My Complicated Love Affair with L.A. Noire

This entry was originally posted on my personal blog More Harman Than Good.  

360 box art

Disclaimer: I understand that Rockstar weren’t responsible for the development of L.A. Noire. However, the game does fit strongly into their catalogue which is probably the reason they picked it up. So reading Rockstar below should take this into account.

I love L.A. Noire, when all is said and done, it will likely be one of if not my favourite game of the year. While it still has basic gameplay flaws inherent in similar Rockstar titles of the open world genre, it manages to overcome these issues with the introduction of some mechanics. The main reason that the game has me enamored though relates to the character interactions. Unlike other Rockstar games where you are just an observant in the cut scene, this game gives you limited choice as to how you interact with the game’s diverse cast. 

It is a minor thing, but it is with these interactions and the crime scene investigations that help to engage the player into the setting. From this the narrative becomes more than just the standard GTA style one mission to the next to generate the next cut scene. It really feels like a modern version of the classic adventure game with some open world action thrown in for good measure.

Unfortunately, my relationship with the game becomes complicated when it comes to the story. These open world style Rockstar games are often strongly referential of other works. This often worked for them in the Grand Theft Auto games as those games relied heavily on satire. In fact, it didn’t seem that great a surprise that the references so heavy in Vice City and San Andreas were put to the side in GTA IV to help with its more serious story. Of course, with this GTA IV also had the issue of imbalance with its tone maintaining the excellent satire while attempting to tell a highly personal story.

L.A. Noire is a serious game, but it is also highly referential. Perhaps it is just me because I am strongly familiar with the works of James Ellroy, but I have trouble seeing beyond that influence. Here you have a fantastic game engine and the ability to show real character but it is essentially used to produce what I see as a facsimile. As a result of this, the story isn’t doing anything overly original in narrative, character and the themes. This isn’t to say that video games shouldn’t be able to tackle this era necessarily, but with the subject/setting already well represented in both literature and film, mediums that can directly focus the viewer on the narrative, it puts the video game on the back foot. In my mind it also hurts that I am able to identify all character archetypes in the game because I am so familiar with this style of fiction. 

It creates conflict for me because while I do love this setting and enjoy playing the game, I’m just not getting anything new from the narrative experience of the game. A large part of why we engage in narrative is because we are able to take something from it be it character, themes or just the story. Gaming is interesting because we can walk away from a game without getting anything from such areas but still enjoy the act of playing the game. I should note that I am aware that the gamer who hasn’t experienced this type of fiction in other mediums before* this may be their first experience with this type of story or setting. If that is the case, I wonder if they will take the same one would take from a similar story in another medium. I certainly hope so.

I think it largely speaks to how we work as gamers in that we can love a game through just its design even when we recognise the ancestry of the narrative and setting. Most large games are derivative of other works in the genre.** With L.A.Noire though, it seems like they are striving for it to be something beyond the standard video game experience, particularly with its story. Again though, for me, it is a work that is a facsimile. Good, but not as good as the originals on which it was so heavily inspired. 

I love the game and I love playing it, the story however just isn’t giving me anything to think about, all it does is make me want to go back and re-read some Ellroy or watch L.A. Confidential again. I hope that with what one seems is a hit behind them, Team Bondi is able to go on and make an original game that not only provokes with its game design, but also with a complex narrative with its own themes and ideas. If though they just made L.A. Noire 2, hey, I’d probably play that too.

*May I make the bold assumption of suggesting this is the majority of people playing the game?

**To be fair, most summer films are too, same goes for popular fiction.


Duke Forever? Maybe

This is a blog post earlier posted here on my personal blog More Harman Than Good.

Disclaimer: I haven’t played Duke Nukem Forever, I haven’t pre-ordered it and have zero investment in it. I’m interested to check it out for the sake of curiosity but I’m not overly excited for it.

The latest issue of Game Informer (Australian edition) arrived the other day and there was an article in there by the local editor Chris Stead talking about Duke Nukem Forever and the ways in which it has divided the games press. This has been a topic I have been watching with a little interest because I’m not entirely sure I understand where a lot of the journalists are coming from in regards to some of their statements. The article then got me a little fired up with some of its suggestions regarding both how far the games industry has come since 1996 and also how far society has come.*

One of the big statements I hear about Duke is that somehow the jokes in Duke Nukem 3D were relevant in 1996 and that this relevance doesn’t translate to a more modern and mature society. Duke 3D was a self aware (if immature and misogynistic) parody of 1980’s action films and their heroes. It was released in 1996, 8 years after you could say that Die Hard sort of killed that brand of film. Basically, Duke Nukem 3D wasn’t exactly culturally current at the time, it was nostalgic parody. Do you know what Sylvester Stallone’s big film was in 1996? Daylight. The year after that he made Cop Land. Schwarzenegger? Eraser (hardly the type of film that Duke was taking on) and Jingle All The Way, a year later he made Batman and Robin. The brand of film that Duke was parodying just wasn’t really being made at that point in time.

