Among the gaming community there is currently a debate over whether games have or have not achieved the rank of being artistic. Roger Ebert doesn’t think so but after completing L.A. Noire, I more convinced that Games are definitely art, and if they aren’t, they’re certainly on the right track to becoming appreciated as art.
That’s not to say that the game is just beautiful to look at, although it definitely is. Driving through 1950’s Los Angeles is quite the spectacle, and it’s a nice touch that not only do they include real landmarks, but by the simple press of a button, the camera centres on those landmarks so that you can see them in all their exquisite detail. Furthermore, the developers made the effort to weave some of these landmarks into the storyline, so that it actually feels as though you’re interacting with 1950’s Los Angeles, not simply driving along side it. The world around you isn’t just there to set the scene and create the Noir atmosphere, it involves you in the equation too, in the same way that you can play Fallout: New Vegas and get the sense that the desolate landscape is for you to explore, not simply remind you of the back story. Although it’s a nice touch, it’s not what I mean by art.
I’m not referring to the game play as art either. While it’s certainly enjoyable, and it needs to be due to the main thrust of any game being the ability to play it, but if L.A. Noire has any flaws to be found, they are in the game play. The cars handle as badly as any car from the Grand Theft Auto series and even with the siren on, you will inevitably crash. This wouldn’t be too much of a problem if driving was mainly for getting from one crime scene to another, but a lot of the street crimes involve either foot chases, or car chases. When you’re going to ask the player to drive after other cars, it’d have been nice to have a more streamlined performance from the vehicles. Foot chases do have their problems too, though this is mostly down to the same having no concept of wounding. If I’m chasing after a suspect, it makes no sense that I shouldn’t be allowed to shot him in the leg, or foot, to wound him and stop him from fleeing. A head shot is obviously a bit drastic, since you are trying to apprehend the suspect, not send him to the grave, but it’d have been nice to have the option, of slowing him down, rather than simply running after him and tackling when you get close enough. Since side missions are optional, and these chases come up considerably less in the main cases, this can be generally dismissed, but if there is to be a L.A. Noire 2, which seems likely, I’d like to see a better interrogation system. There isn’t much wrong with the current system, but there were times when it seemed nonsensical. For example, I was interrogating a drug dealer, after having cracked his slot machine safe, and found within it, the drugs, slips with his name and an order number, thereby connecting him to the sale of the drugs, and a sticker on the inside of the box connecting him to a company that supplied the slot machine. When pressed about the sale of drugs, he denied that he supplied him, an obvious lie. Yet, when you accuse a suspect of lying you have to provide proof, but there was no option to point towards the slot machine, even though it was blatant proof. I liked however that some people required harder interrogation than others, and for some, being too blunt would terrify the witness into asking you to leave. Those were nice touches, and not everyone has the same facial tells, so it is at times tricky to go from one suspect to the other and change your approach accordingly. Shoot outs are the other large part of game play, but it’s fairly standard hide and shoot, but it’s also quite enjoyable. Overall, game play is fun, but it is not artistic.
Storywise, it’s quite sophisticated; although I’m not sure I could call it a work of art. There are a lot of comparisons to L.A. Confidential, but honestly I think that has to be down to the name of the game. Yes, at one point, you, a by the book cop, investigate a series of brutal murders of women by a serial killer, in 1950’s Los Angeles, but honestly the similarities are superficial. Cole Phelps is not Edmund Exley. Exley in the movie, played by Guy Pearce, is attempting to live up to his father’s success, whereas Cole Phelps seems to be trying to justify the awards he won while in service to the U.S. military. Your partner in Administrative Vice, Roy Earle, played by Adam John Harrington, has none of the guilt that Jack Vincennes has either, the latter played excellently by Kevin Spacey. The murders are by a serial killer, but that’s as closely as the story imitates LA Confidential. If it weren’t for being set in 1950s would we be comparing it to other serial killer movies? Is L.A. Noire in fact, a 1950s adaptation of The Bone Collector? Perhaps the story should also be compared to Se7en? Or is the investigation into the disturbed individual murdering women more closely related to Psycho? I could sit here all day and talk about films with serial killers and none of them would be any more relevant than L.A. Noire is. The story isn’t the most original idea or ingenious piece of writing you will ever find, but it is good. It references 1950’s culture, and wittily names each case with the same font you’d find on 1950’s B-movies. None of the cases will surprise you really, but that doesn’t stop them from being engaging and encouraging you to play in order to find out more. This is especially true for Cole Phelps, who begins as a war hero, but it is only through playing that we see the flash backs to his war time, and thus discover what makes Cole Phelps. This isn’t a new technique by any stretch, it’s been seen in movies for years, but games tend to have the belief that if you don’t lay out a character from the start, players won’t want to know about him. I think it’s actually the opposite. I’d rather play as the man with no name and discover why he rode into town, than play as a stereotype of whom I have nothing to learn.
