*SPOLIERS Abound in this in-depth critical analysis of why L.A. Noire is just plain awesome.*
Way back in 2004 Rockstar Games, producers of ultra-violent fun-fests like Grand Theft Auto, announced they were working on a realistic "CSI style" game set in 1940's America. Apart from appearing to be a rather dramatic departure from the cartoony, violent, and somewhat mindless games the company was known for, the move was also met with skeptical due to the rather mundane sounding nature of game play such a title would seemingly require.
Little did the world know what a massive bomb of innovation and creativity was about to be dropped on it. In May of 2011 Rockstar released L.A. Noire with resounding success. Early reviews praised the game's plot and game play, and lavished it with praise regarding the spectacular sense of environment set through out the game.
But what many people have failed grasp is the little things in L.A. Noire that not only make it a great game, but also serve to shape the way media will be developed and presented in the future. Indeed, it is the little things of L.A. Noire that make the difference, and anybody who cares to understand the direction our society is headed should take heed.
L.A. Noire takes place in 1940's Los Angeles, shortly after World War II's end. The game uses this setting to full advantage, casting the protagonist Cole Phelps, the cities of L.A. and Hollywood, and societal tension of the area as canvasses upon which to paint a fantastic narrative, filled with intrigue, plot-twists, and well thought out theme.
Cole Phelps is an up and coming, rather ambitious police officer. After taking the initiative in solving murders to which he was assigned menial tasks, he gets the attention of a hard-line police captain who initiates him into the ranks of police detectives.
But Cole is more than just his career. More than anything, Cole is shaped by his experience as an officer in WWII. A winner of the prestigious silver star, and a survivor of the infamous Battle of Sugar Loaf, the world looks to Cole as a golden boy of the modern era. But the truth behind these events is far from the image people typically ascribe to him.
During boot camp, Phelps became an officer, essentially, by betraying his friends. In particular, he alienated a child-hood friend Jack Kelso. Kelso was so bothered by the lengths Cole was willing to go to become an officer that he abandoned his own ambitions to become a rank and file rifleman. The two ended up fighting in many of the same battles, and the lives of these two soldiers stood in stark contrast to each other through out the war.
Phelps made a lot of bad decisions in keeping with his obsession of going by the book. This, in addition to his off-and-on cowardice, lead to the events in which he won a silver star. Frequently Kelso had to take over for Phelps when he got too scared, or was foolishly engaging in a certain scenario according to conventional wisdom.
Worse of all was Phelps' unpopularity with his men. Apart from his actions in battle, he is seen as a Japanese sympathizer due to his intellectualization of the war he fights. Cole is an educated man, but his error in sharing his understanding of why the Japanese fight America is probably his greatest folly, as it is perhaps the strongest hammer-blow against his ability to lead the soldiers of his unit.
Thanks to the formative years Cole Phelps spent in the war, he is a broken and relatively undefined man. Despite being an accomplished police officer, when he reaches the detective desk he finds that he still has a lot of growing to do. Unfortunately, this growth is to be shaped by the death and corruption that surrounds him as he embarks on his career.
Much like Cole himself, the city of Los Angeles and it's surrounding area are in a state of profound change and turmoil. Not only are freeways, housing developments, and commercial skyscrapers being built in massive abundance, but the social and political situation is changing.
Through out the game the player encounters these changes first hand. From communist conspiracies, to out-dated racial thinking, the seeds of an evolving society are made apparent. Many of the issues involved in the cases Cole must solve can be seen to represent things going on within his society. Particularly potent are the men who have returned from war, and find it hard to adjust to living in a civilized world.
These veterans often find themselves unable to "shut-off" a part of themselves that is still at war. Trained to fight and kill, and to strictly conform, they often wind up being involved in drug-trafficking, gangs, and domestic-violence. Indeed, some of Phelps closest "friends" and true heroes of the war end up pulling off a massive drug heist from the USMC itself.
This serves to be the ultimate contrast of how the societal upheaval of the 40's can take people. While the real heroes of the war end up becoming criminals, the false hero (Phelps) becomes a beacon and justice and morality.
In the end, the setting provides for a potent political and philosophical commentary. While rather pointed and overt, it works. Parallels are easily drawn between the end-game events and modern American society, and it's pretty difficult to deny it's premise.
L.A. Noire combines elements from Rockstar's previous open-world titles with elements of 90's era adventure games to create an incredibly unique experience. While some high-strung gamers may get bored from time to time, the atmosphere and plot are so engaging that few players will have a hard time staying interested. Combine that with the surprisingly entertaining (albeit disturbing) crime scene investigations and dynamic interrogation systems, and you've got yourself a winning combination.
