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This is more than a little reductive, but if we had to nail down the most important thing publisher Rockstar Games and their subsidiary development studios have contributed to the video game medium over the years, it would be their definition of the open world genre. “Open World” is the thread that connects every major Rockstar title.
The last two titles published by Rockstar Games, Grand Theft Auto 4 and Red Dead Redemption, have been adding to that playbook with strong dramatic content. Both depended on genuine performances from its characters, and L.A. Noire looks to continue the trend. Team Bondi has pioneered a technology for the explicit purpose of providing those performances.
If LA Noire fulfills on all the promises made regarding its dramatic potential, Rockstar Games may afterwards be known not only as the publisher which pioneered the open world genre, but as the publisher which finally crossed the divide between rules and narrative. Or, to put it another way, Rockstar Games may stand on the precipice of adequately balancing mechanics and story better than anyone has ever accomplished it before.
Ludology and narratology are the two primary lenses that academics use to study video games at the critical level. To break it down into simple terms, ludology argues that we should look at rulesets and mechanics, i.e. “the game,” and understand video games that way. Narratology wants to look at games as stories, and try to analyze them the way we might examine other forms of narrative.
Even if we’re not aware of this larger discussion, these ideas influence the way we think about video games. BioWare made changes to Dragon Age II that were meant to lend primacy to the game’s storytelling. They did so by way of making adjustments to the mechanics of Dragon Age: Origins. Peoples’ reactions to those changes, and the conversations about them, were effectively conversations about rules versus narrative, and which ought to be more important in video games.
Since the last generation of systems, Rockstar has been exploring both sides of this debate with their titles. Grand Theft Auto III was a fulfillment of the promise of the first two games in that series, and more an exercise in establishing the rules of the open world game than anything else. GTA: Vice City then took decided steps into storytelling, personified by tapping into Hollywood talent for the voice work. New rules and mechanics held primacy in San Andreas, but Bully had very strong narrative components and was noted for its cast of supporting characters.
When Grand Theft Auto 4 was released, Rockstar’s “rules” of driving and shooting, missions and side missions, and indulgence in mayhem were well established. What was impressive about GTA 4 wasn’t its mechanics, but its narrative. Liberty City became a character in its own right, and through their attention to detail, developer Rockstar North made the boroughs of Broker, Dukes, Bohan, and Algonquin come to life independently of one another as well. The character of Liberty City was lovingly crafted through its television, internet, and radio stations. The world that Rockstar North placed us in was enjoyable for its own sake, not just as challenge to mission navigation or location for a vicious firefight.
The characters in GTA 4 were also surprisingly sympathetic. While players could turn Niko Bellic into a complete and utter maniac while they pulled his marionette strings in gameplay sequences, in the narrative supplied by the cut scenes, Niko was a victim of circumstance trying to make the best of a bad hand. His cousin Roman was even more relatable, to the point where Roman’s death at the end of the story felt legitimately tragic (if you made the end game choice that led to this consequence).
GTA 4 may have continued the traditional vehicular homicide and lack of gun control laws as primary gameplay mechanics, but that’s not what the game was actually about. It was about Little Jacob’s loyalty, Brucie Kibbutz’s hilarity, and Packie McReary’s struggle with family history. GTA 4 made great efforts to ask us to care about the denizens of Liberty City, and in this laid the groundwork for where Rockstar intended to lead us with their next published title.
How many people referred to Red Dead Redemption as “Grand Theft Horses?” That’s not a criticism, as there was no reason why developer Rockstar San Diego ought to have abandoned such tight mechanics so easily superimposed over another theme, but the joke makes sense because the mechanics themselves weren’t inventive. We stole horses instead of cars, and shot revolvers and bolt-action rifles instead of automatic pistols and assault rifles.
It was the characters in Red Dead Redemption that defined the title, and again the environment was one of them. New Austin almost demanded saddling up and riding versus taking advantage of the game’s fast travel function. Great Plains, Tall Trees, Hennigan’s Stead, and Cholla Springs were differentiated not only by landscape, but by flora and fauna. The serene red rock cliffs and columns of Mexico’s Diez Coronas gave way to the scrubby grasslands of Perdido and Punta Orgullo. The transition there wasn’t as satisfyingly dramatic, but was still well worth the ride.
Red Dead Redemption’s characters proper were extremely well-crafted. We can recognize a Niko Bellic anti-hero in John Marston, and again if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, but the supporting characters were drawn in much greater detail than their counterparts in GTA 4. Nigel West Dickens and Bonnie MacFarlane in particular stole their scenes with Marston, but there wasn’t a weak supporting character among the bunch. At times, it felt as though the missions in Red Dead Redemption actually got in the way of the story.
We can only speculate as to the narrative quality of L.A. Noire, but it’s safe to assume the title will focus on its story, based on the promotional material released thus far. We know that Team Bondi pioneered MotionScan technology precisely to enable believable performances. The genre of the detective story is rich in nuance and the subtle details of crime solving, and the game has already been outed as not requiring twitch reflexes. L.A. Noire was shown recently at the Tribeca Film Festival, in a clear indication of its cinematic narrative quality.
More important than any of this, however, is the information that L.A. Noire will allow its players to skip particularly difficult gameplay sequences to continue with the story. Consider the debate between ludology and narratology again for a moment. L.A. Noire is certainly going to have mechanics. We’ve seen the car chase scenes, and the gunfights. We recognize the iconic Rockstar mini-map in gameplay footage. Rockstar vets likely will take to driving around L.A. Noire’s representation of 1940’s Los Angeles like fish to water.
- INFO: L.A. Noire Game Review
But Team Bondi and Rockstar Games have elected to proffer us the option of throwing all those well-oiled mechanics out the window if we have to, in order to keep us moving through the story, to keep us interacting with the characters, and to not risk interrupting the narrative. Narrative, not mechanics, is becoming the thread that ties together the titles Rockstar Games has published for this generation of consoles.
This doesn’t imply Rockstar recognizing supremacy of narrative over mechanics. It implies recognition of equal value. L.A. Noire could be a title which we can understand equally well as a set of rules, and as a story. It’s entirely possible that these two halves of the title won’t be separable, such that taking an either/or approach to analysis may hold much less value than considering them in tandem, and in relation to one another.
That is where Rockstar Games is taking us. Their sights are set not on being better than movies, but defining best practices for telling stories in the unique, interactive methods which only video games make possible. Even if L.A. Noire misses the mark, the ostensible intention deserves recognition, and in some degree, a sense of wonderment. Video games have resided comfortably in rulesets, but struggled with narrative, for decades because that’s the best they could do.
Rockstar Games stands on the threshold of showing us how we can do both equally well and simultaneously, and if they succeed in accomplishing the goal with L.A. Noire, could force the entire industry to re-think what the video game medium is capable of, and where we want to set the bar for excellence. This, and not pioneering the open world genre, may be what sets Rockstar Games apart in the annals of video game design. At least until they decided how next to up the ante. There's always Grand Theft Auto 5 to start with, and we've already wondered where that one will be set.