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there is little doubt that LA Noire marks the arrival of a new and exciting era in gaming. however, much of the clamouring that has constituted its reception has made me convinced that the gaming world needs to think again about the bigger picture.
Rockstar/Bondi's 40s-era wunderkind is a revolutionary game, and unless you've just this minute got back from a trip to a coma, i'm sure you've already heard as much from a million other enraptured voices.
it blends new, paradigm-defining motion (and emotion) capture technology, superb attention to detail and a sophisticated, engaging narrative to create an experience that starts out as impressive, but swiftly becomes engrossing, and which, in the process, carries gaming into a brave new world.
however. if i read another review in which someone declaims that LA Noire blurs or even dissolves 'the boundary between gaming and cinema', i might have to burn something.
just how long, i wonder, did these reviewers sit, motionless in front of their screen waiting for the 'film' to get going? how long did they leave Officer Phelps standing motionless before they realised that they had to move him around and make him do stuff because, as a game, that comes in a game box and goes in a games console, it was a game?
gaming will never be like cinema. but should we want it to be?
but, all sarcasm aside (although probably not for long), there is a serious issue here. what do people actually mean when they say this stuff? watching a film is a physically passive experience, gaming is necessarily not. until such times as we can control what happens on screen with our minds (and in such a way as we are unaware that we have done so), then gaming will never be like cinema. but then why should we want it to be?
the industry as been telling us for so long that one day they'd be able to make games that are just like films - and that this is some sort of holy grail scenario - that we've started not only to believe that it will be possible, but stopped questioning whether or not it would be a good thing.
however, taking the focus off the mode of interaction, the point that such people seem to want to make is largely about aesthetic realism. when people regurgitate the party line about the blurring of the boundary, what they overwhelmingly seem to mean is that games will eventually look like video footage, and that this resemblance makes games like films. it's as if somehow the 'key' thing about films, the thing that makes them work, is the fact that they look 'real'.
now, i don't know about you, but the films i love have more up their sleeve than the fact that the actors in them look real on film. now, to be fair to the video games industry, this is an issue that manifests itself within cinema too. as long as digitally created effects in films look realistic, so several movie producers seem to think, then they unproblematically 'work'.
it seems to me that, in many of these areas, we need to think again about the limits of realism.
luckily for us, and it, LA Noire has a strong, ready-made narrative template in LA Confidential
in 1533, at the height of Flemish realism, Hans Holbein the Younger (who would later become court painter to Henry VIII) painted a remarkable portrait of two men. The Ambassadors, as it is known, depicts two French diplomats surrounded by several items which speak to their identity and influence.
the detail of the painting is exquisite. the fabric that hangs behind or wraps around the subjects, drapes like heavy, embroidered silk and falls in folded satins and fur trims. several wooden mathematical and musical instruments offer themselves up to us, from shelves, to be played or used. the intricately tiled floor juts out from the world of the picture to ours.
Holbein's brush captures the scene almost as if it were snapped through a lens. and yet, alongside the 'real', the expected, he included a trick - an ace from out of his no-doubt sizeable 16th century sleeve.
beneath the characters' feet, there is what seems at first glance to be a large, grey smudge across the canvas. what Holbein in fact painted was a skull. however, utilising the niche, curiosity technique of 'anamorphic perspective', he had depicted it so that it could only be properly seen when the viewer positioned themselves close up to and on the far left of the painting.
as everything else is obscured by the sharp distortions of this strange angle, the skull, in its true proportions, is revealed. Holbein's skull is a classic momento mori, a reminder that, although often hidden, death is a constant reality. however, it is so much more than that in the way it represents a step away from pure realism. the skull has a meaning that is only revealed, only possible, because it is depicted (at least from the obvious standpoint) in an 'unreal' way.
alas, as a prophet of an era to come, Holbein's insight remained a minority voice and aside from a few exceptions, visual arts remained largely enthralled to realism for another three centuries.
as a chief spokesman for the one of the many 'modern' movements that rocked the boat, Picasso once (famously) noted, walking round an exhibition of children's art, that at the age of four he could paint like Raphael, but it had taken him a lifetime to learn to paint like a child.
setting ol' Pablo's high opinion of his childhood abilities to one side, just like Holbein four hundred years before, his point, and the point of many of the 'deviant' movements of the 19th and early 20th century, was that art consists in so much more than simple realism.
What ultimately makes LA Noire such a great game is its depth.
LA Noire is not great because it looks (a bit) like a film - or more accurately a TV show (like, for example, Mad Men, just plucking one at random out of the ether) - but because the new technology that it boasts has been able to add a new layer of emotional sophistication to its content.
however, the fact that it has real actors, really acting and conveying, realistic emotional responses, is 'really' the vehicle for the 'real' location of meaning - the story it wants to tell. without a strong narrative, LA Noire would be equally filmic, but the film that it would bring to mind would simply be a bad film. like The Hangover 2.
luckily for us, and it, LA Noire has a strong, ready-made narrative template in LA Confidential - James Ellroy's 1990 tense, mirky, American-noir detective novel about the corruption and sleaze that defined the City of Angels in the 40s, which was impressively migrated to the screen in 1997 by the talents of Curtis Hanson, Russell Crowe, Kim Basinger, Guy Peace, Kevin Spacey and several other stand-up guys and gals.
the plot is not identical, but while it is venturing into the unknown, Noire holds Confidential's hand every time it feels like it might get lost. as you play through, the multilayered plot unfolds along an intriguing and enjoyable path (although perhaps not as intriguing if you've read or seen LA Confidential), and there is little doubt in my mind that it is primarily this, and not its aesthetic wonders, that makes the game such a success.
that having been said, the transitions between the various elements of Phelps' investigations - the crime-scene scouring, the witness-interrogation, the puzzles and mini-games, the car and foot chases, the stand-offs and shoot outs - are not always as tight as they might be. some of the 'stitching' is a little clumsy and the game has definite low as well as high points.
LA Noire laces up its two-tone wingtips and strides into a new era for video gaming.
however, what ultimately makes LA Noire such a great game is its depth. it is one thing to be able to render people and things and their movements with new-found accuracy. it is quite another to pay proper attention to the details that matter. the former ices the cake, but it will always be the latter that makes for the good eatin'.
as one of the first of its kind, LA Noire laces up its two-tone wingtips and strides (often confidently, but sometimes less assuredly) into a new era for video gaming.
buy it, play it, revel in it - sure - but also stop yourself at various points to ask just why it's good, and what precisely you want from an industry than is now, for good or ill, one leather-soled step closer to the cinema.
[if you'd like to see more of the weird and wonderful world of reallyquitetired then the door is always open at his semi-detached house/blog]
With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.
But so far we've not found a way to streamline our review output - there's basically too much of it. So, rather than dilute things for newcomers we have decided to live with the hubbub while helping new readers find the columnists they will enjoy.
Our columnists each focus on a particular perspective and fall into one of the following types of gamers: