Sunday, May 29, 2011
AT LONG LAST L.A. NOIRE
The time has come, once again, to speak of video games. We're getting to the point where the title “Movies By Bowes” (™) is a bit of a catchall, covering TV and video games as well, as audiovisual entertainment is spreading its wings, and the formerly disrespected media of television and video games are getting their due as art forms rather than reliquaries of mindless entertainment. As a sophisticated cineaste, I say come on in, y'all, the water's fine. Grab a cocktail at the floating bar.
L.A. Noire was released on the 17th of May. I was delayed a week in buying it due to being away from my trusty PS3, but bought it immediately upon my return home and made up for lost time. I'd been looking forward to the release of L.A. Noire for years: in 2004, before Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas had even come out, I heard about L.A. Noire and went “Holy fuck, a film noir video game? Tits! In a fully-reproduced 1940s Los Angeles? Bigger tits!” Then one thing led to another and the existing technology was insufficient to realize the designers' ambitions and San Andreas came out with a pretty-fucking-awesome replication of not only Los Angeles but all of California (well, Narnia California) and San Andreas was tits and then they were waiting for next-gen consoles to have hardware with enough swagger and then a few more years went by and all of a sudden “Holy fuck, L.A. Noire exists and is coming out!”
In honor of another long-awaited, just-released work, Terry Malick's Tree of Life (about which I may write more at some point if I'm feeling pretentious enough), let's flash way the fuck back for an origin story: back in the 80s when I was a much shorter Bowes, I played multiple NESs to death and even managed to be a fairly accomplished PC gamer even though I didn't own a computer (I'm still really fucking pissed that I can't play Bandit Kings of Ancient China, Police Quest, or Leisure Suit Larry on my so-called “modern” computer).
Around junior high school channel 9 started showing The Maltese Falcon nine zillion times a week, and I started watching it every single time it came on. That led to me reading the book, then seeing “oh shit another Humphrey Bogart movie, The Big Sleep, let's see how this one is,” then reading that book, and the next thing you know I was the only 13 year old in the known universe who was a Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler fan, and I had progressed to James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich, Jim Thompson, the heads of all the five families, and watched all the movies multiple times each. Then, a few years later, when I was in high school, came James Ellroy.
For those of you who don't know, an explanation, and for those of you who do, an exaltation: James Ellroy is fucking crazy. He's also unfathomably intelligent and possessed of what some might call focus and others, running the opposite direction, call obsession. After several years of writing relatively conventional above-average cop novels, Ellroy broke through to the level of Serious American Novelist with his so-called “L.A. Quartet”: The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz. These four novels amount to a metafictional secret history of post-war Los Angeles, containing many of the element of classic noir but with greater verisimilitude (many real people appear as characters, too) and—seemingly paradoxically—a breathtakingly epic grandeur. Ellroy's post-WWII Los Angeles is both painstakingly specific and universally American.
It's Ellroy more than classic noir cinema and fiction that influences L.A. Noire. The double entendre of the title makes its intent clear: it alludes to both Los Angeles and noir but literally just means “the black” in French. It's about darkness as specifically found in post-war Los Angeles and the crime fiction set there, but also universally, carrying the idea of moral ambiguity beyond the classically defined parameters of noir. Thus, the writing, plot, graphics, and gameplay attempt a greater naturalism than normally found in noir (a decidedly non-naturalistic form).
And here's where L.A. Noire's ambitions as a game come to the fore: it uses new technology to create human faces that transcend the stereotypically hollow-eyed emotionally blank ones that populate games. Specifically, this comes into play in the interrogation scenes, where as the cop, the player has to figure out whether the interviewee is telling the truth, holding back, or outright lying. Most of the time the difference between “holding back” and “lying” is hard to parse, but in those instances, the player has the advantage of all the collected evidence to date in the given case, so a quick perusal of same should yield the right answer. At worst, it yields some silent-movie-villain broad acting, but silent-movie-villain broad acting is fun. At best, it makes the interrogation scenes feel real.
The same ratio between ambition and realization is maintained throughout the game. L.A. Noire has its problems—the gameplay is a little repetitive, and I for one didn't even notice there was an overarching narrative until a little over halfway into the game—but overall its flaws are outweighed by its successes. For one, it looks fucking incredible. The people look like people, and really well-dressed people at that. The large-ish navigable chunk of Los Angeles at the player's disposal not only looks exactly like photographs of the period, it looks and feels like a living city. Sure, the traffic is laughably light for Los Angeles (which had its first massive traffic jam approximately five minutes after the invention of the automobile), and the people on the street one encounters outside of cutscenes seem to only know two sentences, one of which is “Hey, isn't that the cop from the papers?” But these are minor distractions. The awesome outweighs the problematic, throughout.