So now that Duke is coming back, what has changed exactly? Well The Expendables made over $200 million dollars in worldwide box office and it was seen as a sort of return of the 80s style action film. Oh and Ian Spector has likely made a lot of money writing parody books about Chuck Norris, you know them, you might have even quoted them, if not, you can find them on Amazon or in a book store.

I will take the point that the games industry has evolved and the characters that are being developed for games are more rounded than Duke ever was but the industry still has a long way to go in that area. Big action still sells and sells big, just look at the Gears of War franchise. People buy games like Halo and Call of Duty and couldn’t care less about whatever story is being told in the sigle player, they just want to play online. I’d guess there is still a big audience out there who loves the immaturity that a Duke game would bring.

The key thing that has changed here is the games journalist, a lot of them grew up and a lot of the new ones are generally well read individuals who seem to have a good grasp on the ways in which games are evolving. This is a great thing because we are starting to see some well written articles that go beyond the standard reviews of games. I can see how Duke Nukem Forever would offend their mature sensibilities because they probably like to think that the industry and gamers are beyond that. The games journalist doesn’t reflect the games audience though. Society as a whole needs to be taken into account and I just don’t see the evidence that 80s nostalgia parody is outdated.

Duke Nukem Forever might be a bad game and if it is, the games press can take all the shots they want at it. This cultural relevance angle doesn’t really fly for me though other than the intelligent games journalist feeling ashamed of the game. That is fine, but they need to take into account that there is an audience there for this stuff. People’s nostalgia for 80s action is potentially even greater now than it was in 1996 (not to mention the games audience is bigger now) and if the gamers are there for that, they’re there. I think that society still likes that immature level of humour. I’d like to think I’m wrong and we’ll find out in May, but I’m not sure it will be the characters relevance that will keep the audience away.

*To be fair, Stead does examine some of these issues that I’ve explored here, I just took issue with his placement of Duke in a cultural historical sense.


Immersion in the Old West, Under Sea and Outer Space

This entry originally appeared here on my personal blog More Harman Than Good.

As I read over last year’s game of the year winners, two games seemed to dominate both lists, Mass Effect 2 and Red Dead Redemption. This was unsurprising for the most part, both are games that are quite good. The reasons they are good though go beyond any technical aptitude or even in some regards, consistent story. Reasons generally stated for both games being as good as they are come down to immersion.

A similar thing happened with Bioshock in 2007. While the game was far from the being the most technically apt shooter, it was good enough. What drew the players into the game though was the immersion into the city of Rapture. Almost second to the world was the story which was fairly standard fare for a first person shooter, there were though key sub-textual themes that I’m sure any gamer with an arts degree (guilty) found engaging.

The examination of themes in Red Dead Redemption (moving on, religion, racism etc.) isn’t quite as strong as Bioshock, but it is good to know that video game writers are layering these topics into their narrative. The story is also a little schizophrenic, particularly when the character journeys to Mexico. When it is strong, it is amazing, some of the characters you meet in the game are particularly compelling. However, when it is weak, I found myself pushing through to get to the better bits. Unfortunately, because this is a game, getting to those bits was filled with frustration in a lot of cases because the game has issues on a technical level. I went back to the game recently and had trouble changing weapons, something I always found problematic in the game. So how does this game that has these problems win game of the year awards? Because while there are technical and story problems they aren’t enough to overshadow the fact that Rockstar created a world so immersive, open and complex that the player can’t help but lose themselves in it. Ever wanted to be an old west gunslinger? Well here is your chance.

Mass Effect 2 does a similar thing, it puts you in the role of a space captain able to take your ship to different planets. The game has a vast science fiction environment for you to explore and new people to meet. Like Red Dead, Mass Effect 2 has story structure problems which comes down to both being such long games. Similarly, while the game is technically competent, it isn’t perfect and not the best example of a third person shooter. Both games though allow strong diversion from the main narrative, and it is perhaps it is these diversions that immerse the player into the role of the character. Having the freedom to do what you want as a player goes beyond just going on a critical path and shooting everyone you see. Players it seems like to become the character and giving them open world environments where not everything they do involves combat helps to draw them in

I’ll be writing a little bit more about immersion and game environments over the coming weeks. To me, it is the topic that makes games the key unique experience that they are. It is also what I think is key to driving games forward as a story telling medium and getting strong stories in the form.


