In the meantime, I'm just a guy who writes about videogame theory and how the medium can achieve better cinematic emulation (while keeping its own indentity). Though, if that's too boring, you can always find something delightfully fluffy in the following:
No truer words are acted upon than in the finale of Roger Altman’s The Long Goodbye. Elliott Gould’s shambling and laconic take on Marlowe tracks down a conniving, murderous friend and shoots him by the pool side; putting a hole right through the heart of classic noir conventions as he does so.
At the time, it was controversial (Marlowe never kills intentionally) but it also showed that the mythical age of white-knight crusaders was over. So it’s with real apprehension that I’m worried about how L.A. Noire will turn out.
If classical film-noir has taken The Big Sleep, why are videogames only picking up on its original aesthetics now?
The “e” in L.A. Noire sounds like a pre-empted apology for those expecting a true distillation of noir; the trailer coming across more like the police procedural Dragnet than the corruptive and dark L.A. Confidential. Don’t get me wrong though, I’ll be picking it up on release, whatever direction it takes.
I’m a huge fan of anything noir related. My real cinematic love is for noir and the mysteries it assimilates or reinvents. For, arguably, it’s a style rather than an actual genre.
Whether it’s movies or pulp novels, noir isn’t really about burned out detectives, death on rain-soaked streets or dangerous women blackmailing in the perpetual night. As clichéd as those images have become, you only need to read at least one of Raymond Chandler’s poetic novels to realise it’s never about the obvious.
Simply put, noir is human nature.
Most associate that familiar iconography because the murder mystery template is the slinkiest fit for the style. Most developers have a hard time understanding what noir truly is too. Rarely do they stay on track; always paring it with the overbearing fantastical. Ripper and Black Dahlia are perfect examples, while the Tex Murphy adventures tick off the boxes with a light-hearted obligation.
It’s not entirely their fault either. That’s more the fault of videogames by design.
Your participation is needed and in turn, you have to be constantly engaged. There’s a natural extremity to the proceedings because of both sides wanting stimulation. You can just as easily blame the potential audiences for not truly understanding the subject matter too; opting to champion clichés in the face of something looking superficially different.
Who can forget the uneducated uproar of Max Payne 3’s “not noir” screenshots?
Since noir is a stylistic choice, developers actually get it right sometimes because of its fluidity. Fundamentally, it’s because they choose stories that involve the investigative archetype (and the catalyst for unearthing revelations) and this shares similarities with the player.
We pursue a videogame’s conclusion as much as the detective seeks out full disclosure.
Though it’s not hard to feel short-changed when videogames masquerade the noir narrative and don’t utilize the contextual benefits. The original Max Payne is predominately a third person shooter, using the narrative to set-up more action. Though in its defence, the sequel stays true to idea of noir, eschewing set-pieces for character developments.
Objectively, it’s impossible to say that noir hasn’t been properly represented in videogames. We’ve already seen the abrasive femme fatale relationship appear in Silent Hill 2. The theme of duality is explored in the Blade Runner game; not suprisingly, considering the film's futuristic take on identity.
Famicom Detective Club Part 2 deals with a microcosm hierarchy at school. Hotel Dusk & The Last Window is primarily about one man’s guilt-ridden past and how he isn’t alone in his attempts to outrun it. Deadly Premonition comments on the crimes of passion, with Agent York occasionally lamenting the romanticised view of “innocent girls”.
What makes these titles work is all down to the characters; more specifically, character flaws. That’s what noir is truly about - people improvising decisions but becoming undone by their own misconceptions of others.
Developers should be looking towards the likes of A Simple Plan or The Treasure of Sierra Madre as their inspiration for characters and motivations. Though will we ever get a true noir videogame like the films mentioned?
By which I mean, the true meaning and not the familiar, black and white appearance; which was attempted in the forgotten Noir: A Shadowy Thriller. Admittedly, we’ll never have creations like Chinatown or find a truly terrifying antagonist like Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth because videogames will never be able tackle those kinds of sadomasochistic themes nor have an understanding majority following them.
So this brings us back to noir being about mistrust. It shouldn’t be too hard for an indie developer to make something as paranoid and confined as The Petrified Forest. It probably wouldn’t be that far removed from the “dinner party from hell” simulator Façade either.
It’s a welcome sight to see anything remotely to do with noir in videogames, but it’s doubtful that L.A. Noire will pave the way and finish it off one attempt, much like Red Dead Redemption did with Westerns.
Noir will always turn up in a constant classical state and honestly, the pessimism is really to do with my cinematic experiences. I’ve seen all it has to offer from its Golden Age and currently enjoying recent reinventions from the likes of Memento, Brick, Oldboy and even Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
For now though, it’s good enough that someone out there is giving us a chance “to play it Bogart” and that it’ll open the doors for a whole new audience willing to see true noir concoctions.
Hopefully, one day, we might even get “to play it Gould” too.