Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Heath Holland On...L.A. Noire

by Heath Holland
What does this video game have to offer movie fans? It turns out, quite a bit.

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.
I read on some blog or website where a fan had said that L.A. Noire is the first video game aimed solely at adults, and I think that’s accurate. Sure, lots of games are loved by adults, from the combat simulator series Call of Duty to the zombie action of Dead Island, but L.A. Noire is the only game I can recall where a game is so geared toward a certain kind of gamer that a younger audience simply wouldn’t be interested. You spend most of your game time solving crimes in the most realistic way a video game can allow. This means that each case (there are 24 cases in total) begins with you responding to the crime scene with your partner. Almost from the beginning, your cases involve a murder; this means that first you have to investigate the dead body and the crime scene, looking for anything that can provide evidence. Once you’ve got enough to figure out a starting point, you’ll need to interview anyone and everyone who may have information to help you solve the crime.

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.
You’ll canvas eight square miles of mostly-period-accurate Los Angeles. The game developers know that the appeal for a game like this is in recreating historical LA and old Hollywood for fans of film noir, and the influence that movies have on the game environment are huge. When you pass by a movie theater (there are several), you’ll see the name of a popular noir film on the marquee. The Big Sleep and Detour are just a couple of them. That’s just the very tip of the iceberg, though: your cases will lead you to (and through) all the old Hollywood landmarks, including Grauman’s Egyptian and Chinese theaters. While sometimes distances have been shrunk to accommodate all the driving you’ll have to do, the street layouts and landmarks are mostly accurate. For instance, Sunset Boulevard is a block south of Hollywood Boulevard, just as in real life, and the cross streets like Vine and Highland are exactly where they’re supposed to be. Want to find the Crossroads of the World and its historic riverboat building about three blocks east of Sunset and Highland? It’s there, exactly as it was in 1947 and exactly where it is today.

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.
All of this would mean nothing if the story itself fell flat. Luckily it does not, and the video game throws you headfirst into the same world of L.A. Confidential and Chinatown. This is a video game that is built on the backs of legendary noir films, with a story that twists and turns. All the hallmarks of noir are present: smoky torch singers, femme fatales, boxers who refuse to go down when they’re supposed to, unfaithful spouses, jealous lovers, ordinary men drawn into a life of crime, bank robbers, and desperate men back from the war trying to survive in any way possible. In fact, if L.A. Noire is guilty of anything, it’s cramming too many noir archetypes into one single story. Then again, that story does play out over the course of thirty-plus hours, so it’s not like it’s a two hour movie. The developers had to have known that the audience for a game like this would be niche and they therefore put in as much as they could, knowing that it would likely be their only shot at a noir game on this scale. Another Rockstar game, Red Dead Redemption, does the same thing with the spaghetti western. L.A. Noire seems so concerned that you might miss some of the intricate details that it goes out of its way to make sure you’re picking things up, which occasionally comes of as ham-fisted.

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 have to give big props to the cast of L.A. Noire, who provide the emotion and human drama that makes the whole thing work. Aaron Staton does a great job as the lead, and you can feel his optimism slowly give way to fatigue as his own demons start to catch up with him. There are lots of supporting roles in the game, including Michael McGrady (television’s Southland), Adam Harrington (Dexter), and a host of character actors in bit parts. Seriously, there are a BUNCH (CGI) faces in the game that you’ll recognize from movies and television shows. J.J. Abram’s buddy Greg Grunberg is one. Kurt Fuller is another example of a face you know and a name you might not. This game is just full of actors. Video games will never be able to do what movies can do, but it at least tries, and they’re doing something that almost no other video game does by putting the focus on human characters and narrative rather than on action.

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.
I’ve already mentioned the surplus of archetypes and noir devices, as well as the way the game draws attention to things because it’s afraid you’ll miss out on something. This is a game for the small audience who is a movie savvy and a fan of film noir but is also willing to be patient and enjoy the novelty of driving around 1940s Los Angeles. It puts investigation and thought before action, and is the only game I can think of that is this character-driven and that is heartbreakingly human. There are no superheroes in this story; just flawed men who can’t seem to figure it out. The game sold well, but the hardcore gaming crowd turned their back on it because it wasn’t what most of them wanted, for obvious reasons. There have been talks of an eventual sequel which would likely follow another fateful tale in Los Angeles, and Team Bondi has been working on a similar game about the seedy city of Shanghai in 1936 called The Whore of the Orient, which Warner Brothers could release later this year. That title and subject matter is just another piece of evidence for the Team Bondi file, further proof of a company that has real affection for the dark crime movies of Hollywood’s golden age and is eager to bring that environment out of the past (get it?) to a new audience. It’s pretty clear that L.A. Noire was created by people who love movies for people who love movies.


  1. I never played this game, but I spent several hours watching my buddy play it when it first came out. I was trying to explain all the movie references to him, but he hadn't seen most of them. I loved watching it though. I think that's a common quality of Rockstar games.

  2. I forgot if it is dlc or not, but one of the hidden gems of this game are 50 hidden film reels of classic noir films.

  3. My goodness, video games on F This Movie? My interests are leaking.

    I really enjoyed this game, albeit those last few missions almost ruined the entire game for me. I feel like a more fitting ending would have a court room scene with incredibly challenging interrogations where you solved a crime you collected evidence for for the entire game. The whole flamethrower business really undermined the rest of the game's structure to me, even if it worked for the plot.