L.A. Noire is was the magnum opus of Team Bondi, who built a sprawling mid-40′s Los Angeles as the setting for their technologically dazzling and impressively acted period piece.
With their dedication to detail, their obvious love of the time period, and extensive references–even a name–highlighting the Film Noir style they want to evoke, I expected it to be something Noir or Noir inspired. I mean, its right there in the title: L.A. Noire… even if it has that extra E. They’re so dedicated they even get it grammatically correct if you were to say it in French as “La Noire!” So, after playing a good chunk of it, how much Noir can I find in Hollywood of the 40′s?
Note, this contains major spoilers for L.A. Noire storyline. Also, though I say this jokingly, here’s a trigger warning re: crazy men in authority positions yelling at underage victims of sexual assault.
I always like to play games of a similar theme to the one I’m working on, and when I do I take careful notes. It’s less playing and more interrogating, so I felt right at home with L.A. Noire. I had been waiting to play this game for forever, so I was excited to finally have a reason to dive in, and the beginning really gave me a gleeful smile: the black and white menu screen was totally fantastic. In the right mood, I turned on my 40′s inspired desk lamp, poured myself a drink, and sat back as the opening narration played over shots of Los Angeles. That was awesome too… but something about it struck me as incredibly familiar, and not from Noir.
Let’s do a little comparison to see what I mean. Below is the opening narration to L.A. Noire, which you can watch Here on Youtube as well.
The city on the verge of greatness. A new type of city, based not on the man, but on the automobile. The car, symbol of freedom and vitality. Where every man can own his own home and have room to breathe and not be overlooked by his neighbors. A city where a man’s home is his castle. A quarter acre of the dream made possible by victory. A city of opportunists. A city of dreams where Hollywood will shape the thoughts and desires of the entire planet. A city of pioneers. A city of dreamers. A city of undercurrents, where not everything is as it seems. A twentieth century city that will become a model for the world. A city that has no boundaries, that will stretch as far as the eye can see.
And here is a narration from something else. Hard Mode, read the opening narration below in the voice from above and guess what its from, or you can watch Here on Youtube to figure it out right away. I may be showing my age here.
This is the city, Los Angeles California. It’s a fine place to enjoy life. There’s places reserved just for kids, when they’re young and feel young, places they go when they’re young and feel old, beginning the search for things that don’t exist in the places they look for it. They might find it here, or here, or maybe here. They could try looking here. Their search might end with a college degree. One thing’s sure, whatever they’re looking for, it can’t be found in a number 5 capsule. When they try, that’s where I come in: I carry a badge.
If you guessed any film at all, you struck out. Click the link for a listen.
More than any other influence, from the beginning to the point I am now, L.A. Noire feels like a police procedural in the realistic and dirty Dragnet vein. When I show up at a location it gives the time and the place, just like it does in Dragnet, though without gravel-voiced Joe Friday telling me about it.
So those major thematic elements are way more like a police procedural crime drama than a Film Noir. Even the titles that show up feel less like a movie than a televisions how, which is minor but contributes to the feeling of it being a Dragnet game.
If the game was often set at night or in the rain it might have a Noir feeling to it, but it does not, so you’re left with a very thin Noir aesthetic. So far, outside the menu and rare instances in cutscenes, there has been no trick lighting or cinematic work to highlight a moody plot. Sure, I see a lot of crime, but so what?
The crimes are often violent but not terribly mysterious, and they almost never have an impact on Cole. Violence outside a psychological context has almost nothing to do with Noir, it’s the motivations that are key. Motivations in L.A. Noire are often disappointingly straight-forward and realistic. While this would be a huge asset in a Dragnet game, not so much in a game selling itself on a type of film that rarely has simple explanations for an action. I think Team Bondi said they based their crimes on real case files and events like Dragnet did, and the way many procedurals do, so its not surprising there’s less of a fictional detective feel and more of a realistic crime pacing.
