Over the past few years, I have played many video games I have liked, and a few I have loved, but most I have neither liked nor loved. Recently I worked out a rough estimate of the number of hours I had spent playing games I neither liked nor loved, which proved disquieting, indeed. I do not want to overstate things: I get my work done, hold down a teaching job, and the woman with whom I share my life does not, I think, feel neglected. (I just checked with her. She doesn’t.) Life was and is fine, in other words. But video games have begun to seem like a fly buzzing in the room, and the only reason the fly is not dead is I have become too lazy to kill it.
Some of this despondency has to do with my largely futile efforts to write for games. Last year I published a book about video games called Extra Lives. A couple of developers read it and came calling. This excited me, given that one concern of my book is how poorly video games have told stories. Video-game storytelling is a more challenging conceptual problem than it may seem, and the manner in which this problem might best be addressed is in no way apparent. I was eager, all the same, to storm the castle. But of the various projects to which I found myself attached or within an eyelash of being attached, one imploded, one was canceled, one I removed my name from, and one entered stasis. But the whole reason I was playing so many games I neither liked nor loved was to see how they had stormed that same castle. At least, this was what I was telling myself while playing, say, Crysis 2 at four o’clock in the morning. So a month ago I decided to quit playing video games.
Sort of. The one thing I kept playing after putting all my games into storage was the multiplayer Beta for Gears of War 3. This did not count as playing because (a) it was not a proper game, (b) lasted only a month, and (c) is the parting shot of a franchise with which I have a long-running personal and professional relationship. But there were a few games coming up that I knew it was going to hurt to miss. One such game was L.A. Noire, which Grantland asked me to write about, and which I finished about an hour ago. It is a game that frustrated me enough to make me start playing something else when I was in the middle of it. It also validated and challenged some of my core convictions about the medium. Nevertheless, the first thing I did after finishing it was to put every game I own back into storage.
If you do not believe that video games are or should be primarily a storytelling medium — and there are plenty of smart, thoughtful people who hold that line — chances are strong that you regard Rockstar, the publisher of L.A. Noire and the developer behind the Grand Theft Auto games and Red Dead Redemption, with a good deal of asperity and suspicion. In a lot of ways, Rockstar’s games come across as big, buttery bowls of mashed aspirations. They take place within open worlds, yet are governed by largely linear narratives; they are heavy on noninteractive cut scenes, yet typically go to great lengths to leaven their dictated storytelling with dynamic gameplay scenarios that reward player decision; they attempt, with the tenacity of novelistic realism, to plumb the depths and steeplejack the heights of American culture, yet they are also wedded to all manner of “gamey” tropes and conventions. What a lot of us love about Rockstar and Rockstar’s games, however, is how seriously they take storytelling. Rockstar proceeds as though it is perfectly obvious that video games can tell meaningful, interesting stories that involve characters of genuine depth and vitality, and at times its games tell stories well enough that this does seem obvious.
Although Rockstar’s fingerprints are all over L.A. Noire (the chapter titles! The red-dot enemies on the minimaps! The absurdly well-chosen soundtrack!), it did not actually develop the game. L.A. Noire is, instead, the first release from an independent Australian developer called Team Bondi, which worked on the game, reportedly, for the better part of a decade. Brendan McNamara, L.A. Noire‘s writer and director, was also responsible for The Getaway, a vastly underrated sort-of-open-world driving-and-shooting game released in 2003 by Team SOHO that did quite well on the PlayStation 2. The Getaway qualified back then as a relatively “mature” game. It has a lot of death and mayhem, certainly, and the character you control is a foul-mouthed English hoodlum. Much of the game involves driving around and shooting people, but you never feel as though its violence is included just for the hell of it. Not only does The Getaway play things relatively straight, it offers what was, in 2003, a stunning re-creation of modern London. When I first played it, The Getaway was something of a revelation: a centaur with a video-game head and cinematic body that dared to represent a world in which some of its audience actually lived. A lot of people are calling L.A. Noire things such as Grand Theft Auto: Dick Tracy or Red Dead Detective, but it resembles these progenitors much less than it does The Getaway. Except that now, rather than control an English hooligan running ragged in the early aughties, you control an American police officer in Los Angeles in 1947, and rather than drive around and shoot people, you drive around from one crime scene to another and pick stuff up and look at it. A lot.