Once it becomes clear that there's one story unifying the whole thing, that story is a real grabber. I'm about to spoil the fuck out of it, so I'll put this here first:
You play for the vast majority of the game as policeman Cole Phelps, a decorated WWII veteran with a wife and kids. Cole's a Stanford grad prone to quoting Shakespeare; this erudition comes in handy later when a clue involving Percy Shelley leads to the discovery of a murderer. Starting as a patrolman (which basically serves as an introduction to the gameplay mechanics), Cole quickly rises up the ranks, first to plainclothes traffic duty, then quickly to homicide. Cole's cases in traffic serve to give him—and the player—experience with police work, and also to reveal his ambition as a character.
Upon being promoted to Homicide, Cole and his drunk I-don't-give-a-fuck fat guy partner (who, for obvious reasons, I loved) stumble upon what initially appear to be Black Dahlia copycat killings. The murdered women all kind of sort of resemble Elizabeth Short, and in each instance a very neat trail of evidence leads to a killer with a plausible motive. After about four of these, you start noticing a couple things: one, the evidence against the killers, no matter how solid, is circumstantial. Two, the narrative asides provided by newspapers one can find at various places throughout the game relate directly to Cole, his WWII tour, and the men he served with. Three, one dude is killing all the women and framing patsies each time.
Far-fetched? Sure. But that's noir for you. A little melodrama never hurt anyone except civilians. It turns out that all these Black Dahlia copycat killings are being done by the fucking Dahlia perp. This plot arc concludes with the Dahlia killer leading Cole and the fat man on a grand tour of Los Angeles landmarks, many of which are booby-trapped in some way—my personal favorites were when you lay waste to the chandelier in the Hall of Records, that apparently they repair in like five minutes and never bust your balls about it at all, and a straight-up no-bullshit labyrinth I totally had to cheat to get through because, well, put it this way, in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when they talk about Marcus getting lost in his own museum, I was like, “finally, my people are represented in cinema”—and which ultimately lead you to a confrontation with the killer, who in classic movie psycho tradition is all on this “I'm smarter than the cops, so much so that I can give them clues that will lead them right to me because there's no way they're smart enough to figure this out.” And this is why bad guys are fucking stupid: if you're capable of committing a series of murders and successfully framing dudes for each one, why the hell would you lead a trail of breadcrumbs for the cops to nosh? Also, I mean, come on dude, if you really were an erudite urbane man of culture you could pick someone less banal than Shelley to use for your poetry clues. Fuck's wrong with Gerard Manley Hopkins, fancypants?
Anyway, once the killer—whom you've encountered a few murders ago as a bartender—announces his master plan, you chase him through the spooky catacombs of this abandoned church and you have to light his ass up before he blows you in half with his shotgun. Upon successfully sending the killer to the great freshman English class in the sky, Cole's Irish-accented superior officer (h/t Dudley Smith) shows up to tell the detectives, who are expecting commendations up the yin-yang and celebrity status and all that jazz, that the dead guy has massive political connections (just like the real Black Dahlia killer, who was never officially identified, and Jack the Ripper, among others; of course, non-civilians know that Jack the Ripper did the Black Dahlia, but that's a matter for after James Lock & Co. send me my new tinfoil hat). And because the dead guy was Earl Warren's nephew or whatever, the case is buried, all the framed perps are going to quietly get off on technicalities, and Cole is getting a lateral transfer to Administrative Vice.
Ellroy fans know what Ad Vice means: dope, hookers, and lots and lots of jazz. Cole and his sleazy, heavily-connected new partner investigate some OD deaths caused by too-pure morphine, being sold out of a popcorn stand called Black Caesar's (one of my favorite touches in the game is that the stand's sign totally fucking says SPQR, which is fucking awesome, and that's that). A bit of investigating, and proper adherence to the Law of Evil White Guys In Suits (“Behind every crime is a white man waiting for his cut.” —Chris Tucker) reveals the connection between the parallel narrative we've been piecing together through the newspapers and Cole's cases. It looks like the dudes in his old unit stole a fuckton of military-issue morphine and tried to sell it to Mickey Cohen, only Mickey's dipshit brother-in-law fucked everything up. Cole finds all this out as he succumbs to temptation and shtups the mysterious German jazz singer he's been crushing on since almost the beginning of the game. Of course, once Cole's investigation leads him too close to the actual evil white guys in suits, his extramarital cocksmanship is plastered all over the newspapers, and his ass is booted right the fuck out of Ad Vice.
