I don’t play a lot of computer games. I own a lot of computer games (mostly due to the amazing Humble Bundle service). With the passing of time, other competing interests and responsibilities have come to dominate my time. Family, work, books, movies; there are a lot of things that I find more worthwhile than computer games, most of the time. That said, however, I do find a particular style of game very appealing and interesting, which is the linear, narrative, single-player game. Some games are very linear (most Mario games), some have strong narratives (Zelda, anyone?), and there are many that are only for one player. But until I find all these virtues in one game, that game fails to tempt me. In this vein, then, one of my all-time favorite games is L.A. Noire. (No, I don’t know why they added the “e”.)
I mention this now, because the aforementioned Humble Bundle is running a bundle at the moment which is centered around the developer Rockstar Games who published L.A. Noire. In the game, one (mostly) plays the part of a Marine recently returned from World War II who has become a policeman in post-war Los Angeles. As you move through the game, the story moves along a tale of drugs and corruption and you advance through the department working cases related and unrelated until the climax at the end of the game where some resolution is gained.
If you’re at all familiar with the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series, then you’ll recognize the interface. The primary difference is the interrogation function and scenes where you use it to question witnesses and suspects and make judgments about the truth of their statements. You can also search through crime scenes for clues which make new avenues of investigation available. The more successfully you can ascertain the truth, the better your cases will turn out. This system is not without flaws. The developers had a greater vision and ambition than they had money and/or technical skill and/or technology to realize. It’s not always possible to judge the truth by the body language of your interlocutor, and sometimes it’s all too easy. That seems like it would be a good thing, but the implementation is uneven enough that it seems less a directorial choice than a technical limitation.
The story is bit fantastical as well, but when talking about the world of video games, it seems petty to complain about that overmuch. Suffice it to say, the main character’s degree of involvement in busting a giant drug-smuggling ring would stretch credulity in real life, but is not more than one might expect for a film or a book. It wouldn’t really be a story like we have come to expect from our fictional mediums unless the protagonist had an unrealistic degree of involvement in every aspect of the story. (See, “every cop and spy show, ever”.)
What makes this game so much fun and a favorite of mine is the world. I am not nearly old enough to have experienced 1940s L.A. first-hand. But the feel of the world from movies and books rings true enough to make the experience a delightful one. The music, the slang, the architecture, the clothing all lend themselves to immersive gameplay. The story is noir and dark and, has an ending commensurate with the best conventions of the genre. As with the GTA series, however, the game can be enjoyed almost as much if all one does is drive around the city and listen to the radio. It’s beautiful to look at and listen to.
For whatever reason, perhaps the unfinished feel to the primary investigation or maybe there just aren’t enough people who are fans of noir film and video games, the game did not prove to be a success. No sequels, no similar games, and nothing like them on the horizon. It remains a gem, flawed, but a unique gem of a game.