-written or insightful post, but it is one I’ve done heavy research on, and I hope that shows.

L.A. Noire was Australian developer Team Bondi’s first, and only foray into the game industry until it shut down for a number of reasons years later. The game was sold and received well, people praised its unique handling of post WWII L.A. and…nothing. The game vanished into back-catalogs everywhere, and is rarely talked about now. But that doesn’t deserve to be the case. Through the atmosphere, the setting, and the gameplay, I can explain why this game deserves more attention than it ever got.

ATMOSPHERE

Describing the world of a video game is challenging, especially when that world is designed with so much detail. A lack of vocabulary isn’t the issue, but there’s so much thrown into every home and office you visit, its impossible to describe the nostalgic feeling that washes over you. It should be impossible to feel nostalgia for a time period you’ve never been to, but its a testament to the developers ability to make a world feel so alive. Kitchens are flooded with utensils and appliances that today would be as dated as the news broadcasts that are belted with gusto from the old radios across the room. The sunny skies of Los Angeles contrast sharply with the darkened alleyways and jazzy score. But oh, what a score it is; as soon as you enter the main menu, you’re treated to one of the finest jazz symphonies I’ve ever heard (seriously listen to this all the way through):

Seriously from beginning to end, this is a piece that I think rivals, or at least pays excellent homage to the work of jazz legends such as Miles Davis or Thelonius Monk. It’s a long, meandering ballad that explores and sets the tone for the tragic stories about to unfold, but like any good noir story or soundtrack, that tragic atmosphere draws you in rather than push you away. Different police desksare treated with the right reverence as well; moving from Traffic to Homicide doesn’t just a mean a new office to begin cases from. This promotion gives way to a darker, more reverent tone and score that reflects the difficult choices and morbid crime scenes that lie ahead. In contrast, promotion to the Vice desk allows for a more casual and laid-back score that reflects the department’s general indifference to right and wrong. The music in this game is what allows for players to subconsciously understand and accept future events as they unfold, and the soundtrack reflects this as well. The editors at the LA Noire Wikia brought up an excellent point that, “…a number of these songs have either a crime theme, or otherwise reflect some aspect of noir culture.” Tracks such as “Maybe I Should Change My Ways” by Duke Ellington or “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall” by Ella Fitzgerald and The Ink Spots convey inevitable tragedy but the beauty hidden in that fact.

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SETTING

Post WWII is a difficult time to address, even more so in Los Angeles. There’s racial tension, a large mob presence and widespread corruption in the police force. L.A. Noire tackles each of these topics in depth without falling into excessive social commentary. There’s cases of Antisemitism, distaste for homeless veterans, and the age-old struggle of good police work vs. red tape. Unlike other titles that take influence from noir such as Max Payne 3 that only acknowledge social injustice without diving into it, Cole Phelp’s journey through the LAPD will thrust him into uncomfortable territory in a way that few movies or TV shows of the era ever dared to address. It’s arguably the game’s greatest strength: that it pays homage to a great era of entertainment without borrowing its cliches and flaws as well. There’s no levelheaded morally flawless protagonist: there’s just a socially awkward and woefully misunderstood WWII vet named Cole Phelps dealing with guilt and trying to find redemption in a city that asks you to leave moral codes in the dust. There’s never a “good” or “evil” character. There’s either the morally gray, the morally proud or the morally bankrupt. Unlike the black and white visuals synonymous with old noir films, Team Bondi understands that human nature isn’t explained in a spectrum of good or bad, but rather in good or bad choices, and the gameplay reflects this just as well.

GAMEPLAY

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Your interrogation skill can be the only thing standing between an excellent case and a flop. 
Team Bondi developed the game to follow a very similar pattern. Each case will feature two different scenes:

  1. An Investigation of a Crime Scene. Essentially, what saves L.A. Noire from being a mediocre action game. It’s trademark police work with a couple fun twists in the form of musical cues. A certain theme will play while checking an area for clues. When near a clue that hasn’t been investigated, a musical cue plays to alert you. When you’ve found every clue, the music stops, just like a film would pause the music since there’s no longer a need to draw the viewer further in. The other half of investigations will involve asking questions, a system that reflects the game’s status as a flawed gem with a unique but imperfect interrogation system. After someone replies to one of your questions, you can react in one of three ways: Truth, which surprise, will mean Phelps believes the witness and/or suspect is telling the truth, Doubt, which means Phelps suspects a lie, but can’t prove it, and Lie, which requires you to provide evidence in the form of a clue to back up your belief that the suspect isn’t telling the truth. The clues won’t be in their statements- it’ll be in their face as well. Team Bondi used then-experimental motion-scan technology so that every citizen looks and behaves fairly normal. Shifty eyes or posture, continually licking lips or other tells can give you enough reason to believe a suspect is lying when you don’t have proof. There appears to be some influence from the classic film Laura in here: In that movie, the protagonist’s allies shift and disintegrate because of the information they do or don’t give. No one’s ever telling the whole truth, and the game wants you to tackle that concept head-on. Get a question right, and a positive musical cue will play, while falsely believing or accusing a suspect will trigger an off-key musical cue to warn you that you’ve missed potential clues or witness statements. It’s not a perfect system. The game can urge you to doubt when there’s clear evidence of a lie, and only one specific piece of evidence, sometimes two, will allow you to prove a suspect is lying even when there’s five other clues that would prove the same point.How well you conduct your investigation won’t change the fact that you’ll catch the suspect at the end no matter what, but it will change how smoothly your investigation goes.
  2. Linear Action Sequences. This is one element from film noir the developers could have left out, and they’re pretty tedious to run through. It’s usually a car chase or fistfight, and both involve dodging and attacking at the right time. The shootouts are fairly forgettable as well, save for one that places you in the middle of an abandoned movie set where you can shoot fake Babylonian pillars and let them topple onto enemies. It’s surprisingly early on in the game and I have to wonder why future shootouts refused to allow any creativity. The only great thing to come out of these moments are the on-foot chases. Likely taking influence from The Third Man’s fantastic sewer chase, a suspect that flees police intends to risk his life if it means his freedom. While these aren’t challenging, they’re great fun to watch as Phelps jumps from rooftop to rooftop or through diners and alleyways while that catchy score plays on. Here’s a great example (ignore the Russian subtitles this was the best video I could find):

