2011 is really a golden year for gaming. With two of the best western RPGs of our generation in Mass Effect 2 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Valve’s last game and possibly the best puzzle game of all time, Portal 2, the game which started the overall gaming community’s obsession with difficulty, Dark Souls, possibly the best superhero game of all time, Batman: Arkham City, the sole reason for the revival of immersive sims, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, possibly the best sports game of all time, NBA 2K12, and a diamond in the rough which most of you have never heard of called Minecraft. These are only a fraction of great games released in 2011, I still haven’t mention Battlefield 3, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, The Witcher 2, Crysis 2, Dead Space 2 and more overshadowed games like Driver: San Francisco, To The Moon and Total War: Shogun 2. But the game I liked the most released in 2011 is neither of them. Yes, Minecraft’s absurdly huge sandbox is still amazing to this day, Human Revolution contains the best level design I have ever seen, the character work in Mass Effect 2 are still one of the best in Gaming history, Arkham City and Dark Souls’ combat are still unrivaled and the lighthearted and fun time that Portal 2 brought me is something I would never forget. But L.A. Noire gives me an experience that I can seldom experience outside of Quantic Dreams games, a serious and grim narrative focussed adventure in a seldom explored time period. The story, even though it sometimes goes off the rails, is still really good. The atmosphere and tone of the game is perfect and while the gameplay left quite a few things to be desired, it is still remarkably unique, even to this day.
L.A. Noire went through a very difficult development cycle. You can easily see that with the fact that its development literally has a separate wikipedia article for it. The game was developed by Team Bondi, a studio based in Sydney. The troubles started all the way in 2005, that’s right, the game was revealed in 2005 and was released in 2011. That’s not the worse part, not by a long shot. The publishing rights of the game was transferred from Sony to Rockstar back in 2005. The development was plagued by poor decisions by leadership, especially creative director, Brendan McNamara, and employee mistreatment. In the article, Why Did L.A. Noire Take Seven Years to Make?, written after the games release in 2011 by IGN’s Andrew McMillen, we learnt a little more of the troubled development of Team Bondi’s magnum opus. For example, in the leadership aspect, the developers accounts all indicate that the studio functioned under a decidedly informal hierarchy. If writer/director Brendan McNamara wanted something changed, he'd just go and talk to the staff member implementing it, rather than going through lead staff. "Often the leads weren't involved," remembers a programmer. "If you'd talk to your lead and say, 'Hey, Brendan's making this unreasonable demand,' they'd be understanding, but they're ultimately powerless. They can't go and tell Brendan that it's not feasible, just as much as I couldn't tell him. He just won't listen to reason,” which McNamara admits to be the truth. Another huge issue is the absurdly large staff turnover rate. Team Bondi was not a major studio like Ubisoft or Bioware, so its staff count is not in the high three digits. According to McMillen’s article, A former programmer says that, during his three year tenure, the studio had a "massive turnaround, especially in the coding department. Out of the 45 people that no longer worked at the studio, 11 were fired. Out of the 34 that actually decided to leave, 25 of those were coders; most of whom had no job to go to, since they decided that it was better to be unemployed than to be working there. I was one of those." This was echoed by a gameplay programmer, who had no prior game development experience. "They have a massive turnover; a huge attrition rate," he says. "I remember sitting in a meeting with all of the gameplay programmers. There were around 20 of us at the time. I looked around, and realised that out of all of them, other than the team lead, I'd been there the longest. And I'd only been there for under 12 months." The third and most important issue is the staff’s crunching issues. According to McMillen’s article, an artist who spent two years in the studio said, "When I joined the team, there was no indication that it was anything other than a 9-5, five-day-a-week job, it was never outwardly said that you had to be working more [hours], but it was just the vibe of the place. If you weren't [working overtime], you couldn't progress any further." "If you left at 7.30pm, you'd get evil eyes," another artist recalls. "The crunch was ongoing. It just kept on shifting; an ominous crunch that just keeps moving, and moving. Management would say, 'Oh, it'll finish once we meet this deadline,' but the deadline kept moving. That went on for a good year." Of the three years that this artist spent at Team Bondi, he worked 60-hour weeks on average. To meet each development milestone – around one per month, he says – his workload would jump to between 80 and 110 hours per week, for a period of one to two weeks at a time. The wider issue, one animator believes, is "game companies thinking that crunch can solve poor scheduling, or bad design decisions made early on in a project." Another source who left the company in 2008 called his experience at Team Bondi the biggest disappointment of his life. "I left because of stress and working conditions, mainly. But the trigger was this: I received a reprimand for 'conduct and punctuality' for being 15 minutes late to work. I arrived at 9:15am – despite the fact I had only left work around 3:15am the same day, and paid for my own taxi home! I never would have thought you could put a sweatshop in the Sydney CBD." It is an incredibly toxic work environment and Brendan McNamara’s poor leadership is the major result of it. Crunches and poor working environment are becoming increasingly common in video games development, even with that, it doesn’t mean that it is acceptable, even if I enjoy the end product that the developers, designers and artists put out, it doesn’t mean I endorse the action the management took on the way to get there. It certainly helps that Team Bondi itself does not exist anymore, as it was bought by Australian film studio Kennedy Miller Mitchell shortly after L.A. Noire’s release and McNamara’s new project Whore of the Orient (what a tasteful name, by the way) was cancelled in 2014. It makes me feel a little better for enjoying the game.
