Widgets Magazine

Mind Games: The Dark Side of L.A. Noire: Do Rockstarqs advances sacrifice gaming’s roots?

Courtesy of Rockstar Games

L.A. Noire is nothing if not ambitious. It’s clear from the outset that Team Bondi and Rockstar have delivered the groundbreaking title they set out to develop and, as advertised, the game admirably marries Rockstar’s traditional open-world formula with a uniquely moody vibe and motion-capture technology that makes for some of the most realistic and emotive characters this side of Pixar. I can already see this game as a sort of “Matrix” for the medium — not in its source material or artistic flavor, but as a landmark whose technical wizardry future game-makers look to iterate and improve. I suppose that was clear enough even months ago, as L.A. Noire’s cinematic flair turned enough heads to make it the first-ever game featured at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Impressive to be sure, but I’m not certain that’s exactly a good thing. At least, not entirely. I’ll be the first to say that I’m having a wonderful time with the game, but most of what makes L.A. Noire excellent comes not from the way it excels in what makes games so great, but from the way it inches itself ever so much closer to gaming’s lifelong fetish of being just like movies.

Courtesy of Rockstar Games

L.A. Noire offers an enthralling world and story, but they aren’t yours. Yes, it’s technically an open-world game and you’re allowed to do just about anything, but when Team Bondi has clearly made its realistic characters and well-acted dialogue the game’s main reward mechanism, there’s no motivation to go off the beaten path. Doing so, in fact, totally shatters the vibe that L.A. Noire depends on for its immersion — the developers didn’t intend for detective Cole Phelps to sprint in circles like an idiot or run over pedestrians in his patrol car, and the world doesn’t react to such behavior with nearly as much realism and emotion as the characters show in the game’s outstanding, but pre-canned cutscenes.

If you don’t agree, consider some of the subtle checks that Team Bondi places on the player to keep them in line with the “ideal” Cole. Like Heavy Rain and some other filmic titles, L.A. Noire places “run” on a separate button away from the analog stick to keep you from dashing about like a madman, makes traffic unrealistically deferential to prevent crashes or other disasters that affect a real man’s life in ways the game can’t account for and scripts NPCs to call you out for ignoring the task at hand. I’m not trying to call out a conspiracy, but these choices are made for a reason. Team Bondi knows that the hook of its game is in the gripping story and the relatable characters it involves. That linear narrative is contrasted — and potentially broken — by uncooperative players in an open world and, ironically but understandably, the developers gently pull you back if you leave the critical path.

I think L.A. Noire is a remarkable title in its own right, but its unprecedented technology and (potentially) powerful storytelling shouldn’t be confused as advancements of what gaming has traditionally been all about. I’m not saying that classic games are necessarily better, but the relatively unornamented narratives of Zelda, Metroid or even flashier titles like Fallout empower you to develop the context and characters however you like, partly in your mind and partly through dynamic feedback in the game. They’re not as jaw-dropping for passers-by, but their simpler presentation frees them from predefined notions of how your character should act and how the world should respond. L.A. Noire may wow audiences when shown next to more traditional games, but it’s not necessarily as engaging.