The lack of impact on Cole is really a major issue. The lack of empathy or emotional reaction he displays make stone-faced Joe Friday look like a weeping baby in comparison. Tough guys in Noir still have passions, they’re practically defined by reaching their breaking point, but the only times I see Cole raise his emotional level are when he’s verbally abusing a potential witness.
The interviews and their amazing facial capture technology are cool, granted, but the camerawork in these scenes is devoid of any actual artistry, which would have been a perfect time to dial up the Noir. Watch this “Noir-style” interrogation from the movie The T-Men and forget for a moment that the guy being interrogated is actually the good guy here. Pay close attention to the framing, and how the scene sets the action. When do we ever see anything like this in L.A. Noire? I cannot think of one, so far.
The biggest flaw in the “Noire is Noir?” idea is the protagonist, Cole. I won’t call him the hero, because that would be giving heroes a bad name. Cole is a good by-the-books policeman with no hardships or dramatic flaws, other than a severe personality problem that basically only we, the player, can see. Eventually we do see one other flaw: Cole has an affair, which essentially ruins his career. While the other characters treat you like garbage from this point onwards, it hits the player with the impact of a wet sponge: the player may not know Cole has a wife and family before this point, and the affair is mostly conducted offscreen between Cole and a woman the player has relatively little interaction with.
He’s a detective with some issues, right? That should be Noir enough. So what’s wrong?
Normally you get a hero in the form of a burned out cop, or a rough private eye. These guys are good at the core, but might be so tired of people lying, cheating, and murdering just to get ahead that they develop an harsh manner and a nasty reputation. Cole has a slick persona but a heart of mud. He is treated well and lauded for his achievements, but the player gets to see him threaten pregnant women, verbally abuse under-age rape victims, and heap misery onto elderly widows. This is the man who shows up to give your daughter or your grandmother a hard time just for being witness to a crime.
Because of the way the game mechanics are set up, you do not always know what Cole will say or what the subject will say in response to your question, so you need to fish for the right responses. You do this by saying “Truth” if they’re being entirely truthful or saying “Lie” if they are squirming at all. You do this because Lie lets you back out if the subject responds in a way you’re not prepared for, and then you can choose “Doubt” to get the right response. Choose doubt first and you can miss evidence. This really is the best way to do the interviews.
So Cole will often begin an interrogation with a strange question and then accuse the subject of something terrible. While interviewing the young rape victim I thought he was going to accuse her of being Hitler several times during the interview. There’s nothing you can do to avoid this except to deliberately fail the interview question session, as Cole will never use his “indoor voice” when conducting an investigation with a young emotionally traumatized woman that had just been the victim of male aggression. Cole was taught how to conduct an interview by a guy who told him to beat a confession out of a suspect, I’ll grant you, but the guy didn’t tell him to beat it out of the victim.
It is important to remember that Cole is never yanked aside for being too rough, so he never has an opportunity to come off as emotionally unhinged. If that had happened I might have felt good about it, in a strange way. Yeah, I’m a screaming nutcase that should have been voiced by “Bad Lieutenant” Nick Cage, but at least everyone knows it, and the fact that I’m being promoted is evidence of a corrupt system! I ran over like fifty people on the way to this crime scene, responded to a call by shooting six people in the face, and stole a guy’s car before leaving it in an unlit railway tunnel! This is like playing the villain!
But because nobody makes a mention of this, it seems clear that the game world is entirely okay with me being a terrible police officer and terrible human being, and the only thing that ever happens to threaten me in any way is being tossed under the bus to distract the press from a different police scandal.
This is bonkers. Noir usually has the main protagonist essentially at a loss as forces beyond his control make him an unwitting participant of mysterious crime stuff, sometimes it may even make him a hapless victim of mistaken or unfortunate circumstances. Never does it have them being promoted repeatedly, publicly known as a heroic golden-boy cop even while openly engaging in reprehensible behavior, essentially at the top of the world until they get essentially a slap on the wrist due to an off-screen indiscretion. Maybe if he had killed his wife, or his wife turned up dead and he was framed for the murder, or Earle ended up dead and then he was framed for the murder AND outed as an adulterer… with the whole force breathing down on him and only two days to prove his innocence… that might work.
