LA Noire – “The Black Dahlia”

It would be easy to let our convictions shape our judgments, trampling over any doubt with fierce belief in their righteousness. But like leading detective Cole Phelps, we are constantly reminded of the unreliable nature of our perceptions and consequent reasoning, making even the neatest of open and shut cases tingle with the anxiety of unanswered questions. “LA Noire” is as murky and hard to interpret as any case in the noir genre – a game of stark contrasts of transcendent beauty and bestial darkness, a place where an idealist few get trampled by the cynicism of a corporate conspiracy.

The evidence points to a quick, hasty judgment: Rockstar is the culprit behind everything. Is this not an open world game, whose main character is a minutely detailed representation of morally corrupt 1940’s Los Angeles? Yes, but look yonder and the similarities fade out to reveal the gross disparities. The Housers look to open world as synonym of playful sandbox interactions, underpinning it with absurd, satirical overtones that blend to form a violent and cartoonish view of life. But “LA Noire” has none of this: it’s harsh and brutal in its search for serious realism and avoids distractions from its perfectly linear expose on film noir. The use of a new technique for facial animation is a symbolic element of that pursuit: never have characters in a videogame achieved such a degree of emotional breadth with their characterization. And whilst the technique has obvious faults – body’s animations are stiff and fail to blend harmoniously with the uncanny facial expressions – its superb cast ensemble, of unprecedented scope and notability, makes “LA Noire” part of the small elite of videogames with a strong human anchor in their fictional expression. Peter Blomquist, Patrick Fischler, John Noble and Andrew Connolly have performances worthy of critical praise, and were this a TV show or film, they would be thoroughly deserving of nominations to Golden Globe awards. All in all, it’s this sort of care with narrative exposition that makes a compelling case for Brendan Mcnamara’s (director of the underrated “Getaway”) sensibilities being on the forefront of “LA Noire’s” preoccupations… though this is not to claim that Rockstar’s publishing does not equate in the final product. Sadly, it does, and with serious consequences.

“LA Noire” is often guilty of severe inconsistencies, most of which born from an apparent clash between Mcnamara’s own stylistic agenda and an acute attentiveness to market demands, one which we can’t help but associate with the giant that sits at the helm. The most obvious and significant of these contradictions is the default color mode of the game. In full color, everything seems awfully gaudy and saturated, like old movies used to look on set before cameras translated the full visual spectrum of the eccentric wardrobes and make-up into a neat barrage of light and shadow. “LA Noire” was clearly meant to be played in monochrome, and it looks stunning when that option is turned on, emulating with astounding accuracy the chiaroscuro look of classic crime cinema. The option to play it in color only serves to betray the work’s faithfulness and coherence as an aesthetic object, marring the noir experience beyond repair. It’s as offensive a choice as would be to change Andrew and Simon Hale’s nostalgic Hollywood orchestrations and jazzy tunes to unplugged versions of Amy Winehouse singles. Thankfully, they didn’t go that far.

But Rockstar still managed to further subvert the game’s structure in seeking to make it more appeasable to mainstream audiences. There’s an overlong main campaign filled with redundancies, mild RPG elements, side-missions and, worst of all, an interactive landscape with frequent ludus overtones in the form of mission ratings, achievements and win/lose dynamics. These elements all find resonance in “GTA IV” and “Red Dead Redemption”, but play an off-beat, dissonant melody to Team Bondi’s own cinematic aspirations. As a game, “LA Noire” seeks to simulate a detective’s inner workings, as he relates with victims, tries to understand witnesses and catch culprits, figuring out who’s who, which facts stick and how, and discerning the manner each piece of evidence fits into the narrative. By dumping game-logic on top of this dynamic, you end up with a trial and error pamphlet which, apart from a few astute twists, goes to great lengths in making it clear when you found the right clues, the right testimony… the right culprit. This means that in “LA Noire”, there is little questioning of your actions and choices, never giving up the experience for you to interpret it. This choice muddles Mcnamara’s film-class writing (decades ahead of its peers), which treats the genre’s themes and tropes with subtlety and ambiguity, aptly conjuring Ellroy’s finest novels, only to find them losing their moral edge thanks to a subservient attitude face the audience.

