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The Noir of L.A. Noire: Where Is Rockstar Taking Us?

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Posted March 21, 2011 - By Guest Writer




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By Jonathan Deesing

LA Noire Logo

With games flocking to the same tropes like so many lemmings, it’s refreshing to see Rockstar Games challenging the status quo and striving for something better. In an industry where an indestructible space marine is all it takes to satisfy six million slack-jawed teenagers, LA Noire strives for something more. I just hope it doesn’t miss the mark.

From a few trailers and previews it’s clear that LA Noire strives to be more than pointless driving missions and playing darts with your cousin. Hopefully, Rockstar will realize the hand they’ve dealt themselves; one with limitless potential. Distortion and intrigue riddled their hit GTA IV but even that won’t fit the bill of film noir. 

I can hear you thinking that games have already “been there,” to the corrupt 40s and 50s, with games like The Godfather: The Game and Mafia, but those games were nothing more than slipshod carbon copies of Grand Theft Auto III with some old cars and tommy guns. And they certainly weren’t noir. Find out more about how Rockstar is putting the noir into this period detective thriller.

Noir is so much more than a time period. It is one of the hardest types of film to define and harder still to emulate. This is why only a handful of films can be considered true film noir. This style of melodrama emerged as a strong counterculture element during a time of post-war patriotism and goodness. Happy endings reigned supreme, and people were sick of war. We had spent half a century battling for freedom and the “Greatest Generation” wasn’t going to do anything to compromise this. Noir, with its gloomy background in Germanic Expressionism had better plans.

The Noir of L.A. Noire: Why Rockstar

Nihilistic and disturbed individuals made it dark both visually and psychologically. Neither of these elements will present a challenge to Rockstar as they have never wanted for deranged characters. From the manipulative Director in Manhunt to GTA: San Andreas’ Mike Toreno, Rockstar doesn’t shy away from psychosis. For a protagonist, Niko Belic from GTA IV does a great job of filling both the anti-hero and hero roles in his anything-goes quest for vengeance. Furthermore, noir’s crime-infested urban settings bear eerie resemblance to both Liberty City and San Andreas. 

As a gameplay mechanic, keeping players guessing is likely one of the best ways to keep them happy. For noir, even a dozen twists are not enough, and for a 30 hour game they definitely won’t be. I need the gritty satisfaction of watching countless hands twisting and manipulating the story into a sticky, rotting tangle. I need to see people hang from nooses they’ve tied themselves. There’s a reason old stories are called “yarns," and with multiple paths to discovery and an open world, L.A. Noire certain sounds well-knitted.

The Noir of L.A. Noire: Why Rockstar

Pursuing a singular enemy for an entire game and killing him at the end just won’t do. LA Noire presents the opportunity to break from Rockstar’s clichéd formula of an underlying antagonist and present perhaps one of the best antagonists – the player himself.  The flawed protagonist is common in noir; a doomed individual who at the end realizes he has only himself to blame. John Marston came to grips with this toward the end of Red Dead Redemption and it proved to be one of the most unforgettable moments in my entire gaming career … only to be ruined moments later by an annoying teenager.

Noir is haunted by individuals whose motives are constantly unclear, an element Rockstar loves to use. So many of their most iconic characters only reveal their true objectives either right before they are shot or run for the hills. Watching Officer Frank Tenpenny bleed out on the street at the end of GTA: San Andreas without regret or remorse is a perfect example. 

An engrossing story goes hand in hand with pithy dialogue. Without devilishly clever dialogue, LA Noire could fall into the same unfortunate category as The Godfather: The Game. When told “You always have a very smooth explanation,” in The Maltese Falcon, Humphrey Bogart replies, “What do you want me to do? Learn to stutter?” This type of whip-smart dialogue, coupled with their revolutionary MotionScan technology could make a game that players are more interested in watching than playing. 

The Noir of L.A. Noire: Why Rockstar

MotionScan ensures me that Rockstar is in fact venturing away from what has made them so successful in the past: myriad shootouts and gunfights. This revolutionary technology allows for an unheard of amount of detail in characters’ faces in order to better read emotion. Using this, players are supposed to determine if a person is lying or telling the truth in order to close cases. Rockstar has established a new direction for LA Noire; one with more sleuthing and less wholesale murder (I’m looking at you, Niko).

This isn’t to say that film noir isn’t filthy with violence; it certainly is. However, the main character always seems a few empty shells behind it. Indeed, in The Maltese Falcon, Humphrey Bogart doesn’t carry a gun because “I don’t like ‘em.” So I hope that Rockstar won’t let their protagonist become yet another machine gun-wielding juggernaut. I certainly don’t want to have to hunt for a floating heart in the middle of an intense investigation. Or anything floating for that matter. 

SEX. Not just a little sex either. A lot of sex. Do I have your attention now? Pornography, prostitution, homosexuality, and anything else considered taboo in the 40s (which is a lot of stuff) oozed out of every corner of film noir. At the center of this is often the femme fatale; the woman men would, and do, kill for whether they realize it or not. These remorseless women use sex appeal to attain whatever they desire, usually death and money. Rockstar has a proven record of strong supporting female characters and LA Noire will be no exception. Spoiler alert: any female you see in that game, no matter how innocuous, is likely a sadistic cold-hearted killer. And you can quote me on that one. 

L.A. Confidential

Rockstar clearly intends to draw from modern sources as is evident even in the name LA Noire, which makes an obvious nod to LA Confidential (1997), which embodies nearly every element of classic film noir. This is definitely not a bad thing. LA Confidential never ventured far from the bourbon and cigarettes of classic film noir, but it also spiced it up a bit with some serious shoot-outs. I’m suspicious that this is pretty damn close to what we can expect out of LA Noire.  

I’m throwing all of my chips behind Rockstar’s ability to make LA Noire into a true-to-life piece of noir. I’ve learned not to doubt a studio that can spin a spaghetti western into a jaw-dropping video game. From everything I’ve seen they are committed to staying within the formula of a traditional film noir, one dripping with sex, murder, and shady degenerates; culminating in a nightmarish realization of how far the human soul can nosedive. I can’t wait.

The Noir of L.A. Noire: Where Is Rockstar Taking Us?
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