A collection of my MostlyFilm articles on videogames.
A loose trilogy:
Separately, but carrying through a lot of the same sorts of thoughts, on GTA and Saints Row.
The Dragonborn returns to Skyrim, having been distracted by other worlds and challenges.
Well, it went off the rails a bit. Or, more pertinently, it didn’t. Barely a second of LA Noire was spent in idle pursuit of a personal goal, every moment was funnelling the player to the dénouement. Which is fine, that’s how narrative works in film, and LA Noire did nothing more enthusiastically than cleave to its chosen genre. The problem is… what, then? That games don’t work like that? Yeah, they do. Game designers work hard to get you from A to B, sometimes without noticing but most usually with big fucking neon arrows. Sometimes literally.
So why did I have a problem with Noire pushing me where it wanted to go? I suppose mainly because it cheated. I don’t mind being force-fed narrative in a game which tells me – this is how it goes, you’re this guy, you’re going to have to do this, this and this, we’ll fancy it up with some cutscenes, boom, seeya. But in a game which says – hey, here are some real-looking people, try teasing the information you need out of them, examine these clues, see if you can put them together and go solve the case! – I expect to be able to do that. You know. Crack the case, on my own. Instead, Team Bondi’s rat-run had me pressing each switch in turn, a sequence as set and inflexible as a hardcore rhythm-action game. And woe betide you if you missed even a tiny piece of the puzzle! Fail to pick up and fully examine a clue? Well, you’re not going to have the evidence to back up your accusation of a suspect, you’ve failed the interview, it’s all going WRONG. Get an interview question wrong? Oh dear, no lead for you to follow, oh well, charge this one, you really fucked up this case, two stars, back of the class. No second chances, not here. Shit, even in the old days Mario had three lives. This isn’t a game, it’s a TV show where you’re writing the script based on a hazy knowledge of the characters. And it’s going out live.
There are workarounds, of course. Screw up an interview and all it takes is a quit back to the menu and a restart to give yourself a second chance, but that’s not what Rockstar want for you. They want you to feel the pain of being wrong. Well, excuse me if that isn’t why I play videogames. I don’t want to go on the same emotional journey as Phelps (mainly because he’s a fucking dick). I want to perceive the right way and the wrong way through my actions, not through the script, and I want to be able to take the right way without resorting to what amounts to cheating.
BUT ENOUGH OF THAT, HOW ARE THE GRAPHICS?
They’re great. Five stars.
Well, this LA Noire is just peachy. Looks amazing – the acid-etched clarity of 40s LA is dazzling. THAT facial animation has to be seen to be believed, an awesome achievement only slightly tempered by the fact that EVERY FUCKER LOOKS THE SAME. Especially the women, of whom there are precisely TWO. Still, early days, and the actual animation is mind-blowing.
The storytelling is sensationally good, as you expect. As everyone is an armchair detective, you’ll have the cases cracked in seconds, and as usual Rockstar are one step ahead of you on this and are counting on it. You know what the story is, and it’s your job to make everyone in the game tell it right. Suspect looking like they’re about to crack? You know they did it, you just need to find the right gap to wedge yourself in and blow their story wide open.
Point and click mechanics have been mentioned time and time again, with Lucasarts being a particular touchstone. Totally true, nailed it everyone. Although I’m reminded more of the Nancy Drew games – mock if you wish, but I’ve spent longer and more enjoyable afternoons chewing through Her Interactive’s breezy puzzles than I have riding a stupid fucking horse around the Mojave desert in Red Dead Redemption. Or whatever desert, I don’t really give a fuck. Still, yes, the gentle questioning, the search of each screen, the connections made opening up further questions… it’s all good, basic puzzling. This is probably Rockstar’s most approachable game since Ping Pong.
I’m only a few missions in. I’ve just unlocked free roaming, which is wonderful – not having to worry about the odd broken wing mirror or dented pedestrian showing up on the end-of-mission report sheet is a liberating experience. On the one hand, I’m enjoying being the good guy, but on the other I miss GTA’s nihilistic amorality, the feeling of being able to do anything and the only consequences are paid out in blood; not nagging from your partner, not being shown a bill for the damage, not being told you’re a failure.
Still, you can’t complain about a game as rich, beautiful and simple as LA Noire. It has your entertainment at heart. It wants to show you everything.