“LA Noire” had the potential to be one of the finest examples of its open-world genre. It takes some of the worst preconceptions in the medium – that a game must be extremely non-linear, playful, devoid of narrative and cutscenes – and turns them upside down, using interactivity solely as a novel, profound way to connect players to age-old fiction. It has the courage not to take inspiration from the ubiquitous “GTA”, but from under-appreciated adventure games such as “Noir, A Shadowy Thriller” or “Discworld Noir” and progressive neo-adventure titles such as Suzuki’s “Shenmue” and Cage’s own “Heavy Rain”. Works whose very essence yearns for deeper relationship with characters, settings and simple stories. As such, it gets nigh close to interactive bliss, missing it only due to the fallibility of its own high aspirations. For to succeed, McNamara’s vision needed an equally understanding and mature audience. Failing that, concessions would be made, barring access to a greater truth. And thus Rockstar stepped in, and transformed “LA Noire” into a half-concocted videogame hybrid fit for the masses… Noir teaches us that bad guys always win and “LA Noire”, even in that regard, is truthful to its source material.


Grim Fandango – “Grim Schafer”

Let us play the part of the cruel critic, since so few seem to care about it: it is dazzling to think that someone like Tim Schafer is considered an authorial reference in videogames. Harsh? Perhaps so. Case in point: “Grim Fandango”, Schafer’s critically acclaimed masterpiece. Born from the creative furnaces of LucasArts, it was the swan’s song of that long-winding production line. But like all swan songs, it stands as cruel reminder of the studio’s impeding demise, a symbol of all the reasons why it was a swan song in the first place.

“Grim Fandango” is old in every way. Not 1998 old, which is the year of release, more like 1988 old. It’s not the technical maladies – the dated, incoherent interface, still impregnated with the remains of SCUMM’s vocabulary-based interactions, and the ill-born subjective character control that never works right – they are annoying, but sufferable hindrances. What really strikes as old-fashioned and dated is the creative philosophy that shapes the depths of its design. A philosophy of grim absurdity, envisioned by LucasArts in its heyday and forever engraved in Schafer’s creations. “Grim Fandango”, like its predecessors, views puzzle-solving as a highly improbable combinatorial guess game, poking fun at players with its randomness and lack of logic as if it were a creative jest worthy of applause. But let’s even go as far as forgetting its frustrating conception; what do these puzzles say about Schafer? That he is whimsical and playful? Sardonic maybe? The crux here is that we simply cannot find any semantics in the gameplay, apart from the minor consideration that, given a senseless world, puzzles should equally lack meaning. It is a design joke that stands as a joke. A rarely funny one at that.

It is the senseless fictional world of “Grim Fandango” that justifies its popular reverie. Indeed, it is difficult not to be swept away by its creative play of references, where film-noir, mexican folklore and Aztec mythology blend wonderfully to give form to a zany underworld of lost souls, where campy surrealism is never too far away from stylish art deco, with Peter McConnell’s jazzy mixes always providing suitable ambiance. But Schafer quotes without any realization of function outside the most basic comedy revel, mixing unexpected cultural references with puns that could have easily been extracted from an above-board children cartoon. Its wacky interpretation of an undead “Hero’s Journey” is simply never given voice with wit and charm, Schafer’s geeky, idiosyncratic humor constantly debasing the game’s visual and conceptual apparatus. For not even in a game on the afterlife could he avoid hot-rod iconography! How far we sit from the eloquent prose of “Broken Sword” or the later “Discworld Noir”…

“Grim Fandango”, to wrap it up neatly, is a paradox of an aesthetically and technically progressive work based on an orthodox framework, repeating, for the umpth time, all the motifs of classics like “Monkey Island”. Which ends up being tragic in a work with such potentially rich themes, only to lay them all to waste in a dumbed down comedy that sells itself short. Then again, historic hindsight provides the answer to the why of this fact – both LucasArts and Schafer were never really capable of doing anything else. Even today, they continue to write the same teenage gags, over and over and over and over again.

score: 2/5

Wave Foam – “Dispelling a Myth: LA Noire is not a Rockstar Game!”