In disgrace, Cole is shunted over to arson investigation, where he's partnered with the game's narrator (voiced by the one and only Keith Szarabajka, whom the anointed remember from being awesome as Mickey on The Equalizer, speaking of great TV shows from the 80s) and quickly stumbles onto a massive eminent domain scheme involving many of the richest and most powerful Evil White Guys In Suits Los Angeles has to offer, which is also tied into the drug business in which the guys in Cole's old unit are involved. It's a criminal conspiracy to make James Ellroy proud, dwarfing even the admittedly epic one concocted by Robert Towne in Chinatown. Shit, there are even shades of Judge Doom's “fuck the world and everyone in it” scheme in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
The parallel narrative gets really interesting around this time, as we start seeing enough stuff from WWII to see that Cole didn't really do all that great a job and got his Silver Star under slightly false pretenses. And, on top of that, we see that supporting player Jack Kelso, who came up with Cole through OCS before flunking out, rises to sergeant via field commission and actually fucking totally owns and is awesome and a paragon of stubborn rectitude and all kinds of interesting shit.
Right when you realize Kelso is actually a good guy and Cole is kind of a dick, the game shifts and you start playing as Kelso. Cole sends his German jazz singer girlfriend—with whom he's now living since his wife 86'd him post-scandal—to go be Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity and convince Kelso to be Fred MacMurray, only without the whole getting him to kill people thing. Kelso does a little digging into the case and soon realizes “Holy fucking shit, evil white guys in suits are having people killed so they can make millions of dollars building a freeway!” and throws in with the good Fräulein, and Cole, though he's fucking pissed at Cole for not having the stones to just be like “Hey, Jack, help me take on the evil white guys.”
Kelso and Cole team up to take on the evil white guys, and there's a massive action climax where the evil white guys kidnap the German girlfriend (and oh hell yes a love triangle has formed; this story puts both m's in melodrama) and, because it's really dramatic and Rockstar Games has developed a massive boner for downer endings over the last few years (cases in point: Grand Theft Auto IV where you either have your cousin or your girlfriend die, and Red Dead Redemption where the protagonist lets the evil white guys in suits kill him so his family can escape), Cole sacrifices himself to save Kelso and the German girlfriend. The whole last mission, it's been raining like hell (because it's noir and subtlety is for limpdicks) and Cole drowns in a flooded tunnel after lifting Kelso to safety. He's given a modest funeral, but when the sleazy Ad Vice partner (who's up to his neck in the conspiracy) starts eulogizing smarmily, the German girlfriend calls him out and dramatically stomps out, leaving Kelso to muse on the inscrutability of man. Then, post-credits, there's a cinematic cutscene that clarifies the WWII morphine conspiracy and Kelso's non-role in the whole affair, tying the whole plot up neatly.
Once the totality of it becomes apparent, the story's a knockout. It invites replays, during which a lot more things will make sense. The first time through, things only really start to cohere in retrospect, which is a function of the narrative being a little clunky and opaque at first. Like I said earlier, I didn't even realize the game had a story beyond the individual cases until way late; I don't think it even fully dawned on me until Cole was in Ad Vice, and that was way over halfway through. Needless to say, that's a problem. If the game's going to have a story, it'd be nice to let the player in on it, especially when it's as interesting as this one. The cutscenes are all gorgeously composed and edited, and well-acted; those new-school facial expressions add a lot.
The gameplay is of lesser concern to me that the visuals and sound (which is stunning; the music score is great, but the effects, editing and mixing are just terrific), and just as well, because it's a little awkward in places. In any given crime scene, there are a number of clues to be found, and these can be investigated by pressing a button on the controller, which doesn't always respond unless Cole or Kelso is standing in just the right spot. And the interrogations, with their “truth/doubt/lie” trichotomy, don't always lend themselves to the nuance one might like as the player; not to mention anyone who's read L.A. Confidential and remembers the way Ed Exley went to town on motherfuckers can't help but be like, “this is all I get to do?” in places. It must be said, though, that in each of these cases, for every moment where the game reminds you of its limitations, there are several others where you're like, “Yeah, fuck you man, YOU'RE LYING! I CAN PUT YOU AT THE SCENE OF THE CRIME, SUNSHINE, NOW UNLESS YOU WANT TO HUFF GAS AT QUENTIN I SUGGEST YOU GIVE ME SOME FUCKING ANSWERS!” Cuz, ya know, it's damn easy to get caught up in this world.
And that's what L.A. Noire succeeds, in solid A minus fashion, in doing: creating a world. It's PG-13 James Ellroy (well, with the violence, bad language, and nudity, it's objectively a fairly hard R, but Ellroy sexually violates his murder victims with wolverine teeth, okay? A couple “motherfuckers” is The Muppet Show compared to Ellroy), which is to say it's a great big epic that casts a powerful spell. Considering that I waited seven years for this game, the fact that it exceeded my expectations was a truly pleasant surprise. I'll certainly be replaying this one a lot, even if to just throw it on to hang out in the 40s for a bit. A time when men were men, cars were awesome, and thirty pedestrians in a row say “Hey, isn't that the cop from the papers?”