One of those two scenes I mentioned above gives way to the other, and once you’ve completed enough cases on a desk such as Traffic or Homicide, you move on to the next desk for the next assignment. Despite the fact that this formula is repeated over 20 cases, each one brings enough unique characters and twists to make that formula perfectly acceptable. And yet its when L.A. Noire bothers to deviate from its own formula that it reaches a pinnacle in storytelling. The final case for the Homicide desk doesn’t involve solving a murder but following stanzas from Percy Shelley left by a serial killer, and matching those stanzas to prominent L.A. landmarks where the next clue is hidden, ending with a tense and chilling finale hunting the killer in an old crypt. Cases like these are few and far between but they’re always the most memorable. There isn’t a bad mystery in the game, but it is worth wondering if that kind of cycle really made a better product.

I think I should touch on the overall story, controversial as it may be. Every plot element leading up to the ending gets more intriguing as the game progresses. At first, there’s clues to a larger story playing itself out around you, but for the first half of the game, you’re just switching partners and desks. That’s not a bad thing, seeing as each partner is more memorable then the next. Phelps’ patrol partner is a forgettable character with little to offer since he’s comfortable with the bare minimum of police work, while his partner in Traffic is a smart-mouthed insecure man trying to hide the shameful fact that he was unfit for service in WWII. From there, you meet your Homicide partner Rusty Galloway, a good-natured but perpetual alcoholic who could be better at his job but doesn’t bother trying, Roy Earle, a corrupt detective in Ad Vice who requests Phelps a s a partner just so he can try and break the morally uptight veteran, and Herschel Biggs, a pessimistic WWI vet who’s seen too much of human nature to believe that anyone can be redeemed, but continues to fight the good fight for reasons unknown. While at first your partners just feel like a cheap way for the game to give you an assistant, with each consecutive desk you meet someone whose personality seeps into the cases and story. Even if they won’t help with investigating clues or interrogations, its fun to have someone else along for the ride, even if its only for awhile.

But it was only recently that I came to the conclusion that the story isn’t actually bad. Not in the way many people think. Yes there’s so many plot elements and flashbacks that aren’t tied together nearly as well as they could have, and the game should not have crammed this massive overarching plot into a handful of cases at the end. But the part of the ending that upset most people, including myself, is now the part that I’ve come to understand. When Cole gets washed away in the sewer before he can prove how corrupt the LAPD really is, that final scene at his funeral where the villains get away with their crime and the heroes have to watch on in horror as the the same people that killed him get to speak of him as a hero is upsetting. But only if you examine this story within the context of traditional writing.

But in great noir, there’s one common thread; the protagonist doesn’t get a happy ending, however he does complete the task he always needed to. Again, take a look at the Third Man: Holly Martins kills his best friend and loses the girl, but he does get justice for all the lives his friend has ruined. Taxi Driver, while more recent, shares a lot of these traits too: Travis Bickle isn’t a better man by the end, if anything he’s a disaster waiting to happen. But he’s no longer alone or miserable; everyone loves him and can’t stop talking about him. In the game’s very first case, you investigate a possible race-related shooting. When you arrest the suspect, Phelps discovers another clue that could lead the investigation further. But when his partner reminds them that what they’ve done is enough for today, Phelps leaves the clue for another detective to solve. It kind of reflects how the ending is handled. The protagonist never gets the closure they’ve earned, but they’ve done what the story asked them to do. Good Noir storytelling shares much in common with tragedy, the hand of fate and fatalistic philosophy. It cares little for the characters, but is happy to use each of them as a plot device to bring about whatever the next chapter requires, even though it usually means said characters will leave the story in a violent or heartbreaking way. It’s hard not to feel that same sadness walking the streets that Team Bondi painstakingly recreated. The studio, and its sole product, have been forgotten by most, and I can’t help but wonder what the future could’ve held. In many ways, the developers were a a victim of noir storytelling as well: they never got a happy ending, but they did complete the game they wanted to make, and that’s the most poetic thing that could happen to the developers of such a beautiful and tragic gem.

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