Why do I get the feeling that I have to think L.A. Noire is a great game? Every article I read about the game discussing its failings always includes some kind of caveat that it’s a seminal work. Most of all, people are championing L.A. Noire as a triumph of game storytelling and the way that narrative can be woven into gameplay. Which is odd to me, because when I was playing L.A. Noire, I couldn’t shake the feeling the game’s story was constantly getting in the way of its gameplay.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the game’s homicide missions. In so many of these murder cases, all my convictions were made based on particularly damning pieces of evidence that conveniently fell right into my lap. An incriminating pair of muddy shoes, for example, left right in the middle of the bedroom floor. And when the suspects protested their innocence, saying they had no idea how the bloody shoe or the rain-soaked jacket or whatever ended up in their house, I believed them. The motive was shaky at best and the rest of of the evidence didn’t really add up. But they were caught with the smoking gun, and I had to convict them. Otherwise James Cromwell would shout at me. He did anyways, but that’s neither here nor there.
He’s shouting because he’s discovered the android.
Once two or three murders in a row popped up with the same M.O. (wow, I’ve slipped into detective speak too easily), I had some idea what the game was up to. Murdered women, stripped naked, wedding rings missing from their fingers. A confused husband or lover delivered to me virtually gift-wrapped with the murder weapon handily lying on the kitchen table. Yeah, I sussed that one pretty quickly. The reason my convictions were so flimsy was because all the murders were the work of a serial killer who was framing his murders on unlucky (but not entirely unlikely) chumps.
Ok, this a clever twist for a novel or a film, but in a game it makes all the murder cases frustrating and pointless because the overall outcome of the story militates against your best efforts to succeed at the game. Because the convictions you hand out to the poor, framed sods are so weak, these cases are profoundly dissatisfying. Playing L.A. Noire should be about the joy of gathering all the right evidence, asking the right questions, and then nailing the sucker in the interview room with a clinching piece of evidence. But the game denies you these pleasures in service of Brendan McNamara’s neat plot twist, and you have to slog through a bunch of cases where the game deliberately forces you to fail. You cannot truly win these levels in a meaningful, narrative sense because the game won’t let you.
And after all that, once you’ve finally found the real guy, you can’t even convict him. Great.
Visual Metaphor Theatre: what it’s like to play L.A. Noire.
This is not good game storytelling. No game can be called a bright, shining beacon of hope for videogame narrative when the story gets in the way of your fun.
As an aside, one of the great pleasures I got out of L.A. Noire was speeding through the streets of Los Angeles, usually in pursuit of a fleeing perp, yelling lines from Kindegarden Cop at the screen in my best Arnie accent. Seriously, you should try it. My experience of the game was vastly improved by shouting “I’m a cop, you idiot!” every time pedestrians flung themselves out of the path of my car, or whenever a member of the public honked their horn at me when I crashed into them.
There is no bathroom.
In fact, I would even go so far to suggest that L.A. Noire would be a far better game if we replaced Cole Phelps with Detective John Kimble. God knows the game is in need of a cheering up; I can’t remember having played a game with such a humourless cast of characters. Main character Cole Phelps is such an earnest try-hard that in the movie version he’d have been played by notorious joy-vacuum Sean Penn. No better is prepubescent boy scout Jack Kelso, who I imagine was supposed to provide a counterpoint to Phelps but instead just pops up every few missions to throw a strop and storm off in a huff. His tortured past with Phelps during the war is undermined somewhat by the fact that he’s clearly fourteen-years-old, and would have been a foetus during the Pacific War. In the film he’d be played by one of our nation’s top politicians.
He’s nailed the “cold, dead eyes of an automaton” look.
Then there’s Elsa, the German chanteuse whose romance with Phelps consists entirely of the two staring blankly at each other from across a room. For a supposed-femme-fatale, she spends a lot less time being mysterious and sultry and a lot more time being disgruntled. I would mention some of the supporting cast, but if the main characters in the game are so uninteresting they can’t even be interested in each other, then needless to say the rest of the characters don’t really bear thinking about.
This is supposed to be noir. Where are the memorable anti-heroes, the tough-talking, self-effacing wits like Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe? Where are the elusive femme fatales with their demure sexual banter? Where is the colourful supporting cast of rogues and crooks? Where’s the charm and humour? I guess what I’m trying to say is, I wasn’t sucked in by L.A. Noire because I found every single character in the game pretty dull. Noir plots are often convoluted and confusing, but we don’t watch The Big Sleep because we want to figure out what’s going on, we watch it because we want to see Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall talk about horses. That’s the point I think L.A. Noire missed.
Pictured: Team Bondi hard at work.