Yes. It is not a Rockstar game. And I haven’t even played it, mind you. I’m not denying the obvious influence “GTA” and the Rockstar logo must surely have in the end-experience. But it is not by chance that so many find a tonal dissonance between “GTA IV“, “Red Dead Redemption” and this new Rockstar production. Whereas the Houser brothers have always embraced a cartoonish satire that never took its worlds seriously, “LA Noire” is bold, crisp realism, aspiring (perhaps somewhat foolishly – only the game can tell) to adult seriousness. This is perfectly in line with McNamara and Team Bondi’s previous output, the now infamous “The Getaway”. It’s their show all the way. Rockstar never housed similar formal and aesthetic considerations as McNamara; they take their genre lightly, focusing it on hyperbolic violence and unconstrained player freedom, giving little care to strict authorial considerations. McNamara, however, cares for his characters, avoiding stereotyping them as cardboard jokes with the expressiveness of… right, cardboard, both in terms of design and animation. This was true for “The Getaway” and is true for “LA Noire”. It’s for this reason that he chose to use state of the art motion capture, a realistic aesthetic into which to frame it, and focused gameplay on the investigative side. Only through these decisions could players truly fill in the role of the detective and seek deeper relationships with the fictional scenario and characters. Rockstar never, despite their multi-million dollar budgets, chose this path. They kept their formula witty, absurdist and comedic, structurally founded on driving and shooting sequences in physics playgrounds. Naturally, Team Bondi and Rockstar games share superficial qualities – both take inspiration from film-genres, play out in open-world scenarios, have the city as their main character, and employ driving and shooting gameplay – but they couldn’t be more apart in terms of vision. McNamara aspires, like David Cage and others, to tell stories for grown-ups, to challenge them with moral ambiguity and real-life considerations, whilst the Houser Brothers are content with sandbox dough-playing for young adults. And that, my dear friends, is an open-world of difference.

Fallout New Vegas – “Where doth Black Isle lie?”

For years, Black Isle was Bioware’s ugly little sister, obfuscated by her flashier, more popular sibling, but owning deeper charms that would give rise to such seminal works as “Fallout” or “Planescape Torment”. While working on an unreleased “Fallout 3”, the company came to pass, leaving behind two promising spawns that rose from its ashes: the now extinct Troika (“Vampire The Masquerade Bloodlines”) and Obsidian. The latter went on to the most promising of starts, “Knights of the Republic II – The Sith Lords”, Chris Avellone’s spiritual sequel to “Torment”, a game of refined, mature storytelling, whose prose remains unmatched in the genre still today. But what befell next? “Neverwinter Nights 2”, a pathetic exercise in meta-humoristic parody, so absorbed in its tropes and typifications it seemed to hark back to an early C-RPG age. “Alpha Protocol”, an insipid and paradoxical convolution between classicist RPG ideals and a populist desire to please the “military shooter” audiences. Knees deep in lesser projects, one began wondering what happened to the creative minds that so utterly defined their genre. And so we come to “New Vegas”, Obsidian’s last redeeming chance to set things right, and tell the world how would “Fallout 3” be, had Black Isle been able to complete it.

Let us get the unfortunate constraints from out of the picture: J.E. Sawyer (“Icewind Dale II”) and company were limited to a game structure not of their own making, forced to work in Bethesda’s engine to deliver their own vision. T’is a heavy burden for Obsidian, to deliver what is, for all intents and purposes, an overwrought “Fallout 3” expansion pack. The engine hasn’t aged well, the aesthetics remain somewhat drab and incoherent, and the gameplay suffers from constant feelings of déjà vu. Minor changes here and there keep our perception of repetition deluded: grey has toned its way for sepia, cold-war zeitgeist has taken western overtones and the barren landscape now contrasts with the neon-lit “New Vegas” casinos, those flashy, gaudy dens of sin that are the focus of the game’s narrative. And therein lies the most notable facet of this adventure: Avelone’s branching penning remain’s witty and bold, delving into harsh subject matters which Bethesda is incapable of pursuing. “New Vegas” deals with Man’s perversions in a society-less world without obfuscating the violence and depravity of it all, tackling such themes as cannibalism, prostitution, the horrors of war, capitalist ambition, religious fanaticism, fascism, etc, etc.

