Aftershock: L.A. Noire Proves Story Can Carry a Game Through Flaws
“Aftershock” is a recurring feature column on Game Front. We take games we’ve already reviewed, and give them a sober second look once the post-launch dust has settled.
Looking back on the 20 hours I dumped into L.A. Noire and how quickly I leapt on the Rockstar Pass to make sure I had access to all the new cases, it’s shocking to me how bad a game Team Bondi and Rockstar have actually produced.
Allow me to qualify that statement: Huge swathes of L.A. Noire are kind of terrible. And every single one of them is forgiven for one feature that usually gets relegated to the back seat with the annoying kids in the minivan of video game design: the story.
See, as far as I can tell, the thing that L.A. Noire really nails is its plot. I’ve had discussions about this with other Game Fronters, some of whom are a little cooler on the whole of Cole Phelps’ journey through Los Angeles than I am, but for the most part we agree that the game is well-written, stocked with great actors and characters, and full of strong dialog. Story portions are driven by Phelps’ investigations — gathering clues and interrogating suspects — and those portions are, on the whole, pretty strong as well.
L.A. Noire puts players in a lot of slow, methodical situations in which being patient and thinking things through are more rewarded than blasting away at the next 200 things to walk into their field of vision. Its MotionScan technology can often be very graphically immersive, driving the story forward on the performances of talented actors. It’s a game that has a tendency to defy gaming conventions.
So it’s almost weird how bad L.A. Noire can really be, and often. Action portions are by far the game’s weakest points. Running down criminals on foot is nearly impossible, car chases (and even just driving) are incredibly frustrating, and gun fights include all the tension and danger of clipping toenails. The game’s concluding action sequences are more tedious than they are climactic. And don’t get me started on how unforgivably poorly the game runs on Xbox 360 — it’s like every disc was kicked around a sandbox before being shipped. Driving through L.A. is a stuttery, disgusting affair (especially during chases) that would have players up in arms in any other case, screaming about being ripped off by a half-developed, buggy title. Instead, L.A. Noire brushes them off.
What I hope game developers and publishers take away from L.A. Noire’s success is that gamers will put up with a lot. And not because we have no self-respect or because we’re happy to take what scraps the publishers deign to throw our way, because L.A. Noire is not table scraps. L.A. Noire is a well-acted, engaging vehicle for delivering a story, and players will put up with a lot of painfully bad elements if they can be emotionally invested in something.
What I want the gaming industry to take away from L.A. Noire is that writing a quality scenario for a video game should not be an afterthought. Games can and should be vehicles for facilitating stories; stories shouldn’t be cobbled together as the means of facilitating gameplay.
Obviously, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes you want to make a game about racing or flying a plane or fighting dudes with swords. That’s fine — whatever. But L.A. Noire teaches us that story isn’t just something you have to cram into a game so that players have a reason to shoot things: it’s a powerful tool for getting people excited about participating in the experience you’re creating.
Central to L.A. Noire are interrogations. Figuring people out. Detecting their lies. Digging into their lives. Yes, these instances have their flaws, as most other reviewers have been quick to point out. They’re nebulous, require a lot of guessing (educated guessing while staring a perp in his eyes though it may be), but they’re still…well, fun, for some reason, because they bring us closer to actual human beings, their motivations and their stories. We all go to movies and read books because we’re interested in characters and the situations they get into, and the very same is true with video games. Humans want to see stories about other humans; not about the many different ways one can disembowel an alien before the ship explodes right before the cardboard protagonist escapes, all while shouting a pithy one-liner.
The point in all this is that a game can subsist on its story if that story is good. The driving can suck, the frame rate can dive, the core gameplay can be tough to divine. But it can still be fun and engaging, and people like me will still sink stupid amounts of time into it and be thankful for the privilege.
I’m reminded of my many forays into the world of Final Fantasy as a teenager. I played most of the games in the series. I often didn’t like them. In fact, the whole “gameplay” part was entirely grating for me with most Squaresoft games. But I was a diehard fan for many years.
The trick was, I liked the stories. I was interested in the fall of Sephiroth and what betrayal Cloud had visited on his friend, or what would become of Chrono, Lucca and Marle, or what the hell was going on in Fei’s head or what Xenosaga was even supposed to be about.
We don’t need our game stories to be watered-down dime store novels or rehashes of the same stupid space marine action movie over and over again. In fact, I would argue that we, the gaming public, do not want that. We’re not dumb people, game developers. We’re not disinterested couch potatoes with zero attention span, game publishers. Write us some good stories — I promise we’ll pay for them.
Hell, I already bought the L.A. Noire DLC. I’m just going to skip the driving.