There he is, our square-jawed all-American rookie cop! Ladies and gentlemen, Cole Phelps:
|"Hello! I specialize in flying off the handle unexpectedly."|
We installed L.A. Noire on Tuesday, but it then took us three hours to download all of the DLC so we didn't actually get to play until Wednesday. Since then, we've been taking it a case or two at a time, when we have the hours, and so we're advancing slowly through the game. Last night we just got promoted from Traffic to Homicide, and haven't started any cases yet on the homicide desk.
This is another game that's caused some marital controversy, though not on the order of, say, Portal 2. My spouse wants to play in black & white, and I want to play in color. Right now color's winning, because I put up a bigger fuss. But on the occasional replay (it took us a while to get the hang of questioning witnesses, and then there was that time that I hit what I thought was X and turned out totally not to be) he switches it to black and white, so I get to see both.
The interesting thing is, it took that shift in visual tone for me to understand something about L.A. Noire. The game actually suffers from losing the color, and not for any technical reason. Rather, it's that when you're looking at it in shades of grey, it's easier to realize: L.A. Noire is not actually a noir.
The overarching story may yet get there, I grant. Flashbacks of Phelps's time in the war, combined with the story unfolding from found newspapers and some other cut-scenes (visiting the singer Else between the end of the last Traffic case and the start of the first Homicide one), are building up into a large secondary tale. We've hours of gameplay ahead of us yet, and we're still early on in our young cop's skyrocketing career.
But that's where I get stuck: a film noir isn't about a promising young man's skyrocketing career. It's not about a man's successes at all. Noir is, rather, about a man's critical failures, and the society that made him fall.
|Double Indemnity, 1944 - film noir, as classic as it gets. Go rent it.|
Team Bondi / Rockstar have shown extraordinary dedication in re-creating post-war Los Angeles. The degree of geographical fidelity and attention to detail that they put into this game has been lauded everywhere. They also deeply understand, and start showing early on in Phelps's flashbacks, that film noir is an expression of post-war cultural crisis. The Film Theory 101 definition is this:
Like Double Indemnity, these films thrived upon the unvarnished depiction of greed, lust, and cruelty because their basic theme was the depth of human depravity and utterly unheroic nature of human beings -- lessons that were hardly taught but certainly re-emphasized by the unique horrors of World War II. Most of the dark films of the late forties take the form of crime melodramas because ... the mechanisms of crime and criminal detection provide a perfect metaphor for corruption that cuts across conventional moral categories. These films are often set in southern California -- the topographical paradigm for a society in which the gap between expectation and reality is resolved through mass delusion. The protagonists are frequently unsympathetic antiheroes who pursue their base designs or simply drift aimlessly through sinister night worlds of the urban American jungle, but they are just as often decent people caught in traps laid for them by a corrupt social order. In this latter sense, film noir was very much a 'cinema of moral anxiety'' of the sort practiced at various times in postwar Eastern Europe ... i.e., cinema about the conditions of life forced upon honest people in a mendacious, self-deluding society.
Here's the other thing, though: what we the modern audience recognize of a noir is its artifice. We recognize the shadows, the blinds, the hats, and the women. We recognize the black and white film and the framing. There's a very specific visual language used to tell these stories, and that visual language conveys crucial elements. The decay of society, the moral ambiguity (or amorality) of the characters, and the literal and metaphorical darkness of the world they inhabit -- we take those lessons from the camera.
|The Killers, 1946|
By now, these artistic tactics are cliché. The audience of 2011 hasn't seen The Naked City, but they've seen thousands of episodes of its modern heir, Law & Order. Our cynicism no longer lurks in shadows, but rather is worn on our sleeves from a very young age. Our society is so inundated with media that most of us start learning to speak the visual language of the camera before we learn to speak our mother tongue.
But in a video game, we lose that framing. Cole Phelps is a detective, not a shadowy killer, and so much of his work takes place in broad daylight. Shadows are minimal and carefully placed, because otherwise they will interfere with the player's ability to read witness faces and find crucial clues. A game, and especially an investigative process game, must by necessity cede a significant amount of framing and camera control to the player, who maneuvers Cole Phelps at will.
I deeply appreciate the use of actual history in the game, but part of what happens when you set a game in such a carefully re-created reality is that you lose the artifice attached to the genre. Film noir isn't about faithfully investigating the crime scene in the California sun; it's about the shadows cast across the face of a disillusioned man, the shadows that allow him to hide his true intentions from a man like Detective Phelps.
Cole Phelps is indeed a character type that exists in film noir -- but that character is never the protagonist. The protagonist in a noir is the antihero, the man that has become corrupt from the degeneration of society (and in particular has often been brought low by a degenerate grasping woman).
What we are seeing, in L. A. Noire, is a long series of film noir stories in which we are playing the bit part. A case about a scheming B-movie actress, a starry-eyed young girl, and a licentious and immoral film producer? As a two-hour cautionary tale in which people end up dead at the end, that would be a classic noir. But instead we're the cop. We come in after everything's gone all to hell and then reverse engineer the story. Our player character is not in these stories, but rather is an observer of them. As a player avatar, that's a little eerily on target.
All of this said -- please don't mistake this criticism for dislike! So far L. A. Noire is playing out like Ace Attorney: Grand Theft Auto Edition, and I love that. I'm into investigations, I love finding clues and solving mysteries, and now that we're getting the hang of Cole Phelps it's starting to be quite fun. (I was taken aback the first time we selected "doubt," thinking that the witness might not have been entirely truthful, and Phelps immediately burst into a loud and angry tirade and accused the witness of being the killer. What?!)
I look forward to seeing the shape that the game takes by the time we finish it. We may yet find that the story wrapped around all of these cynical little nuggets is, itself, a film noir frame. But even if we don't, I'm enjoying the ride.