The tone is unpretentious and light, embodying that very special brand of dry humor that is so characteristic of “Fallout”. What ultimately fails here is that this discourse never moves beyond literary expression, remaining ever-enclosed in those eerie first person dialogues inaugurated by “Oblivion”. This represents clearly “New Vegas”  fall from grace: it’s a work filled with potential, but delivered by designers who can’t seem to move beyond the stylistic coordinates of classic RPG tropes. The gameplay ideal that underlies all of the experience is archaic, mechanicist, inorganic and unnaturalist, lacking in aesthetic splendor and quality craftmanship. The game opens with a dated FMV, cherishes abstract, stat-based gameplay, incentivizes hoarding and compulsive quest-solving and is riddled with text and text and more text. For all this, and much more, it soon dawns on you that Obsidian really is a new Black Isle, but one that never got past the nineties. It’s 2010, time to move on.

score: 1/5

Red Dead Redemption – “Unforgiven”

The Houser brothers are a one key affair, unable to move beyond the confining boundaries of their one defining work; if anything, “Red Dead Redemption” is a cruel reminder of this fact. Here we are, yet again, in presence of “GTA’s” sand-box structure, and no matter how much time passes by, we find little change to its core foundations. Surely, minor elements were adapted to the western setting, but remove such secondary drivel, and you’ll find yourself playing “GTA III”, only with horses and sheriffs and desert in place of cars and policemen and cities. Where the game has evolved, it aims to please the saccharine junkies of gamification, inducing players to enter labyrinthine corridors of grinding, in byzantine collections of missions, mini-games, quests, sub-quests, side-quests, in-game achievements, xbox live achievements, trophies, all offering the bliss of abstract rewards with no added value to the experience. For supposed upholders of open-world gameplay, Rockstar has turned out a certified hypocrite of political proportions, promising the myth of Uncle Sam’s freedom and liberty, whilst enslaving players in a myriad of goal infested paraphernalia.  Even main-quest offerings are riddled with minute sub-goals on how to play, dictating your actions to the smallest detail, leaving little, if anything, up to players’ skill, exploration or imagination.

We’d be willing to concede to these  nefarious elements were there any ulterior purpose or aesthetic virtue lying beyond them. But what is “Red Dead Redemption” about? The west’s ruthlessness and savageness? A criminal’s attempt at moral redemption?  The choice between government and free enterprise, fascism and anarchy, corruption and lawlessness? If anyone claims to such foolishness, pay no heed – Rockstar treats these subject matters with the subtlety of an ox at a rodeo, hammering away words, jesting incoherently in a foul attempt at satire. Whereas such a stylistic choice made sense in the morally and culturally decayed urban sprawl of “GTA”, in the wild west it feels like a cop-out.  The western genre holds many rich themes for those that move beyond its formulaic surface (think Cormac McCarthy or Clint Eastwood) and even in parody terrain one finds such modern and unusual revisitations as Coen’s “True Grit”. But here, as elsewhere, Rockstar shows its limitations, mistaking conflict with bullet-time shooting, characters with sources of quests, plot with amalgam of film citations, soundtrack with mess of procedurally generated western music tropes glued together to resemble elevator music.

