One of the reasons that L.A. Noire feels so uncharacteristicaly ‘small’ and intimate for a video games is that it deals with violence in a different way than many other games. Shooters and action games have become (and arguably have always been) predominantly concerned with the visceral immediacy of violence as a way to generate thrills for a player – it’s what games do most consistently after all. The clashing of bone and sinew, the splatter of a headshot and the snap of a neck are all iterated upon to ensure no gamer ever gets bored with pulling the trigger.
By casting the player in the role of a ‘detective doing detective work’ (or at least a game-ey approximation of it) L.A. Noire deals with the aftermath of violence… of course it does. Cole Phelps turns up on the scene only once wrenches have been swung, clothes torn, shots fired and fires started. He then interviews witnesses, friends, family, loved ones – he sifts through their lives, rifles through drawers and turns their salad tongs over in his hand for about 20 minutes. He sees what happens when a life ends in a way that games generally don’t investigate.
We’re used to seeing ‘how‘ a life ends; sometimes with a spurt of blood or a pained gargle. Othertimes its retching and dragging itself along the floor… whilst on fire. There’s very little thought given to the dead once they’ve ‘bought the farm’ – because there’s so many other people to sell farms to.
One of the reasons I love stealth games so much is that they deal with rather Noir-ish quandaries like “what the fuck do I do with this dead body?” in a way that shooters can’t, or don’t. They are the ‘Telltale Heart’ of videogames (Or a ‘Insert Pulp Novel where the Protagonist has to hide a body’ of videogames… none are springing to mind.) In much the same way, I believe there’s more potential and ingenuity in the first 10 masterful minutes of Farenheit/Indigo Prophesy than every Call of Duty that has been or will be released until the end of time (and also more than the rest of Farenheit and Heavy Rain combined, but that’s for another post.)
LA Noire scratches an itch that even the Stealth genre can’t quite reach for me, by giving the player a chance to really sift through the wreckage of a murder. I never get to find out what effect the murder of unnamed PMC soldier had on his family. I just stuffed him in a locker and went about my business. L.A. Noire, on the other hand, is almost like following around Generic Murderous Open World Player Avatar and cleaning up his mess.
Even more impressive in this respect is that both story and gameplay are singing from the same hymn-sheet; L.A. Noire isn’t just a game about people dealing with murders and acts of violence – it is a tale of men struggling with the aftermath of the most violent event of the 20th Century.
But with all the focus on the after effects of violence – anything that doesn’t speak to that theme stands out all the more. The shootouts are a particular sore-thumb, not because they control so badly (the same bumblicious controls feature in Red Dead Redemption and I care not a jot) but because a shootout in L.A. Noire ignores the consequences of violence. Cole should have to go through a stack of paperwork, police counseling and all manner of tribunals and hearings every time he shoots someone – he should even clip a bystander with a stray shot and have his gun taken off him for the next case – not merely pull his patented ‘shit-eating case-closed grin’ as an ambulance pulls away laden with the corpses of fallen wise-guys.
A few wobbly shoot-outs aren’t enought to take away from everything that L.A. Noire does to make violence seem genuinely destructive, not destructive in the way that fully-deformable environments are destructive, more in the ruined lives kind of way. Anything that does this in a world of snap-lock military rollercoater rides must be pretty special right?