While the format is broken several times through out the game, cases in L.A. Noire typically begin with Cole and his partner (Cole goes through several partners) investigating the scene of the crime. While some evidence has already been marked, some has not been found by the uniformed cops on site. You must search search the area for clues, interview witnesses, and perform other tasks.
Searching for clues is a lot more fun than it sounds. L.A. Noire makes this part of the game rather intuitive. The music changes as soon as you are at a crime scene to let you know that you can search the area. When you do, the controller vibrates and music changes a bit to indicate that you are near a piece of evidence, representing Cole's intuition. Once a clue is located, the player has to examine the evidence to extrapolate information from it. This can be as simple as looking for a serial number on a gun, or as complex as interpreting a secret code you found earlier into manipulation of the object to open a secret compartment.
It is often necessary to interview witnesses and victims as well. This is done through the games innovative interrogation system. L.A. Noire employs a brand new facial-recognition technology that accurately records actors' facial and eye movements. Rockstar hired professional actors to play all of the parts in L.A. Noire, and thus the movements are incredibly reliable and realistic. This is good, because a huge part of of interviewing people relies on how they act.
The conversation begins with Cole asking a question. This is done by selecting a topic from your notebook based on the case, events, and various evidence you may have found. After the interviewee responds, you are tasked with judging whether the person is telling the truth, is not being entirely truthful or lying (called "doubt" in the game), or if you have solid evidence to prove that the person is lying. Sometimes the proper response is obvious due to circumstances or evidence you may have found. Often, though, you have to determine the honesty of someone based on their answer, facial movements, and your own intuition.
Apart from being an awesome game play mechanic, interrogations serve to tell you a bit about yourself. Because the interviews can sometimes be a bit subjective, players are forced to rely on their intuition and reasoning abilities more often than not. While doing a good job at the crime scene and doing good police work can help a lot, the truth wont always be obvious. Players will frequently find themselves making hard decisions, sometimes based purely on their own personal biases regarding people.
Players may find themselves trusting people of certain ethnicities more than another, or distrusting people from a certain socioeconomic class. While this isn't directly built into the game, it is intentional, and the developers do a good job of showing you just how wrong your assumptions are.
Indeed, failure is always an option in L.A. Noire. By the end of the game you will have caged your fair share of innocent people, and botched the hell out of at least a few cases.
After the crime scene is done with, you have to follow the evidence where it takes you. This means making tough decisions about where to go, who to talk to, and in what time frame to do so. L.A. Noire gets incredibly varied during these times, making the replay value of the game immense. For instance, in one case I took my time getting to a witness' apartment, and because of that when I arrived her place had been thrashed and I had to kill two gangsters that were still inhabiting her home. Had I been a bit quicker, she could have told me what was about to happen, and I could have intercepted and interrogated the perps, and also retrieve more evidence from the witnesses home.
Characters die, relinquish more or less truth, and evidence is destroyed or found because of your actions during a case. Botching an interrogation might mean that you merely don't get the whole story, or it might mean you miss out on a key piece of information you need to nab the right guy. Sometimes doing certain things first can save you a lot of time, like interviewing the suspect that actually committed the crime before you go around bugging a whole bunch of people and raising the ire of their friends and even employers (I got a guy fired once from his job because they thought he was a murderer; he wasn't).
The freedom and consequences of L.A. Noire are both realistic and incredibly profound. Players may find themselves having a new perspective on the law enforcement after playing the game, both positive and negative. Quite telling is the pressure put on the player to lock someone up. More than once you will be forced to throw someone in jail you aren't completely certain is guilty. Sometimes you don't feel so bad about it, like when you put away a child molester or known arsonist, but sometimes it churns your stomach a bit, like when you lock up a decent father.
Gun fights, car chases, foot chases, and other action sequences are also present in L.A. Noire. Again, these elements present a vast array of choice in how you go about them that affects the case. For instance, if you don't stop a speeding car you may be forced into a gun fight with a suspect that ends with him leaving in a body bag, thus making the question of who the perpetrator is unclear. Likewise, stopping that vehicle may result in thousands of dollars of damage to your vehicle and the city, which can profoundly affect the rating of how well you handled the case.
While L.A. Noire certainly makes the player the feel the sting of their decisions, one of the most potent experiences in the game is examining dead bodies. In a pre-DNA world, you've really got to get your hands dirty when examining the deceased. This is an intentionally disturbing experience, carefully crafted to deliver both insecurity and desensitization at various times. The player really feels Cole's emotions in this experience.
Ordinarily I am critical of nudity in video games, but in L.A. Noire I endorse it. The only naked people in the game are dead. This adds to the sense of depravity surrounding certain murders, and serves to make the player uncomfortable with his or her sense of things. Many of the characters in the game are sexual deviants, and seeing the most extreme end result of such deviance in such a horrifying fashion really hits the message home. It's one thing to be put off a bit by your partner's uncouth comment about his ex-wife being a whore - it's another thing entirely to hear it as your hunched over the naked body of dead woman with explicit messages carved into her skin.