I’ve gone through story, game play and setting, and none of them are fully works of art. The setting is aesthetically pleasing, the game play is enjoyable, and the story is genuinely interesting, despite any comparisons that might be made, but what truly makes L.A. Noire artistic is facial recognition. The new technical by which they mapped an actor, or actresses face, and it was also used in part to reflect the movements, but the facial mapping was the most important aspect due to the interrogation focus of the game. To do this though, the developers hired real actors, most of which are from Mad Men. It was rather ridiculous, because at one point Cole Phelps, played by Aaron Staton, was talking to John Cunningham, played by Rich Sommer, and it felt as though I were watching a board meeting between Ken Cosgrove and Harry Crane. Yet, there’s something extremely satisfying from playing the game and recognising the faces or thinking ‘I know that guy!’ as soon as someone walks onto the screen. What makes L.A. Noire a work of art is how it seamlessly integrates itself into a world that was previously only known to film and television, and the cast list is certainly as long, if not longer than most feature length films. The potential for this, if other companies are willing to use it, is massive. Imagine, if you will, playing a Wolverine game, not with a character designed to look like Hugh Jackman, but actually is Hugh Jackman. It would also mean massive new job opportunities for lesser known actors to make themselves known and display their talents. Obviously, the facial recognition is far from perfect, and still needs work but several decades ago, we were watching films in black and white and silence and now we have three dimensions with surround sound. In the same way, gaming is still growing, from the pixels we once loved as Mario and Final Fantasy, to being able to control your favourite actors as they open up a whole new world.
If you’re not a fan of the facial recognition, I’d wonder why, but also offer the consolation that this is merely conjecture. This potential will only be realised if other companies are willing to accept the risk that L.A. Noire took, and run with it. In the same way that Heavy Rain took a risk with its control system, these are the risks which will drive gaming into an art from. Even if it does catch on, it will never be all encompassing, as studios without the money and time to develop sprawling games with huge cast lists, will still make games in isometric graphics or simple first person shoot ‘em ups. I’m not saying this is the Bolshevik Revolution of gaming, but only that it is a clear sign of growth within the gaming community. I don’t want to see games become movies either, and I don’t think that doing so would be the way to raise gaming to an art form, although Hideo Kojima has been trying for years with the Metal Gear Solid series. I simply mean that this new use of technology within games has more consciously integrated gaming with art professionally and culturally.
By the way, I’m aware that in the US, games have already been legally deemed as art, although all this really means is that they are eligible for artistic funding. They still might not get it, depending on the game and genre. Society as a whole still snubs gaming as anything more as an outlet for children and socially awkward geeks. The average person might pick up a controller for the odd game o Halo or FIFA, but these are generally just for parties or to pass the time between the work and the pub. It will take a while to disperse this idea that games are only for a certain kind of individual and not for everyone, but I honestly think that L.A. Noire is taking the steps to the point. To illustrate this point, on the opening weekend, when I attended Scott Pilgrim Verses the World, which is influenced as much by gaming as it is by movies or music, and based on a comic, there were only twelve people in that screen. A couple of weeks later, I went to see Devil as a laugh. The audience was at least double that of Scott Pilgrim. Gaming, though lawfully art, still isn’t socially and culturally accepted as such, unfortunately.
Overall, L.A. Noire is a great game that has everything you want from a game; it is fully aware of its setting, and makes the effort to integrate this into game play, which isn’t perfect, but is still extremely satisfying. The story is interesting and engaging, encouraging the player to keep playing, and there are at least four DLC cases to keep you going when you finish. To compare the game to other games, I’d call it Fallout 3 meets Heavy Rain, but that doesn’t really do it justice and if you haven’t played it, I’d urge you to at least rent out a copy, just for the experience. It may not revolutionise the world, but it might at least spark a change for the better.