But mind you, this is about 2/3rds of the way in, if not further. What is essentially a Noir story happens at the end of a hell of a lot more Dragnet. You also lose control of Cole for a good portion of the end of the game, so what could have been a journey through the mind of a man on the edge becomes yet again a procedural-like set of investigations.
It is especially hard to understand Cole as anything other than a turd in a suit because you’re treated to flashbacks from the war where he acts like such a weenie that you’d expect the other officer candidates to give him a swirlie in the camp latrine. You get to see Jack Kelso rightly rebuff Cole for using other men as tools for glory, and see Cole’s look of smug satisfaction whenever he gets a chance to play some kindergarten-level prank on Kelso’s career, long before you get to see him suffer any repercussions whatsoever. The disconnect between fault and punishment is so wide that I have to say that Cole would be perfectly suited as the antagonist for a Noir film, but nowhere do I see L.A. Noire fitting in the canon of actual Noir with a character like that.
Worst of all, even though Cole meets a bad ending, he dies in an antiseptic manner that has no real capacity to punish him. His funeral is a farce, to be certain, but his reputation is redeemed. For a guy so obsessed with reputation and making it, this is just what he would have wanted. That’s not a Noir ending!
In Scarlet Street, Edward G. Robinson plays a dopey, meek, and trusting cashier who tormented at home and seduced by a young con artist, though he does a good job of holding out for a while. When fate continues to make his life a living hell, he ends up murdering her and letting it be blamed on her despicable and abusive boyfriend, who gets the gas chamber. Pretty reasonable if you ask me, but he still gets punished for it: he loses his job, attempts to kill himself, ends up homeless and drifting with the thoughts of his seducer’s boyfriend loving coos echoing in his mind as he shuffles off the screen. Now that’s rough. What’s Cole get? Eh, washed off-screen. You could even say that, metaphorically, it washes away his sins so he can be “reborn” in memory. Terrible bit of fake religious imagery I invented there, I know, but it shows how unsatisfying an ending that is! It’s not like the makers of L.A. Noire didn’t see Scarlet Street, it’s in the game!
L.A. Noire is a game that wants to be Noir without knowing what a Noir is. It’s like someone wanted to make a great police game, but since nobody wanted to sign off on their “Dragnet 1947″ game adaptation they had to get the studio executives to sign off on it by saying it’d be a hard-boiled Sam Spade Noir mystery. You cannot take Joe Friday and turn him hardboiled by way of blatant character assassination. I believe these guys really did think they were doing it right though, the same way I believe the guys making the recent X-COM games felt they were doing it right. I think they’re not thinking too much though, and have no real idea what they were aiming for. This game hits none of the major hallmarks of the Noir concept with any kind of repeated consistency, and some of them it ignores completely. While the setpieces are sometimes primed for Noir plots, we always arrive after the action is over. Through Cole we get to play guys who show up to arrest the wrong guy at the end of Scarlet Street, or haul off cheap thugs at the end of the Maltese Falcon. We never get to do anything Noir, be anywhere Noir, or really feel anything Noir. It’s a real shame.
Brass tacks though—is the game decent? Yeah, it really is, all things considered. If I were reviewing the game I’d give it a better score on its own merits than I would as an entrant into the Film Noir canon, especially if you use the Quick Travel function to avoid driving anywhere. Not only does that keep the Traffic Crime department from causing a few hundred cases of vehicular manslaughter every time they respond to an abandoned vehicle, but it helps keep the game feeling more tightly paced.
What do you think? Did you like the game? Do you like Cole? How does it fit in with your Film Noir experience?