So what’s the game’s narrative about? Following the end of World War II, Cole Phelps (Aaron Staton), a decorated United States Marine Corps veteran, returns to Los Angeles and works as a patrol officer of the LAPD. In 1947, after successfully solving a major murder case and being promoted to detective, Phelps earns a reputation over the next six months for solving difficult cases for both the Traffic and Homicide divisions; he most notably concludes the Black Dahlia case.
Upon being promoted into the Vice division, he becomes involved in the investigation into military surplus morphine syrettes being sold on the street, stolen from the ship that had brought home his former Marine unit. He learns that several members of his former unit had stolen and distributed the morphine, only for them to be assassinated on the orders of Mickey Cohen (Patrick Fischler), who controlled the city's drug trade. During this time, Phelps falls for German lounge singer Elsa Lichtmann (Erika Heynatz) and has an affair with her.
Roy Earle (Adam J. Harrington), Phelps's partner in Vice and a corrupt cop, helps several prominent figures in the city draw attention away from a major prostitution scandal by exposing Phelps's adultery before he is able to draw a confession from Courtney Sheldon (Chad Todhunter), a member of Phelps's former unit, over his involvement with the stolen morphine. In exchange, Earle is given a place in a syndicate known as the Suburban Redevelopment Fund (SRF)—a program founded under the pretense of providing affordable housing for returning veterans. Phelps's marriage ends, he becomes disgraced in the LAPD, and he is demoted to the Arson desk, where he is tasked with investigating a number of suspicious house fires. Despite noting a strong connection between them and a housing development that the SRF operates, Phelps is warned off by Earle from pursuing the syndicate and its founder, tycoon developer Leland Monroe (John Noble). Seeking help, Phelps prompts an old comrade, Jack Kelso (Gil McKinney), now an investigator for the California Fire & Life Insurance Company, to look into the matter.
Kelso discovers that the development is using unsuitable building materials and that his boss Curtis Benson (Jim Abele), a member of the SRF, is insuring them despite this fact. Following a shootout at Monroe's mansion, Kelso learns that the syndicate used a patient of prominent psychiatrist Harlan Fontaine (Peter Blomquist), a member of the SRF, to burn down the homes of those who would not agree to sell their property to the fund; eventually, his patient accidentally killed four people in one such fire and became irreversibly traumatised. Confronting Fontaine at his clinic, the patient murders Fontaine and kidnaps Elsa.
Investigating Fontaine's clinic, Phelps discovers that the syndicate was a front to defraud the US Federal Government: Monroe would acquire land with money invested by the syndicate and build surreptitiously cheap houses on them to increase their value, knowing the government would later purchase the plots through eminent domain to make space for a new freeway. Phelps also discovers that Sheldon, overcome with guilt, had provided Fontaine with the stolen morphine under the pretense that Fontaine would legally provide the morphine to medical facilities with the profits being reinvested into the SRF; Sheldon was later murdered by Fontaine after gaining knowledge of Kelso's investigation into the SRF. Kelso realises that Fontaine's patient was Ira Hogeboom (J. Marvin Campbell), a former flamethrower operator from his and Phelps' unit who became severely traumatised after unintentionally burning out a cave of civilians on Phelps's orders. Phelps and Kelso pursue Hogeboom and Elsa into the Los Angeles River Tunnels. The pair rescue Elsa, and Kelso executes the incapacitated Hogeboom to end his suffering. As the water rises within the tunnels following intense rainfall, the group is able to escape, but Phelps is unable to reach the exit and drowns.
A funeral is held for Phelps. As Earle delivers a eulogy for Phelps, Elsa leaves in disgust. Herschel Biggs (Keith Szarabajka), Phelps's Arson partner, tells Kelso that while Kelso and Phelps were never friends, they were not enemies either. In a closing epilogue flashback, Kelso is revealed to have known about the stolen morphine but refused to be involved in its distribution, knowing the trouble it would cause.
