L.A. Noire: Blurring the Line between Film and Game?

Posted: February 17, 2013 by sdamle in Uncategorized

My experience with games began at a young age when I used to watch my older brother play the likes of Zelda or the original Halo. Because of this, I gained what I would describe as a disproportionate appreciation for the narrative elements of games; since I generally wasn’t experiencing the game play mechanics first hand, I became engrossed in the narratives. This background has undoubtedly shaped how I view games today and has likely fueled my appreciation for L.A. Noire, a game that relies more on its narrative elements perhaps than any other game I have played, or have heard of for that matter.

It would be impossible to have a critical discussion of L.A. Noire without discussing its narrative. Set in the late 1940s, L.A. Noire follows the progression of Detective Cole Phelps, a veteran of World War II, as he rockets up the hierarchy at the LAPD, starting out as a traffic detective and ending as a homicide detective. The designers have created a powerful narrative, rooted in the socio-political realities of a late 1940s America just emerging from World War II. In borrowing terminology from Salen and Zimmerman, the designers create this powerful and rich narrative primarily through embedded narrative structures, or the structures that are pre-generated via scripted scenes. In one example, the designers use cut scenes to return to Detective Phelps’s time serving in the Pacific Theatre (see below). These cut scenes serve the game play function of introducing important plot context that will eventually become relevant to the games primary story line.


Beyond how the designers have weaved in flashbacks and cut scenes for story purposes, it is worth noting what makes these scenes so immersive. As I noted in a prior post, the designers have employed groundbreaking facial recognition software that transcribes actual acting onto the screen. Through using this software, we can tangibly see the fear on the face of a victim, or the smugness of a criminal. This technology, coupled with the brilliant art direction that creates a 1940s LA that actually looks like LA in the 1940s, has served to create a true sense of immediacy, or what Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin consider to be an authentically reproduced world that creates an alternative reality.  To summarize, L.A. Noire’s embedded narrative is brilliant because it both serves important game play functions and transports us to a realistic world.



(L.A. Noire’s facial recognition software at work) 

But it would be a mistake to talk about L.A. Noire only in the context of its embedded narrative. L.A. Noire also has a strong emergent narrative, or the elements of a games narrative that unfold as a player experiences them through game play. When Phelps and his partner are driving around the vast landscape of Los Angeles, the city is filled with remnants of the socio-political realities of the era. For example, when driving by suburbs that are in the process of being built a narrative is constructed around the themes of post-war urbanization. Representations that reflect the political, economic, and social realities of this era are abound as Phelps traverses the landscape of LA, and simply observing these builds a powerful historical narrative. 

Around the time that L.A. Noire was released, it was announced that it would be the first game to be screened at the Tribeca Film Festival. Indeed, the powerful narrative that the designers have created through lengthy, but yet engaging, cut scenes has created a truly unique game: one that undoubtedly blurs the line between traditional games and film. 


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