L.A. Noire: Keeping it Low Key

Rockstar Games' LA Noire

L.A. Noire was probably my favourite game of last year – it’s not universally loved; it seems to turn up on as many ‘Best of 2011’ lists as it does ‘Biggest Disappointments of 2011’ lists. The shonky combat controls from GTAIV and Read Dead Redemption make their customary appearance in a Rockstar Game and add a bit of stink to the proceedings, for sure. The driving is an acquired taste (a taste which I thankfully acquired) and outside of the (quite frankly astonishing) facial animation – characters movements are pretty goofy. But as the last post on HP GEEC shows, I’m pretty forgiving when there’s genuine ambition buried under all the glitches and faults.

However lets not mistake “ambition” for that perennial box-blurb-bullet point “epic scale”, especially when it comes to narrative. What impressed most in Brendan McNamara’s studio bankrupting, life destroying, Australian Games Industry killing magnum opus was how small it seemed sometimes.

Naturally there was the vast sprawling 1940s LA to ‘explore’ and more than one conspiracy plot that goes all the way to the top I tells ya! But the moments from L.A. Noire that still bounce around in the memory a few months later are characterised by their intimate nature. Peppered throughout the larger narrative are sad little vignettes about soldiers struggling to readjust to life after the war, Hollywood wannabes taken for a ride, marital disputes, business deals gone sour and more; all of which are standard fare for The Continental Op. or Philip Marlowe – but not so much for video games.

Video game plots tend to spiral out of control for a number of reasons. One of them is the need to last over 10 – 20 hours (or else they’re not ‘value for money’ don’t you know) and when adhering to the principles of all those screenwriting books you bought when you were 22, a story needs rising action, escalating to a dramatic climax followed by a resolution. And when you start your tale with afuckingwarinspace – escalation can be a bitch.

Another factor is the assertion made by many a great games writer, that “Interactivity Kills Storytelling” and that traditional storytelling can never work in a videogame – which, on the whole I agree with… but I still find it funny to imagine this conversation taking place in a videogame writers room…

Writer 1: I just can’t seem to nail this third act reveal, you know;  that there is a pit beneath the city that resurrects only those with the blood of the dragon-father in their ancestry and that the main character and his party were all brainwashed as children to enhance their psychic abilities which lead to a kind of collective amnesia which makes them forget that the hero is in fact the villain but from an alternate time-line that may or may not be the past… and that the cops are corrupt.

Writer 2: Yeah, but don’t worry. It’s probably not working because Interactivity Kills Storytelling.

Writer 1: I suppose you’re right – God damn those players. This would work brilliantly as a novel.

It’s true that LA Noire eventually succumbs to the same bloated storytelling pitfalls that all games seem unable to avoid  – the low point for me being an utterly baffling sequence in which secondary protagonist Jack Kelso leads a gang of formerly dope peddling ex-servicemen in an assault on the home of a real estate magnateto clean up the streets or something?  – but that’s not before spoiling the player with some delightfully low-key (by videogame standards) old-school storytelling.

It’s also true that interactivity hobbles the moment-to-moment narrative; Cole Phelps’ mood swings are now the stuff of legend among video game critics; I often felt guilty for pointing Cole Phelps’ face-melting invective hairdryer at some poor grocery store clerk – but I suspect that Cole’s wildly erratic interrogation technique was at least partly down to the team grappling with some genuinely new and exciting ideas. (And partly down to him being an honest-to-goodness asshole)

And at least the storytelling that was being hobbled was something a little more down to earth than the usual goblins and telepathic aliens bumf we’re used to –  hell, perhaps if Cole Phelps had been interrogating a man whose body has been possessed by the demon fore-arm of a cloned soldier, I wouldn’t have minded so much if he went off the handle. But the very fact that I was invested in the story of a jilted lover or a morphine-addled musician, made Cole’s incongruous outbursts all the harder to stomach.

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