I’ve played computer games for nearly 30 years, from a cheap Pong clone through ZX Spectrum, BBC B, through to PCs, Playstations 2 and 3 and when the latter got stolen, XBox360. It means that I’m good at the suspension of disbelief needed to immerse yourself in a game as an entertainment.
If you can buy into the competitive effort needed to bash the rubber keys on a Spectrum to get the best results for a monochrome (and rather white at that) Daley Thompson recreating his 1984 LA Olympics heroics and to amplify the buzzing from its rudimentary speaker to sound like the deafening cheers of the crowd you’ve got what they’re trying to do. That is why, of course, every mum and dad in the land back in those early days of home computing, used to scoff at the silly things that entertained us kids. It was so obvious that this stuff was not at all like reality that it had to be silly.
Technology has moved things on a long way from those days. So much so that there was great hype and expectation about the latest release from Rockstar Games earlier in the year of LA Noire on XBox and PS3. This was pitched as more of an experience to compare with an interactive film than a mere game. The basic premise is that you play as Detective Cole Phelps, a decorated US Marines officer joining the LAPD in 1947 following demobilisation. You have to complete missions to investigate and solve crimes and get promoted. So far, so gameish.
The differences are that, unlike in older generations of games, the visuals and sounds are very convincing. The images in this review are screenshots of actual action from the game. At times you feel like you have been placed into an Edward Hopper painting. Or, you have the option of playing in black and white, and suddenly you are in an old movie. You can travel around a meticulously recreated 3D model of 1947 LA with little restriction; it is sufficiently well realised that the detailed historical review of what the developers got wrong seem very minor to anyone other than those who are interested purely in the history of LA http://bit.ly/g5qNNJ .
Once you have got over the awkwardness of using a game controller it is easy to lose yourself in the plot. Yes, the plot. If anything, the game can be somewhat thin if you want it to be – unusually, most action sequences of the traditional sort, which rely upon the player’s ability to get Det Phelps to run after criminals, or to win a firefight or even to drive from one crime scene to the next can be skipped entirely. Instead, you can watch as the story across 21 missions unfolds, characters appear, grow, fall away. Your success leads to promotions and set-backs. You find out things about yourself, or rather about Phelps, that you might not like. A hugely complex set of inter-relationships between organised crime, politicians and a recently demilitarised population unfolds. Just as with a series of 24, you find yourself saying, “just one more mission” as you see glimpses of how your (computer controlled) partner might betray you and you want to see whether you can do anything about it, you want to find out who is the serial killer, who is paying for houses to be torched in convenient locations for a developer, who is supplying lethal medical morphine to the local addicts.
The other new element to LA Noire is the way in which you investigate the crimes. At each crime scene you need to walk around and search with a fine toothed comb for clues and evidence. Then, you need to interrogate people. However, the people in LA Noire don’t all tell the truth, not all of the time and not always willingly. Each character has been played by a live actor whose facial expressions have been filmed and modelled so they provide visual tics as well as other cues that you need to pick up on. If you ask the wrong question at the wrong time, or if you accuse them of lying without having the evidence to prove it, suddenly the story takes a different turn. You find yourself having to charge someone you think is probably not guilty. You might even just not have enough to get anyone. If you want to know what happened next, you have to watch and listen and think about everything so there’s a sense of achievement at getting to the denouement that is not the same as the visceral thrill of a traditional video game or the passive ride that you get when seeing Jack Bauer finally expose the corrupt politician behind all those terror attacks.
LA Noire is far from perfect, but it shows a direction that games can take to become a more mature medium of entertainment and also a means for telling stories. Controlling the joypad is still not intuitive enough for non-games players (I “set” LA Noire as my contribution for the book club I’m part of, which has morphed into a more general “culture” club and was interested to see the responses of the others, none of whom had played video games for at least 15 years, or in some cases ever and control was the biggest problem, particularly for the driving sections, which are a little tricky). This might be resolved by using things like Kinect (where you control games by moving your body and have no physical controller to use). There is also an issue raised by one of my guineapigs about how playing a game “feels like wasting time or doing something worthless” where reading a book or watching a film does not. But as a glimpse of where things could go, it is an exciting one even for non-gamers. Consider investing the 21 hours it took to play through the missions instead of ploughing through your next box set of The Wire.