The story of L.A. Noire concerns a psychopathic cop named Cole Phelps, a man who inappropriately commandeers cars from civilians, steals outright any car that is left unattended, frequently destroys private property, and enjoys running over civilians. Despite his recklessness, Phelps becomes the most speedily promoted police officer in constabulary history.
At least, that is what L.A. Noire‘s story can be about, if the player allows it, which nicely nutshells the problem of open-world games that give players a large amount of behavioral freedom while simultaneously trying to tell a coherent, linear story.
Video games can do a lot of things other storytelling mediums cannot. Their penance, however, is to have to deal with things foreign to other storytelling mediums, one of which is a uniquely damaging form of audience disruption. Just about every storytelling game employs various masking systems that attempt to anticipate internally disruptive player behavior. Say you have an in-game friend — what happens if you try to shoot him or her? Does the bullet fire and blood fly and nothing happens? Or does the bullet fire and blood fly and does the friend say, in so many words, “Hey, what gives?” Or does the friend actually die and cause a restart? Or does the gun maybe lower when you pull the trigger? As everyone who plays video games knows, masking systems can be greatly amusing to test and prod, and the first thing I did in L.A. Noire was drive my car directly into some pedestrians and plow through a few streetlights, after which I insisted on driving my partner and me to our first crime scene in a dump truck. Once we got to the crime scene, I stranded my partner there and took off, still in my dump truck, spreading more mayhem. Had this been GTA or Red Dead Redemption, the law would have come calling, but the most incisive criticism I got from my partner during all of this was: “What are you doing?” Isn’t it obvious, partner? I’m playing.
As it turns out, L.A. Noire‘s masking systems are not so great. I opted to sprint to my first shootout encounter, for instance, but when I neared the shootout proper a cut scene kicked in, which somehow teleported me back into the car I had dumped dozens of blocks back. In other words, the game was tacitly refusing to address all the asshole stuff I was doing. The GTA games somewhat escape this trap by making their player-controlled characters antiheroes theoretically capable of behaving like monsters, however much of such behavior may earthquake the surrounding fiction.
At first blush, L.A. Noire would have you believe that Phelps is not an antihero. He is a cop and a war hero — an all-around “good man.” How good? Phelps cannot shoot his gun out in the open, which is probably the most significant safeguard the game’s creators have placed on players determined to let Phelps go psycho. It is not much of a safeguard. But there is something admirable about how little L.A. Noire‘s makers appear to have worried about asshole players. A lot of games go to such lengths to anticipate asshole players that they sometimes feel like a pool that has been preemptively overchlorinated to frustrate the one kid determined to pee in it. Well-conceived masking systems can be things of real beauty, but they also squander precious development time that could be spent on other things, such as making more interesting games.
I eventually restarted the game once I had fooled around enough, but while playing through the rest of L.A. Noire the following question was never far from my mind: How big of a problem is it that players can effectively screw up video-game stories? It is a question that is never far from my mind when I am playing any game whose fiction works in tandem with my decisions to create something thematically unified and dramatically satisfying. So, how big of a problem is it? One answer to this question is: There is no answer to this question. Another answer is: Strong interactive fiction will compel players to behave in ways roughly analogous to how the interactive fiction’s author intends them to behave. Another answer is: The whole purpose of interactive fiction is to encourage this type of crisis. Another answer is: This is precisely why the video-game medium is incompatible with authored forms of storytelling. In the past few years, I have thought about this question a lot — maybe more than any other question, in fact. None of the above answers satisfies me.
