Why I Love L.A. Noire Pt. 2
"You're the new face of the department, Phelps - the modern cop who tries to understand why the perp does what he does. Me, I just drop the hammer down on the lowlifes. You crunch a roach under your heel, you don't worry about what it's feeling, you just grind it into the pavement."
I know, I know. I already talked about why I love L.A. Noire, but after playing it twice in the last week, I thought there was more than enough to talk about. I also want to give another shot to explaining why it is that this game is on my top five games of all time. L.A. Noire is a game that takes from the best, but I don't think it's fair to say that it plagiarizes the classics. Through its nature as a video game, it creates a sense of immersion that far surpasses any book or film in Noir. Team Bondi and Rockstar knew that everybody wanted a game that could have been written by James Ellroy, so that's what they gave us. The L.A. Quartet is the primary influence on L.A. Noire, with classic movies like Chinatown and the Curtis Hanson adaptation of L.A. Confidential being other major influences. I think of Team Bondi and Rockstar's work on this game to be in line with sampling by R&B and Rap artists and the re-purposing of existing material by someone like Quentin Tarantino. This isn't a cover, it's a remix. L.A. Noire is a re-imagining of these classic Noir works, breathing life into an entire world that you can explore and discover on your own terms.
By making the player the detective, Team Bondi and Rockstar have matched and in some cases surpassed the immersion in a corrupt and dangerous world of Noir, that define these great pieces of art. This is something that I feel isn't understood as widely as it should be. A game can borrow from a dozen sources, but if its video game components are in working order, what would be called stealing should rightly be considered building on something to create a new and beautiful experience. People worry about what should or should not be called a game. This is a conversation that is almost always boring, pointless and aggravating. Personally, if it's on a console or a computer, or a handheld or a mobile phone, it's a video game. Sure, why not? If that irritates you, fine. Don't call it a video game if that upsets you, but what matters most is: is it good or not? If it's good, we don't really have to worry what we should classify it as.
I love L.A. Noire most for how it makes me feel like a detective, and how it allows me to step inside a James Ellroy world and try to set the great many wrongs, right. The game does a tremendous job at crafting gameplay mechanics that allow the player to feel as perceptive as Hercule Poirot or Inspector Morse. One of the biggest complaints about L.A. Noire was how people weren't sure what to pick during interrogations and interviews, owing to the somewhat confusing options. The original choices were Truth, Doubt and Lie. While I didn't have any trouble with these the first time through, I have to admit that the alterations made to the new version on the Nintendo Switch - AKA'd as the console with the best games of 2017 - make the game much better by clearing up any confusion. The new choices are Good Cop, Bad Cop and Accuse. Here you can understand much better which to go for, because the key thing about the interrogations are to understand the context. This is something I greatly appreciated on my last two playthroughs. If you are interviewing a slippery customer, going gentle with Good Cop would not be the right choice, even if their face does not immediately tell you whether they're lying or not.
My favourite cases in the game probably come during Vice. Here you partner with Roy Earle, a character influenced by Kevin Spacey's Jack Vincennes in L.A. Confidential. Unlike Vincennes though, Earle is not looking to make up for years of corruption. My favourite case in the whole game is The Naked City, which was actually cut from the original game, and was only available through the DLC. Here you investigate the apparent suicide of a woman, who became involved with a burglary ring, robbing from rich society types. This case is so atmospheric and displays the game's clever mechanics to their best. It is also one of the toughest, owing to a large number of clues and motives that aren't immediately clear. On my recent playthrough, it took a lot of thinking to work out who was guilty and more importantly why. Here's the thing though, when I put the work in, and took my own notes, including their facial expressions, emotional ticks, the clues I had gathered and most importantly what they said and the context in which they said it, I got every question right. This is a sign that the game is not unfair or inconsistent. Once you understand what qualifies as good interview technique, you are rarely tripped up or angry at failing a simple question.
Other favourite cases include The Fallen Idol, in the Traffic desk, where you investigate the rape and attempted murder of a young girl and her fading movie star aunt. This is the moment when you understand that you are playing something really quite special. It is on this case, I think, where James Ellroy would start to really dig the game. Like his great novels, this case is obsessed with the immorality of Hollywood, and lets the player experience it first hand. The scene where you uncover the casting couch outfit that was complicit in these grave crimes, is one of the best in the game. When you uncover the drugs, and camera room to film the rapes, you get a thrill that you are able to right some of these wrongs. This is what it would feel like to be Ed Exley in L.A. Confidential, I think. Another case I love is The Studio Secretary Murder in Homicide. The details of the crime scenes and homes of the victims are on point throughout the entire game, but here they are particularly poignant and well observed. The woman who is murdered by The Dahlia killer is alcoholic and homeless. Her meager possessions and pictures of happier moments really get to you. The spin that Team Bondi give to the famous Black Dahlia murder is satisfying and nearly as good as the famous re-imagining of the murder by Ellroy.
The ending of the game is quite beautiful, with a sombre and moving quality that recalls some of the great Noirs. That last look on Cole Phelps' face as he is swept away by roaring water is something that has stayed with me in the years since the game's original release in 2011. Cole Phelps as played by Aaron Staton, is up there with Elliott Gould's Marlowe in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye and Jack Nicholson's J.J. Gittes in Roman Polanski's Chinatown. He is an idealist, but also someone who adapts to the incredible corruption to be found in L.A. in the 1940s. As already mentioned, I feel that the nature of L.A. Noire being a video game creates a sense of immersion that no other medium can match. You embody Cole Phelps and it is your duty to guide him through treacherous encounters. By the time the game reaches its conclusion, you feel like a part of you is dying too.
So what about the negatives? Well, the main one for me is that there isn't a lot to do in the world, outside of the story missions. The world is gorgeous, incredibly well detailed and realized, but the people who inhabit it don't have much to say. There is none of the complexity or variety of Rockstar's open world games. It reminds me of how much life there is to be found in GTA V in particular. In GTA you rarely hear someone say something on the street that doesn't make sense. They seem like they have their own real lives, and are going about their own business. In L.A. Noire, the same lines are repeated ad nauseam, and nonsensical reactions to the player. I am thinking particularly of the various times that someone says "Hey that's the cop from the papers!" I find it hard to believe that so many people would recognize Phelps, let alone that they would all say the same exact thing about him.
L.A. Noire is then a brilliant game, full of imagination, smarts and on point observations that stay true to its nature as a work of Noir. It is something that I have thought about frequently since I first played it, and something that I have greatly enjoyed revisiting over the past two weeks. Noir teaches us about ourselves and our capacity to do great evil, even with the best intentions. L.A. Noire is a great work of art, and an exquisite example of its genre. It is, I think, one of the best games of the last generation and something that I dearly hope will be followed up by Rockstar, who could create something that far surpasses the original. Until I return next week with the first of my articles about James Ellroy, keep it off the record, on the QT and very hush, hush.