Before we talk about L.A. Noire, we need to talk about Noir as a genre first. Noir was one of the most popular genres in cinema during the 40s and 50s. The most prominent storytellers behind the rapidly expanding genre are Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, with Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai being the prime example of Noir in its most classic form. The classic noir genre still carries on till now, with L.A. Confidential in 1997 and Sin City in 2005 being an example. The genre also evolves with the popularity of Westerns in the 60s and action thrillers in the 70s. Neo Noir was born out of the ashes of both of them and brought the spirit of noir into a new age. Most of the popular action movies have traces of neo noir in them and the genre is responsible for some of the greatest action thrillers of all time, with Collateral, The Usual Suspects, Seven, Pulp Fiction along them. After all these examples, what is noir exactly? Noir genre sometimes literally looks like a checklist, with different characteristics that defines the genre. The low-key lighting schemes of many classic film noirs are associated with stark light/dark contrasts and dramatic shadow patterning—a style known as chiaroscuro (a term adopted from Renaissance painting), the use of low-angle, wide-angle, and skewed, or Dutch angle shots. The unusually convoluted story lines, frequently involving flashbacks and other editing techniques that disrupt and sometimes obscure the narrative sequence. In terms of characters and plot, crime, usually murder, is an element of almost all film noirs; in addition to standard-issue greed, jealousy is frequently the criminal motivation. A crime investigation—by a private eye, a police detective (sometimes acting alone), or a concerned amateur—is the most prevalent, but far from dominant, basic plot. In other common plots the protagonists are implicated in heists or con games, or in murderous conspiracies often involving adulterous affairs. False suspicions and accusations of crime are frequent plot elements, as are betrayals and double-crosses. Film noirs tend to revolve around heroes who are more flawed and morally questionable than the norm, often fall guys of one sort or another. Certain archetypal characters appear in many film noirs—hardboiled detectives, femme fatales, corrupt policemen, jealous husbands, intrepid claims adjusters, and down-and-out writers. film noir is often described as essentially pessimistic. The noir stories that are regarded as most characteristic tell of people trapped in unwanted situations (which, in general, they did not cause but are responsible for exacerbating), striving against random, uncaring fate, and frequently doomed. The films are seen as depicting a world that is inherently corrupt. There are not many video games which can meet most of these characteristics. L.A. Noire manages to hit all of them and as a result, it succeeds not only as a noir story, but also as a story.
Let me voice my criticism of L.A. Noire’s story first, to avoid being called a fanboy. Some plot points actually make little sense, especially the one of Cole’s affair. It is the essential part of his downward spiral from LAPD’s golden boy to public enemy number 1 in the City of Angels. As it is an important plot point, you would expect the writers would give it a little bit of foreshadowing. No, not really. It just happens, just because. No foreshadowing, not really any motivation, no player agency. Pretty poor attempt at a midway twist. Another huge issue is the dividing of the story. L.A. Noire’s story is pretty episodic, like your average crime drama, each episode or chapter focuses on one case, with an overarching narrative throughout each department. Traffic is a little bit looser, but there is an arc for Homicide, Vice and Arson. Each of them have a major villain or scheme behind the scenes, Black Dahlia killer in Homicide, Morphine Heist in Vice and Suburban Redevelopment fund in Arson. It makes sense in a lot of stories. However it undermines most player agency and accomplishment. The most a player can accomplish in the game is to collect every evidence, ask the right question, accuse the right people, and charge the correct victim. However, in all four parts, especially in Homicide and Arson, Cole and the player are deliberately misled to accuse multiple wrong suspects. We wrongly accused 5 different innocent man of murder, before figuring out it was the Black Dahlia all along. We accuse two other innocent men of Arson along the way. Even if the player got everything right, they still could not do the best job as a detective, which really took a lot of the immersion away. Another issue is Phelps’ “interesting” interrogation technique. When you pressed the doubt or lie button, Cole goes absolutely apeshit, from calling an old lady “a nosy old hag”, threatening to break the suspects jaw or just lashing out on the various suspects he encountered. He sounds like a sociopath in some of them. I think only one of those lashings are justified, and my god is it glorious, with this exchange between Phelps and the corrupt cop who accelerates his downfall, Roy Earle. “Courtney Sheldon was a corpsman, Roy. He served his country! He went out with a medical kit and an Army .45 and into places that made the Valley of Death look like a picnic. He was either naive enough or dumb enough to get involved in the Suburban Development Fund along with the mayor, D.A., Monroe, and a certain crooked cop. He was involved in the morphine heist, but he has a puncture wound in his jugular, which makes it a murder case. He was a better man than you'll ever know. You say one more word about him and I will blow you fucking head off! ” Besides that, Phelps just seems like a constantly raging asshole, which is very pathetic to be honest.