By design, L.A. Noire demands comparison with Chinatown, Ellroy, Chandler, Hammett, as well as every other planet, major and minor, in orbit around American Noire’s throbbing black sun. In terms of atmosphere, L.A. Noire less triumphs over its competition than slaughters it. Film is a three-walled medium, and all its created worlds need to do is stand still while the cameras slide frictionlessly over them. (At an early point in the game, Phelps visits an old movie studio and sees a row of huge, gorgeous, discarded matte paintings lined up against a wall. It is as though L.A. Noire‘s creators are saying, “You had a good run, movies. It’s over. Now stand aside.”) A work of literature, by contrast, builds its worlds more stingily, via an active collaboration with the reader. Open-world video games present us with what might be the most emphatically four-walled storytelling medium human beings have yet devised. In an open-world game, everything has to be modeled, named, and built — every gun shop and police station and park and landmark and apartment building and sidewalk and street and hydrant and garbage can and hill and shrub.
Nothing in L.A. Noire‘s Los Angeles is less than thoughtfully designed, and some of what you find there is, quite frankly, astounding. This is a game world whose storefronts are showstoppers. I happened by an antique store, for example, and stood there outside its window for several minutes. I spent half an hour poking around a superlatively realized Los Angeles Art Museum. The billboards in this game, advertising products such as Cola King, EV-R-Mint Gum, Alaco Gas, and Valor Cigarettes, deserve their own making-of documentary. The civic research alone that backstops L.A. Noire is frightful to contemplate. A friend of mine works in Los Angeles in an office building that happens to be featured in the game. The sign planted atop the alcove of the in-game building is the same sign planted atop the alcove of the real-life building; the flophouse hotel located ignobly across the street from the in-game building is much like the flophouse hotel located ignobly across the street from the real-life building. My friend was curious as to whether the sign and flophouse hotel were there in 1947, so he made an inquiry with the building’s management. As far as anyone knew, they were.
And the cars! By Jove, the cars. I am as uncompelled by the automobile as an American male can possibly be, and yet I never tired of L.A. Noire‘s pornographically detailed array of “sleds.” While you drive around, what seem to be authentically period radio commercials urge listeners to donate food to “the people of Western Europe,” which helpfully reminds us that, in living memory, “the people of Western Europe” did not mean a bunch of Woody Allen-loving socialists but an entire continent of traumatized starvelings.
L.A. Noire‘s Los Angeles may not be the most imaginative video-game world, but it is almost certainly among the most painstakingly rendered, as well as the most adult in its offering of documentary edification in three dimensions. Those who worked on this game must have felt, at times, like some junior Yahweh moving across stormily unformed oceans of code. Gamers have a tendency to get bored with this world-building stuff, which must be greatly irritating to the industry’s legions of digital landscapers. To find oneself unmoved in the face of such an achievement is like standing in the middle of Hagia Sophia and saying, “That’s it?” Yes. That is it.
Every review of L.A. Noire has praised its use of MotionScan technology, which was invented by a company called Depth Analysis, a subsidiary of Team Bondi. Every actor featured in L.A. Noire performed while being filmed by 32 MotionScan cameras. While performing, the actors had to sit perfectly still in a space-age chair in an empty white room. Previous video-game facial animation tracked how quadrants of the human face moved, which meant that any facial movement that was not tracked was extrapolated. MotionScan cameras, however, capture everything right down to the pores, after which the footage is algorithmically converted into a three-dimensional head model. The end result is tics, expressions, and actorly flourishes hitherto impossible for video games to capture.
There are times in L.A. Noire when its characters’ faces look more like cell-shaded film than digital animation. The prideful way Phelps’ chin dimples when he is complimented; the blinky distress of the man who learns that an old friend has been murdered; the glistening defiance within a mob boss’ small, hard eyes; the sigh of roused duty from Phelps’ sad-sack, conscience-stirred partner: MotionScan, for those developers who elect to use it, changes everything about how games can employ actors, and it is heartening that the first game to exploit this technology has done so with such cunning. In L.A. Noire, interpersonal hermeneutics (that is, how we read and interpret the human face) becomes an important gameplay element, as it is how the player decides whether the suspects and witnesses Phelps interrogates are being truthful or evasive.
The other element of L.A. Noire that just about everyone has praised is its story. Here, I think, more critical sobriety is warranted. This is not to say that L.A. Noire‘s story is not good; its story is frequently good. But it borrows so brazenly from the filmic canon of American Noire (Chinatown, L.A. Confidential, even a plot point from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? finds its way into the proceedings) that its story quite often seems scavenged. That said, L.A. Noire is utterly committed to its storytelling, and I imagine that Brendan McNamara, its principal author, would spurn the go-to phrase of plenary indulgence gamers use to describe even highly successful video-game storytelling: “Good story — for a game.” L.A. Noire wants more than that. It wants to be a good story: full stop.
