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.