Redemption seems at hand when it comes to the feel of the old west. There’s true sensorial delight to be found in the exploration of the game’s world, basking in the naturalist splendor of the genre’s iconic landscapes. Journeying through a virtual Monument Valley, rocked by your horse’s rhythmic gallop, playing to it with your interactive spurs, listening to the hard clanking of hooves echoing in the texturey sand… it’s as close to a climax as the game gets. Fortunately, players are even invited to explore the scenery constantly, in long winding trips across the desert, beneath the glaring sun or stark moon. In between the long horse rides, there’s the occasional semi-honest attempt at characterizing life in the west, with menial cowboy tasks  establishing a welcome sense of roleplay. But it would be naïve to jump the bandwagon and simply applaud “Red Dead Redemption” vehemently on account of its audiovisual finesse and occasional simulational flair, since they find little resonance in other expressive vectors.  And if its sheer technique one wishes to evaluate, one can as easily praise the technical marvel of the landscape rendering, as criticize the appalling character modeling, with men tailored with the poise of a retired wrestling ape, and women with the beauty of a travesty Hammer monstrosity. Which is ultimately why it is impossible to take the title’s aspiration to western drama seriously – the characters are ugly and bear the emotional depth of a desert puddle. As far as escapist voyages can go, make no mistake, “Red Dead Redemption” is truly worth for the long hauls towards the sunset… just don’t think there’s anything else to explore in this barren, lifeless land.

score: 3/5

2010 – “A Year in Review” pt. 3

Since download services became mainstream, every year has lead to the rise of a new poster child for indie development; and so, after the likes of “Braid” and “flower” came July’s “LIMBO”. Arnt Jensen’s platformer hangs at that unstable line halfway between art and game – an aesthetically rich experience that still wears a polished game design. The tragic tale of a little boy trapped at the edge of hell, endlessly roaming in search of an elusive spark of hope that is always out of reach, condemned to die innumerable deaths in a menacing environment with no escape. The metaphysical considerations of its fictional background mirror game logic, with trial and error cycles symbolizing  trapped souls’ endless torment. Meaning is imbued in gameplay but also in the minimalist details and narrative sketches, heralding the legacy of Chahi’s superlative “Another World”. Its aesthetic corpus is stunning: computer generated visuals reference profusely German expressionist and noir’s chiaroscuro, embodying its mysterious aura and mellowing it with fantastical elements, in a stark dance of light and shade which finds natural solace in the haunting score, as elusive and eerie as the otherworldly scenery. “LIMBO” stands on the verge of greatness, and misses it by little – its drive towards the indie cliché of physics and environmental puzzles ends up transmigrating the experience from artful consideration on the afterlife to elegant game with an enticing background narrative –  too little, given how much potential there is to find here. Nonetheless, pay no heed, for how often can one mention a game worthy of an “Another World” citation?

October’s “Deadly Premonition” is no masterpiece. Had it appeared five years prior and it would be a most welcome title, but hardly worth of such notice (just as “Spy Fiction” was). Let’s be frank: it isn’t even that great a videogame. But its relevance for this generation cannot be overstated, for it bears a standard of creative quality that is becoming ever rarer. Middle sized ventures are those that end up driving medium’s forward – free from the commercial pressures of big budget titles and with financial  leeway for some technical progressivism, they can harbor creativity without cramping it with marketing stances or lack of money. “Deadly Premonition” is one such work, a mirror of an author that needed not compromise, a hark back to the days of oddball Japanese titles that still came West. Whether one deems it moronic or genial is, in all fairness, irrelevant, for it touches us with its absurdity and surrealist bizarrerie in more ways than any mainstream game could ever hope to achieve. That SWERY cares so much for his little Greenvale town – its inhabitants, back-story and procedural rules – to the point of blowing such life and personality into it, is proof that he is an author proper. And that, these days, is really hard to come by.

And, to end the year, what better than another art title? “Dinner Date” is what Tale of Tales would (for the lack of a better word) call a not-game. And truthfully, one cannot argue with such an attribution, for Jeroen Stout’s intimist revel on life has as much in common with games as a film, a play or a poem. And poems are indeed “Dinner Date’s” next of kin – browsing the subconscious thoughts of one Julian Luxembourg (Jeroen’s alter-ego), one finds a literary poise that enchants us with its melody and rhythm, and strikes us with its intensity of declamation. Beneath the lyrical prose are the musings of a bitter young man of significant intellectual character, a lover of Byron faced with life’s excruciating demands: a boring job, an idiot boss, a pushy friend and a seductive femme who he sexually craves for, but is nothing other than a thin shadow of a concocted poetic fantasy.  We learn of these as he eats and drinks and eats and drinks and drinks yet again, layers and layers of event rationalization peeling away with his intoxication, his primal personality and instincts slowly becoming ever clearer, as he finds himself pondering on his fate with growing ire and contempt for its stupidity… and his own. This romantic sensibility is clearly meant as homage to the poet he so loves, and which now finds such perfect embodiment in an interactive experience. The single scenery where action takes place – a small kitchen – is crafted with a striking atmosphere and sprouts superb attention to detail, so much so that we comfortably indulge in its worldly sights and sounds, lulling away whilst simply listening to Julian’s cooking and eating and ranting, delightfully conjuring mental images of the smells and tastes of this sensory play. To find such delicate strokes of technical finesse with such depth of discourse in this one-man interactive poem is a joy, one which warrants continual exploration of this grand little piece in the future, shining brightly as this year’s greatest revelation.

