by Heath Holland
The place: a video game console near you. The perps: L.A. Noire is a 2011 Neo-Noir video game published by Rockstar Games, the same people behind the infamous Grand Theft Auto series, and was developed by an Australian company called Team Bondi.
The evidence: it’s Los Angeles, 1947. You are Cole Phelps (played by Aaron Staton, of Mad Men), a former soldier who has only been home from the Second World War for a couple of years. Phelps has buried the horrors that he lived through deep inside and tried to rebuild a normal life. He’s a family man with a wife and children…a good man. A man who maybe made some mistakes, but believes in justice; that’s why he’s a cop, trying to make a difference. As Phelps, you start your police career at the bottom, patrolling the streets of The City of Angels. As the game progresses, so does your career; before long, you find yourself promoted to a full-fledged detective. As you work your way up the ladder through traffic, homicide, and vice cases, you move from Central Los Angeles to Wilshire, and eventually to Hollywood itself, where you’ll rub elbows with both stars and the seedy underbelly of Tinsel Town. Along the way, you’ll face corruption within the Los Angeles police department and make difficult decisions that put potentially innocent people behind bars. It’s easy to mess up, and it’s easy to screw up the cases, big time. You’ve got to have all your wits about you, along with a healthy dose of intuition. Play your cards right and you’ll work your way to the top. Before you know it, your unassociated cases start to develop what seems like a common thread, and the noose you’ve placed around your own neck gets tighter and tighter.
What this means is that you’ll spend most of the game not chasing bad guys or participating in shoot-outs (though the game has both), but instead talking to people and trying to figure out if they’re telling you the truth or if they’re feeding you a big lie. You have three choices when you talk to people: you can believe them, you can doubt them, or you can call them a liar. If you accuse someone of lying to the police, though, you have to have proof that they aren’t telling you the truth or you’ll make yourself and the department look really bad, and maybe end up jeopardizing the whole investigation.
Team Bondi took unparalleled efforts to recreate period Los Angeles for the game. For the past 44 years, UCLA has been the home to a series of aerial photographs that a man named Robert Spence shot from his biplane in the 1920s, and these photos detail L.A.’s historic buildings and neighborhoods from a bird’s eye view. The game developer used these photos to recreate huge chunks of the city and its famous architecture, which allowed them to resurrect areas that don’t even exist anymore. Take, for example, Pershing Square: once a natural, tree-covered city block of greenery, it was demolished in 1952 to build an underground parking garage. The park has been rebuilt, but the modern architecture and concrete are nothing like the Pershing Square of 1947. Thanks to the game, you get to experience the park as it existed in the old days. The recreation of Los Angeles didn’t stop there, either. Team Bondi sought out historical L.A. buildings that hadn’t been renovated or updated and took detailed photographs so that they could replicate everything from carpet to wallpaper to light fixtures. L.A. Noire allows you to fully immerse yourself in Hollywood as it existed almost 70 years ago. As you drive the city, you and your partner converse about things like the Black Dahlia murder, and you soon begin to wonder if you can catch the man who killed Elizabeth Short. In one last, incredibly awesome nod to the hardcore noir crowd, the game allows you to go into the pause menu at any time and switch from color to beautiful black and white. It’s incredible.
For example, a major storyline finds Detective Phelps tracking a case to the disused set of D.W. Griffith’s 1916 movie Intolerance. In the game, the gigantic statues and Babylonian walls have been rotting away for the past 31 years. The reality is less romantic. While the set did become a Los Angeles point of interest for a few years, it was actually disassembled in 1919 after being declared a fire hazard. I can only assume that the makers of this video game cared so much about film history that they rewrote actual history to educate the player about D.W. Griffith and his mammoth contribution to movies and movie culture.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the music in L.A. Noir. The score, by Andrew and Simon Hale, is timeless and sounds like you’ve known it all your life. It’s a mournful jazz score, with melancholy piano and lonely horns. It evokes dark nightclubs and rain-slicked streets. When you’re driving around Los Angeles in one of the 95 period-accurate automobiles, you’ll hear actual pop hits from the ‘40s by the likes of T-Bone Walker, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and The Andrews Sisters. The game has had not one, but TWO soundtrack releases, and you can also download all the vintage source music on iTunes via the L.A. Noire playlist.
There are very few perfect movies, and there are even fewer perfect games. Therefore, of course L.A. Noire has some drawbacks. The driving can be really rough. The eight square miles of Los Angeles are awesome, but the traffic is not. Just like the real Los Angeles, traffic can kill the fun of getting from one place to the next, and unless you’re willing to wreck your car constantly, you’ll find yourself stuck behind cars puttering along and unexpectedly veering in and out of your lane. At first it seems like the game obeys traffic laws, but soon you’ll realize that people do crazy things like turn left at red lights, pedestrians jaywalk directly into traffic, and occasionally cars even reverse backwards through intersections. You’re probably going to run over a lot of people; this sucks, because the final score you get on each case is affected by how much damage you have done while trying to solve it.