Plenty of games have “good stories” if by “good” we mean stories that are absorbing, imaginative, and contain interesting characters. Take the Uncharted games, both of which boast storytelling that is equal to, and frequently betters, the classier breed of action film. The Uncharted games’ authored story put forth an immensely likable treasure-hunting rogue named Nathan Drake. The Uncharted games’ player-generated story put forth a conscienceless mass murderer named Nathan Drake, who in my play-through of Uncharted 2 killed nearly 800 people. That is Charlie Starkweather + Richard Ramirez + Ted Bundy x 10. That is 1½ My Lai massacres. The extremity of these and other internal disconnects is what makes “Good story — for a game” such an ineradicable part of gamer discourse. Many game stories, even terrific game stories, are conceived in such a way as to be incapable of expressing the same thing at the same time. There are a few exceptions to this, but they are rare.
Those who are immune to the pleasures of video-game storytelling argue that games have far more in common with music and visual art than film and literature. According to this view, games are primarily rule sets or interactive systems, and it is in these arenas where the true art of video games resides. This is undoubtedly true, but must it be an excluding truth? No one, after all, ever gathered around a campfire to hear a rule set. It may be that our existing storytelling models are, in many ways, ill-suited to video games. Perhaps the video game medium is not a storytelling medium at all but an experiential medium in which storytelling possibilities are allowed to occur. Few games have been better positioned to help resolve this issue than L.A. Noire.
Here is how the storytelling of L.A. Noire works: Something bad happens — a murder, a hit-and-run, arson — a glimpse of which crime the player is usually given. A few hours after the bad thing has transpired, Phelps and his partner are briefed by their commanding officer, after which they make their way to the crime scene. When they get to the crime scene, they look for clues and interview a few people and scare up some leads. They follow up on these leads. Eventually, they make one or more arrests. The arrests are followed by Phelps’ interrogation of one or more suspects, after which he charges someone with a crime, and the case is closed. By mid-game, it becomes clear that many of the cases Phelps is investigating are connected. Twenty-five hours — or 8.3 screenings of the Titanic — later, the game ends. That is how the storytelling is L.A. Noire works, and the story it tells is predetermined. About the only things your in-game decisions are able to affect are the length of the investigations and the order in which you pursue your leads.
You are asked to drive a lot in L.A. Noire — the game world takes around 20 minutes to traverse — but you do not have to. If you ask your partner to drive, you are skipped to your destination, which allows you to excellently defeat the purpose of an open-world game. Now, driving from one end of Los Angeles to the other is not exactly storytelling. Neither is walking Phelps up a hill, across a warehouse, down the sidewalk, or into a travel agency. You do a lot of bullshit in video games generally, but in open-world games you do an extraordinary amount. This creates a fascinating tension that I believe is unique to video games, and it is a tension that open-world games particularly inflame. Most video games are defined by arbitrary hindrances, such as restricting which buildings you can enter, and magical allowances, such as regenerating health. One might think this would foreclose any expectation of narrative realism on the part of the player. For many players, though, it is the opposite.
In a game narrative like L.A. Noire, the player effectively becomes a kind of reality reenactor. This leads to the player’s subconscious or half-conscious desire for commensurate narrative realism, even though this is a desire that makes precisely no sense. (Other, and quite possibly wiser, players have a simpler reaction. “Why am I doing all this?” they ask, and stop playing.) L.A. Noire is, or tries to be, a forensically realistic game, and the player’s willingness to engage in modestly plausible silly activity is the game’s central driving force. Happily, L.A. Noire has given its B.S. activity enough ancillary interest that you not only give into it; you eagerly seek out more of it. The problem — my problem — is that you also wind up wanting B.S. activity’s handmaiden, which is to say narrative realism, and that is, for me, where a lot of L.A. Noire‘s smaller problems begin. For instance, whenever Phelps needs something — an address, quick access to just about anyone’s criminal records, and (my favorite) the precise location of “hobo camps” — he calls dispatch. Which always has the answer. Instantly. In 1947. But this is video-game logic along the lines of Phelps’ magically self-repairing car. It is not, in other words, a true violation of realism. A true violation of realism occurs when a suspect runs from Phelps and leads him and his partner on a high-speed chase that ends with the suspect flipping out his truck in the middle of a busy Los Angeles street. After some justifiably hostile questioning, Phelps tells the guy he is under arrest. “What for?” the guys asks. I dunno. All the illegal stuff you just did?