2010 – “A Year in Review” pt. 2

In March, there was “Yakuza 3“, and if the year had ended thus, all would be well. Being the only direct sequel in this list, it is tempting to simply dismiss “Yakuza” as another structurally formulaic piece; truth be told, it is a J-RPG at heart and it is indeed the third title in a series that has advanced practically nil since its inception. But to reduce it to its archetypal game design is a huge misconception of its nature, overlooking the nuances that drive its riveting character. For behind its brawler combat and roleplay mechanics, lies a stunning cultural representation of Japanese society. Toshihiro Nagoshi learned invaluable lessons with his contribution to Suzuki’s “Shenmue” and applied them by crafting a vivid spatial rendering of real-life Japanese streets, one which takes full advantage of PS3’s graphical prowess. Every detail and minutiae is treated with artful respect, from the glorious neon landscapes to the seedy underbelly of the urban sprawl, building a rich virtual landscape that is a wonder to simply behold, but also to explore and play with. To those who minimize the aesthetic power of videogames and insist on refusing three-dimensional spaces as art in of themselves, “Yakuza” will definitely force you to question those assumptions. Not that it does not fully use the procedural power of videogames, quite on the contrary, it employs it accurately but with naturalist poise, subjugating everything from game rules to mini-games and NPC behavior to a specific perspective on how Japanese society should be decoded. Last but not least, it cares for its characters almost as much as “Heavy Rain“, for despite its anachronistic narrative structure and interfaces (deeply rooted in J-RPG precepts), it focuses most of its story on Kazuma’s relationships with orphanage children and local townspeople, while still managing to tackle crucial themes like political corruption. And it does it masterfully one might add, with this year’s greatest technical achievement in animation, characterization and voice acting… by far. Masterpiece? Yes, that title will just about do.

The heat of June graced us with the obligatory reference of “Demon’s Souls” (in Europe at least). The reason Hidetaka Miyazaki’s spiritual follower to “King’s Field” should be remembered in days to come is that it is one of the few videogames of the past year that was created as if outside our time. While sprouting some impressive technology (beautifully harnessed by its gothic atmosphere), it refuses modern game design dogmas and upholds some of the finer lessons from classic game design that, unfortunately, now lie forgotten. Its roleplaying roots hark back to early dungeon crawlers such as “Rogue” or “Wizardry”, but what truly makes the experience click is the total absence of intrusive, non-diegetic, text-heavy narrative and gameplay devices. Its mostly minimalist interface and free-exploration actually evoke some of the finest ideals from classic titles like the original “Legend of Zelda” and “Metroid”. As in those, players are free to roam the landscape, with very little guidance on how to play or interpret the game world, its denizens and locations speaking for themselves as if digital artifacts in an archeological site. Players thus become engrossed in the fantasy, as each part of the conceptual framework that supports it has to be filled by their imagination, gaining the power to enchant them with its eerie qualities. The extreme difficulty and lack of hand-holding further potentiate this involvement, letting the player suffer for himself all the hardships of becoming a true hero – the frustration and failure that come with each death – so as to only reap rewards when merit is due, resulting in a climatic release of true ‘fiero’. The cycle of tension and release drives the experience with glorious emotional payback, in a game that never forgets it is a game, never aspiring to be anything but a game, and because of it, is one of the finest videogames proper in this generation.

[To be concluded in part 3…]