L.A. Noire: Perspectives From a SoCal Historian

1947, when cops used pay phones

In the video game L.A. Noire, we visit Los Angeles in 1947 through the eyes of a homicide cop in search of clues. We bump into as many as 400 characters. Since the producers of L.A. Noire also specialize in Grand Theft Auto, we can't help obliterating oncoming cars at every other intersection. We try to avoid the sharp turns by running over pedestrians.

The game can easily take 18 hours to play. Eventually, the murders make sense, inside an omelet that features practically every gesture that every film noir cop has ever made. It borrows most of all from James Ellroy's vision of the city, especially from L.A. Confidential. But the main character is not the cop. He is just another vehicle.

The main character is the city itself: an open world of locations, of L.A. cityscapes. Hundreds of photos from 1947 were scanned, then rendered through texture maps and, finally, set in an overcast, almost Flemish light, as if through a tinted windshield.

Many people will defend L.A. Noire as drama, and it's easy to see why. The motion-capture on the faces of characters is less robotic than usual. The actors register more expressively — let's say six expressions rather than three. And their poses and action are remarkably fluid, very much a trend in gaming.

But their conflicts have to be thin. They are performers in a game. It is the player who does the acting. Their faces are empty for a purpose. They are designed to handle extreme repetition, not unlike the symbolic characters in fairy tales.

Although much has been made of the game's sophisticated motion-capture of facial expressions, the characters still suffer from a problem first identified in 1970, through robotics, which has come to be called "uncanny valley." Characters in CG or 3-D can suffer a paradox: If they're close to — but not precisely — humanlike, it makes them look extremely unhumanlike. They suddenly look rather creepy, weirdly medicated.

Of course, that reminds us of people we know, after their 10th plastic surgery. So I guess the uncanny valley was a cultural warning. But it also speaks to another problem inherent in digital storytelling: Although computers open up many storytelling possibilities, what if they purport to — but don't quite — deliver the fullness of a novel?

Besides my histories in print, I also write "interactive" novels I call "wunder-romans," which use interfaces that contain thousands of images and are accompanied by printed novels intended to be read alongside them. They are different from a video game yet subject to the same issues.

Computer stories can "speak" and search at lightning speed. Data clouds emerge like creatures. But they also destroy the familiar sense of timing, of rhythm, that we expect in novels or films. As I often say in lectures: Their world may not be deep, but it is definitely shallow and wide.

L.A. Noire opens with Cole Phelps, who's a homicide detective and a regular guy — until sins from his past are revealed. In the last two hours or so, toward the end, the plot switches to a dubious cop, Jack Kelso, an arson detective living in a rotten apartment. The art direction shifts as well. Vice had a fine finish. Arson is cheap.

The story speaks to our mad condition in 2011. We learn that video is an apparatus that also can lie. Holes and distractions begin to pile up — a gag about games where all the pieces fit. Then we get a real estate conspiracy in 1947 that foreshadows risk capitalism in our day.

Storywise, L.A. Noire's 1947 feels more like 1953. Six years are essentially conflated into one. Freeways are about to be built, and while some freeways were under construction by 1950, the real push came after 1953.

Taking us to a kind of 1953 is a point well taken, as urban plans in 1953 echo our mess today. The boom of the '50s was also about decay. It was not simply gigantic and imperial — it was also artificial and flimsy, made with cheap lumber and fast credit. One can still see the traces today in slummy dingbat housing from the '60s, like tents made of wallpaper.

Something like simulated money was already present, not only in the chicken wire and stucco of the instant suburb but also in the financing of the Marshall Plan after World War II, in the cash during the early Cold War and in the early career of Nixon. Tax-haven strategies date to the early '50s. In other words, the suburban corruptions of the '50s foreshadow what globalism became. In some ways, they foreshadowed a meeting between suburban planning and global planning, as '50s Los Angeles was an early testing ground for how Iraq was "rebuilt."

But these connections between L.A. Noire and today also point to another inherent problem. Instead of the ultraspecific 1947, the game is a conflation of many eras, as if a thousand real estate schemes and racist policies were made into a soup.

That adds a burden for designers. Visually, L.A. Noire creates an overcoded fairy-tale city, like cappuccino posing as a cup of joe. Despite striving for accuracy using period photos, its setting seems derived from a mental picture that comes mostly from cinema, the harvest of 60 years of movie noir in the United States, France, Germany and Japan and new televised police procedurals like Law & Order and CSI, which also are sources for the game.

L.A. Noire tries hard to escape from these cinematic clichés but to no avail. In researching the game, I double-checked endless details with two of my students who are serious gamers, Austin Walker and Henry Crouch. We proceeded trope by trope, hour by hour, noticing the sources, the tools. Even the advertising rollout for L.A. Noire, from L.A. to London, felt like a movie.

One cannot blame L.A. Noire for essentially running out of road. Our media culture has not yet invented the new tools needed, a new grammar for investigating our mess. Gaming has invented a new role for the viewer, and for branding, and for software collisions, mysteries by way of search engines. But lavish games like L.A. Noire still rely on the marketing of memories and a kind of playful tourism.

The search for innovative storytelling tools will require new prototypes, not unlike the noir genre itself around 1947, when, after decades in print, it started appearing on film, and then on radio and TV. Its mixture of comedy and unlikely social realism, fitted with baroque psychoanalytic editing, helped to incubate new tools within a rapidly transforming reality.

Norman M. Klein is a professor at CalArts and the author of The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory among other books. His next "wunder-roman," due out later this year, is The Imaginary 20th Century.

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