When the story goes wrong, it goes devastatingly wrong, but when it goes right it is incredible. The ending is a great example. A lot of people did not like the ending. They say it is too grim for their taste. Gamers really like their bleak and grim endings. Most gamers really like the bad ending of the Witcher 3, or the various endings of Nier: Automata, or the ending of Grand Theft Auto IV. These endings are all incredibly bleak, with the main characters in an inescapable doom. The entire game of L.A. Noire is like that. There isn’t a figurative enemy in L.A Noire, there is only lies and corruption, and these things can be solved overnight. Cole Phelps is only a faux figure in the world. This is best illustrated at the eulogy given to Cole by his former partner Roy Earle. Roy called him a war hero, which he wasn’t, he was a war hero by virtue of luck, not because of his poor leadership skill and decision making skills, he ordered to burn down a goddamn hospital, for god’s sake and his bad decision got multiple comrades killed. Earle also called him a loving husband and father, which is again false. He cheated on his wife and his family did not show up in the game at all, this really shows the distance between Phelps and those around him. The final remarks that Phelps received from Earle is that he is a good friend. Not really either, Phelps has been an asshole to everyone he knows, so that’s false. Everything about Phelps is fabricated, just like most of real life’s heroes are. They are built up to unreachable heights and are torn down or worse, erased once they are not useful anymore. Look at Pat Tillman, for example. He was an American professional football player in the National Football League (NFL) who left his sports career and enlisted in the United States Army in May 2002 in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. His service in Iraq and Afghanistan, and subsequent death, were the subject of national attention when he was killed in action as a result of friendly fire. Tillman joined the Army Rangers and served several tours in combat before he was killed in the mountains of Afghanistan. At first, the Army reported that Tillman had been killed by enemy fire. Controversy ensued when a month later, on May 28, 2004, the Pentagon notified the Tillman family that he had been killed by fire from his own side; the family and other critics allege that the Department of Defense delayed the disclosure for weeks after Tillman's memorial service out of a desire to protect the image of the U.S. military. This is pretty much Cole’s story. It makes sense even in the most literal form, Cole gets flushed out of the L.A. River like a piece of shit. This is the most noire ending of all. It is super similar to Chinatown, where the ending is abrupt and depressing and that’s one of the best noir movies of all time. What do you expect the ending to be, to be honest. There’s no way for Cole Phelps to win. He is not going to magically regain public opinion and hailed as the savior of the city and take down all of the corruption. That’s impossible. Cole tries to find redemption through police work. He felt he never deserved the medal he got from Okinawa and he really wanted to change the world into a better place. However, it is not possible. The world in L.A Noire is filled with corruption and fraud. From the housing developers to the Police Chief to politicians to even small time criminals, everyone got their dark secrets. There is no saint in this city, no angels, only sinners. Cole Phelps is only one of them. This gives the character more of the feeling of being only a cog in the machine. The world hums along, even with or without Phelp’s intervention and there will be many other Cole Phelpses who believe they can change the world by their sole effort. However, the monster inside the patriarchy will only pick them up and spit them out or them becoming part of the monster. Cynical, but it is how the world really works.
In the early 2010s, there is a lot more narrative focused third person shooter, whose gameplay is unimpressive but the story is really good. It is properly due to the success of Gears of War and Mass Effect. Spec Ops: The Line is one, Bioshock Infinite is another good example and L.A. Noire is a great example as well. Team Bondi dropped the ball in terms of its open world and gameplay. Unlike GTA or even Mafia, the open world is not integrated to the game properly. The player is not incentivized to go to the open world and do missions at all. This is largely the same issue with Metal Gear Solid V, which is the open world is really unnecessary. More of the resources can be redirected to making the gunplay and car handling as well. The gunplay is not very responsive, especially on the controller, which is where I played. The car handling feels far too heavy as well. Just like Watch Dogs, even on a controller, you can’t make turns properly until you brake to the speed of a F1 car going through the Monaco Hairpin. Thinking of this game as a full blown visual novel can be a much better expectation. The investigating parts of the game can be really interesting if the game does not constantly tempt you to use your intuition points, which can instantly reveal every single clue. The interrogations suffer a different problem, the lack of correspondence from user input to actual in game events. There are altogether three options, Truth, Doubt and Lie. Cole goes apeshit 80% of times if you choose Doubt and goes apeshit 100% of the time when you choose Lie. This not only breaks the immersion but also ripped away a lot of the player agency as well. L.A. Noire’s gameplay has a lot of flaws, but not all games have to be perfect.
Cole Phelps is not a perfect man, and L.A. Noire is not a perfect game, but it is good enough. The game did not make a lot of money and there probably is not going to be a sequel, so just enjoy the show and cherish the time we had with it.ns188.8.131.52da2