As far as L.A. Noire‘s B.S. activity goes, the best and most fulfilling is its investigations. Say you find a pair of glasses at a crime scene, which you dutifully pick up and inspect. On the glasses’ inside ear stem you spot the designer’s name. Later, at the victim’s house, you find a glasses case made by the same designer. Aha. The glasses you found at the crime scene were taped together, but during your interview of the victim’s wife, she mentions that the glasses are new. Liar!
Actually finding the clues is something else. What this boils down to in practice is walking around while spamming the action button. Here many will be reminded of Heavy Rain, a game whose servitude to cinematic grammar and fearless incorporation of B.S. activity (this is a game in which you set a table, prepare an omelet, and rock a baby to sleep) makes L.A. Noire look like Missile Command. One of the most ridiculed segments of Heavy Rain finds its hero, Ethan, looking for his son, Jason, in a shopping mall. While a growingly frantic Ethan wanders the mall, an X-button prompt appears on screen. When you press X, Ethan calls out Jason’s name. “Press X for Jason” has become gamer shorthand for arbitrary or pointless gameplay, and L.A. Noire has its own version of it, which is “Press X for Beer Bottle.” The game’s crime scenes are littered with beer bottles. Again and again, crime scene after crime scene, you pick up a beer bottle, hear Phelps dismiss it as “junk,” and you move him along, to the next beer bottle, which he picks up, inspects, and which is always also junk.
Wandering around while looking for stuff to inspect is a gameplay mechanic drawn from old-school adventure games such as The Secret of Monkey Island. L.A. Noire is wise to have poured this tasty vintage into such a handsome new skin, but unlike earlier adventure games, L.A. Noire never really communicates to the player what exactly makes something inspectable. Why are so many worthless objects inspectable? Why does Phelps even notice things like empty beer bottles? And why are some beer bottles inspectable and some not? This question grows more puzzling when you are hunting for clues in a suspect’s kitchen and discover that a wooden spoon is, for some reason, inspectable, while objects of equal or greater prominence are not. But what is the alternative? A game in which every object is inspectable? A game in which only clues are inspectable? You eventually come to accept that the rule set governing inspection is not supposed to be discernible, that the very arbitrariness of a beer bottle is why so many are inspectable. They are there to make clues seem like clues.
The other half of investigation is interrogation. You have three choices when confronted with a witness’ or suspect’s statement: accept it as the truth, doubt it, or accuse your interlocutor of lying. This is where L.A. Noire‘s talent for tormenting me first emerged. Early in the game, suspects and witnesses pretty baldly telegraph whether they might be pulling your leg, either by looking away, say, or rolling their eyes. So do you doubt obviously untruthful statements or do you designate them as lies? Recall, if you will, the taped-up, obviously not-new glasses I mentioned earlier. When the victim’s wife mentioned her husband’s glasses were new, I chose to doubt her statement. “Doubt” is a pretty mild word, all things considered. Thus I was not quite prepared when Phelps responded to my decision to doubt the woman by all but accusing her of murder. Phelps’ method of investigation is like a game of Bad Cop, Terrible Cop. His loose-cannon tendencies began to worry me, and soon I was basing my interrogation decisions not on the actors’ occasionally hammy nonverbal performance cues but on whether I could trust Phelps not to lose his shit. Thus I wrongly accused numerous shifty-eyed suspects of lying when I should have merely doubted them, blew countless leads by stupidly believing lies, and alienated dozens of friendly witnesses when I doubted statements I should have believed. If you regard the interrogation aspect of L.A. Noire as a game, you are going to have a terrible experience, because, as a game, it is not at all enjoyable.
