Friday, June 1, 2012

Why L.A. Noire Was Almost The Citizen Kane of Video Games

I feel like I should point out that I am not trying to say that L.A. Noire is the Citizen Kane of games; it's not. The key word in the title is the word "almost." Noire aimed for a target that few video games even acknowledge. It tried to tell a complex and adult story with interesting 3-dimensional characters, but unfortunately it was distracted by the "GTA: 1940s Los Angeles" target and missed. The important thing, however, is that it tried and almost succeeded.

The first thing we need to understand is why Citizen Kane is the Citizen Kane of movies in the first place. Kane gets a lot of criticism because it's supposed to be the Greatest Film Ever Made, which is impossible since film quality is completely subjective. However, what a lot of people forget is that Kane is still a very, very good film. The reason that the film is Number 1 on so many Best Films lists has less to do with it being a good film, and more to do with why it is a good film. Citizen Kane is a brilliant piece of filmmaking because it uses the very medium of film to tell its story in a way that few other films have matched. Every bit of the film - the lighting, the shot composition, the editing, the sound design, the production design, the acting, etc. - was creatively used to convey the story and the meaning behind the story.

The Citizen Kane of Citizen Kane screenshots.

Watchmen, the Citizen Kane of comics, is another good example of a piece of art that uses all the tools of its medium to tell a story. In this case, Moore, Gibbons, and Higgins use elements unique to comics - panel juxtaposition, bright colors, thought bubbles, etc. - to convey their ideas. This is why the film adaptation largely failed; the story was basically the same, but there was no depth to it. Snyder only copied some of the comic's panels in his shots, and not much more (whoever was production designer on that movie, however, deserved an Oscar).

So much style, so little substance.

Video games, unlike comics or movies (or anything else, for that matter), have their own unique storytelling tools. They share a lot of their elements with movies - production design, sound design, lighting -  but they have two specific elements that make them unique: choice and exploration. You have no control over whether or not the girl walks into the dark hallway alone in a horror movie (seriously, guys, stop yelling at the screen), but you can choose whether or not the Dragonborn goes into that spooky Nordic ruin (most common choice: yes). You can only see what the camera sees as it explores the Star Wars universe, but you can explore every nook and cranny of the Mass Effect universe (turns out there's usually just a hacking puzzle). Choice and exploration are the two most powerful tools available to game developers, and also the tools that are most ignored (I'm looking at you, Call of Duty franchise). And L.A. Noire comes so very close to using these two elements brilliantly.

I like to think that L.A. Noire and Mad Men take place in the same universe, and Cole Phelps is the father of Ken Cosgrove.

First off, exploration. The number one way that you progress through L.A. Noire is through exploration. On the macro level, you have the city of Los Angeles, as it was in the late 1940s. The city is almost a character in itself, albeit a pretty but kind of boring character. It's amazingly detailed, with period-correct business, fashions, and cars, but there's not a lot you can do besides drive through it (or, in my case, crash into it). Still, these driving sections give you a feel for the overall world of L.A. Noire in a way that a film never could (also, you don't have to repeat them every time you fail a mission, GTA4. Never forget). However, the parts of the game that really stands out here are the crime scenes. Exploring the crime scenes does more than advance the plot; it gives you a deeper sense of who these characters are. The best example of this is when you're exploring the home of a missing man and you realize that he and his wife sleep in different bedrooms. It's subtle, but still incredibly important to the story and helpful in solving the mystery. I kind of wish the game would've had more of these moments and fewer "THIS IS IMPORTANT AND HERE'S WHY" bits. It allows you to solve the mystery yourself, and it puts you inside the mind of a detective.

Something tells me there may have been some foul play here...

Secondly, we have choice. L.A. Noire does what so few other games want to do: it allows you to fail. Even if you make the wrong choice, the story continues. This is brilliant, and I kind of wish every game did this, because it really makes you feel like you're experiencing an interactive story, and you're not just acting out the action scenes to a movie. L.A. Noire gives you difficult choices and then forces you to live with the consequences of those choices. Unfortunately, the developers never really commit to this idea, and they still try to make Noire into a game that you can win or lose. You end up with bits where you get a low score by making the wrong choice, then find out later that neither of the choices you had were correct. A story where the protagonist has to make a difficult choice, then finds out later that he never could have made the right decision is deep and complex; a game where there is no winning move is not.

L.A. Noire never really comes close to living up to its potential. The controls are kind of wonky, the shooting sections are repetitive and don't make sense (Cole Phelps is Wolverine, apparently), and the long driving sections are generally hated (I enjoyed them, but I'm a sucker for open-world driving games, so I'm probably biased). Also the interrogations are poorly designed; it's rarely very clear what the correct series of choices you're supposed to make are, even if you know the guy is lying and why. From a storytelling perspective, though, the biggest flaw in the game is in its final act. This is the point where the developers decided that they'd rather remake Chinatown as an all CGI short film than make an interactive video game story. The gameplay to cutscene ratio decreases dramatically (never a good sign), and the interrogations and crime scene investigations feel like they were stuck in so that the game wouldn't end Metal Gear Solid-style. Worst of all, it never feels like your success or failure has any impact on the story anymore. Like a cheap Call of Duty ripoff, you're basically just going through the motions to advance the story. Also the final level is awful (why would you give me a flamethrower that's impossible to use?). L.A. Noire is the first game that I've ever played that tries to tell a complex, adult story through gameplay, but it never quite gets it right. It gets and A for effort and a C- for execution.

Oh good, I was worried we were going to get through the game without having to shoot a bunch of dudes.

But really it all comes down to this: why would you create an open-world driving game with the LaBrea Tar Pits and not assume that the first thing I would do is drive my car into the LaBrea Tar Pits? Running into that invisible wall was easily the most disappointing part of the game.

Just asking for a period car to be driven into there.

No comments:

Post a Comment