Was L.A. Noire a big step forward for storytelling in video games, or a stumble in the wrong direction?

Storytelling in video games has come a long way in the last 40 years, with games today spinning yarns that aspire to (and occasionally equal) the intellectual and emotional complexity of cinema. Lately, the line between games and movies has become blurrier than ever before – and many video game historians credit 2016 classic L.A. Noire with playing a key role in breaking down barriers between the two mediums.

A stylish neo noir outing from Team Bondi/Rockstar, L.A. Noire has long been recognised for the creative and technical advances that lent it a filmic quality unlike anything gamers had ever experienced before. Heck, if you want proof of just how cinematic L.A. Noire is, consider this: it was the first video game ever “screened” at the Tribeca Film Festival!

Yet looking back 10 years on, L.A. Noire’s legacy as a (literal) gamechanger is somewhat dubious. Indeed, rather than being the big step forward for video game storytelling it’s long been billed as, L.A. Noire arguably represents more of a stumble in the wrong direction, instead.

As an artistic exercise and technological experiment, L.A. Noire definitely succeeds

Of course, L.A. Noire is in many ways a brilliant achievement, even by contemporary standards.

For starters, the scripting by writer/director Brendan McNamara is impeccable. McNamara crafts a compelling tale that marries a pitch perfect pastiche of the noir movies of the 1940s and ‘50s with flashbacks torn from a post-modern war flick, and gives us a suitably complex, flawed protagonist in the form of Detective Cole Phelps.

The production design led by Chee Kin Chan and Ben Brudenell, music by Andrew and Simon Hale, and the overall presentation itself is just as rich, too. The development team’s obvious enthusiasm for L.A. Noire’s subject matter shines through in the game’s insane level of period detail, its deep cut references to real-life crimes and Hollywood’s Golden Age.

And then there’s the motion capture. L.A. Noire was the first (and to date, only) video game to utilise Depth Analysis’ pioneering MotionScan technology, which used 32 cameras to fully capture the facial performances of its cast of established actors – including Mad Men’s Aaron Stanton and The Lord of the Rings’ John Noble – and map them to their digital counterparts. The result was pixel-powered performers whose expressions displayed a level of realism and subtlety unheard of at the time, and which still (mostly) holds up well today.

MotionScan made L.A. Noire’s much-hyped interrogation mechanic possible, theoretically enabling players to determine a suspect’s guilt just by the tilt of their head or a pinch of their lips. Nothing like this had been attempted in video games before – so it’s ironic that Team Bondi’s focus on motion capture is actually to blame for L.A. Noire’s biggest shortcomings.

“A movie you can play” game only works if you’re actually in control

See, Team Bondi focused so much on the MotionScan side of things that every other aspect of the gameplay in L.A. Noire gets short shrift. This means you’re left with a game loaded with unrefined mechanics and downright baffling design choices that’s oftentimes not that fun to play… which is a pretty big problem.

Seriously: what good is an engrossing narrative filled with lifelike characters if it’s regularly interrupted by unpolished, simplistic driving, gunplay, and investigation sequences? Team Bondi even manages to squander L.A. Noire’s lavishly rendered world, leaving it frustratingly devoid of the kind of street level ambience and varied side missions that make the virtual sandboxes in Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto franchise such a blast to visit.

Maybe we could overlook these failings, if L.A. Noire’s interrogation gameplay truly was as revolutionary as we were promised it would be – only it isn’t. No, it’s not terrible and, on a basic level, it does work, but these sequences are often clunky and repetitive, and the motion capture involved (which doesn’t extend to the characters’ stiff bodies) simply isn’t good enough to work as originally intended.

Admittedly, the motion capture is considerably more effective during L.A. Noire’s cutscenes, but even these have a negative knock-on effect for the gameplay, regularly bringing it to a grinding halt. By forcing us to watch the story unfold rather than shape it ourselves, Team Bondi – like other cutscene-fixated developers – effectively kills the “movie you can play” sense of immersion they were shooting for.

After all, we can’t feel like part of L.A. Noire’s story if our ability to directly engage with it is continually yanked away from us.

L.A. Noire didn’t crack the movie/video game hybrid case – but it did unearth some vital clues

Ultimately, L.A. Noire tries to be both a movie and a game, and doesn’t quite succeed at being either. Sadly, it’s just not game/movie hybrid it’s touted to be – and you know what? That’s fine. Like Cole himself, the game is deeply flawed, but it also has its redeeming features.

Even though L.A. Noire isn’t quite the landmark entry in the annals of video game storytelling its purported to be, but its lasting effects can nevertheless be seen today. Games were already starting to ape movie-quality presentation and production values before L.A. Noire was released, but it undoubtedly raised the bar. What’s more, it paved the way for video games to be showcased at the Tribeca Film Festival, with games forming part of the event’s official line-up as of 2021.

And although the MotionScan system hasn’t been used since, performance capture is now employed by an increasing number of studios, and the likes of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, The Last of Us, Until Dawn and A Way Out have carried the torch for blending the best qualities of cinema and video games.

So, with developers poised to finally solve the movie/video game hybrid mystery, it’s only fair we acknowledge L.A. Noire’s role in cracking the caseregardless of whether the game ended up chasing more bum leads than its supporters care to admit.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter or Facebook!

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