Here is how to “win” every interrogation: Accuse someone of lying. They will respond (idiotically) with a demand that you prove they are lying. A quick scan of your notes will tell you whether or not you have that proof. If you do not, you can back out of your accusation, and now you know you can doubt them safely. Even though at the end of every interrogation sequence L.A. Noire informs you how many “correct” answers you have wrung from your witnesses and suspects, conducting yourself during the interrogations as though there are correct answers is not wise. You are, I think, supposed to heed your gut instincts during L.A. Noire‘s interrogations, even if they are wrong, because it is not a game that is interested in punishing wrong answers. You can blunder your way through almost every interrogation and still close the case using other means, and you can even come to enjoy watching Phelps inexplicably lash out at every grieving widow, harmless bartender, and hospitalized teenage girl. Gamers are trained to view every video-game encounter as an input-output clash, but to approach L.A. Noire in this manner turns its most human element into something unpleasantly android. During interrogations, you are not supposed to control Cole Phelps. You can only guide him, as one might guide a slightly crazy boxer.
It is no surprise, then, that the interrogation sequences tend toward emotional incoherency. Phelps will say something rough and cutting to a witness, for instance, and the witness will respond with something equally hostile, which will higgledy-piggledy lead to a closing conversational exchange of concerned good tidings. The dialogue in a game like L.A. Noire is probably incapable of genuine emotional consistency, and its branching possibilities guarantee that some transitions will be combative. L.A. Noire‘s dialogue is also burdened with having to send actionable signals to the player. Scarcely any exchange in L.A. Noire does not, in some way, contain actionable material. Freer, more naturalistic dialogue has no obvious place in a game in which virtually everything that is said must give players important motivational and directional cues. Playing L.A. Noire, one cannot help but wonder whether an involved, character-driven story even belongs in an open-world video game. If a game like L.A. Noire is unable to pull this kind of thing off, can any video game?
About halfway into L.A. Noire, I turned against it, harshly. Its story elements range in quality from clumsily effective to extremely good, and the “adventure gameplay” elements of the investigations are surprisingly absorbing. But L.A. Noire‘s more GTA-ish gameplay elements — the shooting and the driving and the fist fighting and the moving around, in other words — are so pedestrian in conception and execution that it becomes easy to believe the rumor that all of these elements were late additions Rockstar insisted upon out of fear that L.A. Noire would be seen as too boring. In what is probably cosmic justice, the elements intended to prevent the game from being boring are easily the game’s most boring elements. Take the “street crime” side missions, which typically end with a cut scene that shows Phelps shaking his head while the body of the guy he just shot is lifted into the back of the coroner’s hearse. When Cole Phelps has shot down his third perp of the day, this bookend of putative sobriety achieves an inadvertent hilarity.
Equally hilarious are L.A. Noire‘s fist fights, the gameplay element most impressively devoid of interest. After the game’s seventh or eighth fist-fight, I broke my no-more-video-games-but-L.A. Noire pledge and popped into my Xbox 360 a game about which I had been curious for some time, 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand, which some regard as a great twinkling light of video-game preposterousness. If anything, this undersells the game’s feral charm. 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand is a third-person shooter in which the player controls the Vitamin Water mogul himself. The plot is as follows: A Middle Eastern concert promoter, unable to pay 50 Cent an agreed-upon $10 million, convinces 50 Cent to accept a diamond-covered skull as adequate recompense. Unfortunately, 50 Cent’s diamond-covered skull is stolen from him, which inaugurates a nation-wide rampage. The object of the game is to kill everything and earn money (killing people, luckily, earns you money), which makes 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand a rare game whose authored narrative is not at all disconnected from its player-generated narrative. Aside from the astonishing fact that 50 Cent agreed to the particulars of his portrayal within the game, the most interesting thing about 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand is how fun it is to play. Its batshit-crazy story revels, hilariously, in everything the medium does not do well. I played the game through in two days, after which I wondered if the single most damning thing about video games is the fact that one could argue, legitimately, that 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand is a better game than L.A. Noire.