This stands in stark contrast to games like The Witcher or even previous Rockstar titles. For too long sex has been taken lightly and treated in a immature fashion in video games. While it's true L.A. Noire may be over-correcting the problem, it is still a bold a move in the right direction. L.A. Noire shows us exactly how impactful sexuality is in people's lives, and flies in the face of those who would paint video games being merely for the entertainment of snicker teenagers and over-grown boys.
As mentioned earlier, L.A Noire has an incredibly crafted plot and theme. While not all cases are connected, the plot revolves around a world famous Psychiatrist who seems to be exploiting his patients for his own purposes, a corrupt mayor, a shady pseudo-government organization, and a police force filled with both corrupt and upstanding officers.
Recently games have begun tackling philosophy and politics with vigor and maturity. L.A. Noire continues this upswing of intellect and surpasses many of it's predecessors in doing so. Taking a page from Bioshock, the game reads like a Libertarian manifesto. Only, where Bioshock was interested in demonstrating a broader Any Rand style Objectivist philosophy, L.A. Noire deals in practical examples of political Libertarianism. in fact, the game is so dedicated to showing it's theme pragmatically, that the events which depict this theme actually happened in real life, albeit in not quite as dramatic a fashion.
From the beginning it's clear that at least some of the murders, incidents, and arsons that Cole investigates are part of something bigger than the individual crimes. Some suspects seem to have been set up, and a connection can be drawn amongst seemingly unconnected crimes.
Eventually patterns begin to manifest, namely a certain insurance company, mental patients, some military surplus morphine, and Cole's old war "buddies." It's hard to say too much about the plot's details without giving away massive plot twists, but suffice it to say that the game ties things together quite dramatically while maintaining it's realism.
Speaking of plot twists, there are a lot of them. Some are minor, but many dramatic and shocking. The narrative of L.A. Noire weaves characters and events together slowly, but masterfully. In fact, it's hard for me to think of any video game in history that connects it's characters and events quite so well without merely giving away the connections right from the start. Even better is the game's subtlety in presenting this. Not everything is obvious, and takes a lot of focus to really connect the dots sometimes. Following cases in certain ways will sometimes reveal plot details you may have missed otherwise, and plot is so complex that much of it will get lost among the shuffle. That's okay, though, because you revisit all of the issues involved multiple times. If you miss out on something the first time, either because you screwed up a case or just didn't get it, chances are you'll be able to figure it out later.
The plot reaches it's climax when all the pieces fall together. This involves the best executed shift of perspective I have ever seen in a video game, as the player leaves Phelps entirely for a minor character from early in the game. This may sound a little offsetting, but it is not. It is actually perfectly reasonable given the context, and serves to teach you a lot about Cole's inadequacy and insecurity. It also ends up casting the story of L.A. Noire in part a tale of redemption for two men guilty of vastly different sins.
When the plot gets thick, so does the philosophy. When the final few plot twists are revealed, the message of the game speaks for itself. Without getting preachy (no one even mentions it, in fact) L.A. Noire challenges the player regarding their world view. Masterfully, L.A. Noire brings into question the validity of one the most seemingly righteous social programs ever invented, the GI Bill. What seems to have been intended as a reward for the people most deserving of it, it becomes a sponge that soaks up all the corruption and crime of the city. People die, laws are broken, and the lives of many a citizen are turned upside down when crony-capitalism and corruption begin to gravitate to the government money like insects to a porch light.
Even the GI's get in the game begin feeling that they aren't being rewarded enough. They enact schemes to get more money on the back of the tax-payer, and cause death and destruction in the process.
Whether you agree with the obviously Randite theme, it's incredibly compelling. It also shows that video games can match if not exceed film and print as a medium for sharing ideas under certain contexts. In an age when most social commentary is shallow and presented in a pretty immature fashion, L.A. Noire fixes this, and does so in a way that elevates video games as an intellectual medium.
L.A. Noire is more than just a great game. It accomplishes more than defying genre, and creating new video game mechanics. It doesn't just inject new technology into games in a meaningful way, or innovate how plots are crafted in video games. It does more than all of these admittedly worthwhile things.
L.A. Noire is a piece of media that elevates itself to a place along side great works of film and literature. In doing so, it's sets the pace for the AAA gaming industry to create other great works to match it's success. Indeed, L.A. Noire shows us how our world is changing. Just like the awkward transitional state the world of the game find itself in, we can see a similar change taking place in the media. L.A. Noire is truly a symbol of this change, and anyone interested in understanding our future should take notice.