When I returned to L.A. Noire, I made the decision to stop thinking of it as a video game. Very quickly, something happened. In my notes I jotted down “L.A. Noire: the gay teenager of video games — i.e., ‘It gets better,'” but this was a flippant way to process a real attitudinal readjustment on my part. When I stopped thinking about him as someone with whom I was supposed to feel any kinship, Cole Phelps became a deeply compelling character. You begin the game strongly assuming that Phelps has a Dark Secret, and he does. But that is not the most interesting thing about him. The most interesting thing about Cole Phelps is that he is an asshole who might also be insane. Early in the game, Phelps stands in the living room of a husband who does not yet know that his wife has been murdered. Phelps decides to tell the man about his murdered wife in front of the man’s children. I originally regarded this as a bit of storytelling sloppiness, but no: Phelps does this because he is an asshole. How big of an asshole is Cole Phelps? In one of the game’s World War II flashbacks, we see Phelps, who is fighting in Japan as a Marine Corps lieutenant, tell his disgusted troops, all of whom have lost friends to the Japanese, that the United States brought Pearl Harbor upon itself. Yes, Phelps is a Pearl Harbor Truther. Once you accept that Phelps is not your avatar but a guided missile whose damage you are constantly trying to mitigate, L.A. Noire gives you an experience unlike any other game I have played.
Near the end of L.A. Noire, its story begins to cross all manner of previously forbidden lines, among them the graphic depiction of a child’s corpse and a scene that turns upon a 13-year-old girl’s apparently consensual sexual relationship with a man in his 50s. L.A. Noire‘s most pertinent and nuanced theme emerges slowly: A cowardly man is not a bad man, and a brave man is not necessarily good. “Courage and cowardice exist in every man,” someone tells Phelps. “Get over it.” It is far more satisfying moment than it sounds. Meanwhile, the investigations, if anything, get even better, weirder, and more involved. In a sequence ripped more or less directly out of Chinatown, you use longitudinal coordinates to identify a parcel of land, figure out who owns the land via its Land Registry number, and finally tabulate the land’s insurance value on a primitive calculator. A lot of this gumshoeing, it should be said, L.A. Noire essentially does for you. But how wonderful, all the same, to know that B.S. activity as conceptually dull as the piecing together of an insurance scam can be a video game’s best part.
Interactivity sabotages storytelling. There is no longer any use arguing to the contrary. Thus, the story of L.A. Noire can never be good — at least, not in the way it is trying to be. As a story, then, L.A. Noire is not successful. As a game, too, L.A. Noire fails. In a lot of ways, it is a terrible game: frustratingly arbitrary, puzzlingly noncommunicative, and not very fun. But I love L.A. Noire. I think it’s fantastic. What this suggests is that we need a new name for whatever it is that L.A. Noire does.
Or do we? We actually have several names for it: “interactive film” or “interactive drama.” Both are blood-curdlingly redolent of everything that was wrong about the 1990s, when “games” like Night Trap were briefly thought to be where things were heading. The first games made by video-game developers who were given cameras and actors to work with made such a mess of things that almost no one since has gone back to what is, theoretically, a promising template. Rockstar and Team Bondi deserve immense credit for resurrecting an abandoned tradition and utilizing tools that the orthodoxies of game design have come to tell us are corrupt and wrong-headed and inappropriate. And maybe they are — if what we are talking about is video games.
L.A. Noire comes closer than any previous digital experience to showing us where the hands are on the clock: half past movie, a quarter past video game, and a quarter to what, exactly? I have no idea, which is a large part of what makes the game wonderful. L.A. Noire‘s failures are not that important when weighed against its successes, and the first video game, or whatever we wind up calling it, to do perfectly what L.A. Noire does surprisingly well right now will be hailed as the real breakthrough. It is, finally, a game that made me certain, after months of morose uncertainty, that any writer who is not interested in what we are now calling “video games” is a bystander to one of the most important conceptual shifts between story and storyteller in a hundred years.
Tom Bissell is the author of Chasing the Sea, God Lives in St. Petersburg, The Father of All Things, and Extra Lives, which will be published in paperback tomorrow, June 10.