A few points about Mortal Kombat in Australia

 Mortal Kombat is the latest game to be refused classification in my home country. This is rather disappointing news as I was quite looking forward to the game. I still am because I know that I will be able to play it as an import, but let’s get to a few important points about the flawed classification system in Australia and why the industry is never likely to see an R Rating any time soon.

  • First of all, I have seen a few comments from international observers who must think we live in some sort of police state over here. I can assure you that this isn't the case. Australia is a very relaxed country truth be told and we are quite liberal on artistic classification. This is part of what makes game classification so frustrating and why gamers in Australia feel particularly picked on.
  • Naturally, the major flaw of the system is the lack of an R rating. Had Australia had one, Mortal Kombat would be released. Why isn't there one yet? Well a few different people with different political backgrounds need to agree on something. At the last meeting, the federal government backed the move, unfortunately the federal government is part of the Labor party, not everyone else who needed to agree with them was from the same party. Are you beginning to see the picture? States have their own governments and political agendas.
  • These people (State's Attorney Generals) are more often than not senior politicians. Generally speaking, old men. Not only are they most likely not gamers, they generally couldn't care if Mortal Kombat was or wasn't released in Australia. In fact, if most of these people saw the game, they would probably agree that it shouldn't.
  • Where the hypocrisy lies is that the only reason the game can't be sold in this country is because it is a game. If the DVD that Warner Bros gave the classification board of the game was given to them as a film, it would probably be given an R (although this is unlikely due to its cartoonish nature, it would probably be hit with an MA, but yeah...) and people would be able to buy it. In fact, within a week of the games US release, I'm sure I will no doubt be able to access Youtube to watch every Fatality in the game. An act that anyone over the age of...I don't know, 8 would be able to do with a lot more ease than actually performing the feat within the game.
  • The Fatalities which the classification board seems to take most issue with are actually one of the most non interactive things in the game. All the game requires you to do is essentially enter a few buttons to unlock a film. A gory film, but still a film. Button presses in this case don't directly correspond to violence.
  • With all that being said, Mortal Kombat shouldn't get an R rating anyway. This game should be and, I'm assuming that Warner Bros are planning on resubmitting it will be MA (gamers only over the age of 15). There is no sexual violence in this game, the game isn't psychologically disturbing, the games depiction of violence is so cartoonishly over the top that if a 15 year old mistakes it for reality they have psychological issues of their own.

So best of luck to WB, I do hope you resubmit the game and it is given its rightful MA rating. If you don't then it doesn't really matter to me, like I said, I'll still find some way to play it. Personally what I want to see happen is for retailers such as JB Hi Fi and EB Games go to the various State's Attorney Generals and show them how much money they are going to have to refund to consumers on pre orders they have taken. Retailers in Australia have recently complained about Australians importing products to get a better price. I'm sure governments are happy to see businesses lose money because of an outdate system right?


Sesame Street a good test for Double Fine and Kinect

While reading the various news stories on Double Fine's upcoming Sesame Street title, I couldn't help but think of other industries and what all ages means in those formats. Looking at a few forum posts, it was clear that some people were only interested in this if they were younger or had kids. Before I get into detail though, it is great to see that companies with licences are taking on projects from smaller studios. First we had the Universal deal with Back to the Future and Jurassic Park, now this.
Games have always had some difficulty balancing the all ages thing. You have games that are designed for kids that are a little too technically complex which appeal to older games from a technical stand point, they leave the gamer wanting on the story side of things though. You also have games for the same audience that are too simple in both story and gameplay turning off the older gamer. Nintendo seem to generally find a solid balance with this, Kirby's Epic Yarn comes to mind, while its story is rather simple, it pulls it off because of its charm. The thing about the term all ages though is that as a rule, it should appeal to all ages. Fiction for example has a number of novels designed to appeal to both children and adults, comic books are the same. The best example of this though, is film and the rise of Pixar. What Pixar manage to do is capture the imagination of adults that helps them to enjoy the film they are taking their kids to. They do this either through nostalga or tapping into complex emotions which speak to everyone, not just the child.
So is this what Double Fine are trying to do here? Are they designing a product that can be enjoyed by both kids and adults? One of the hurdles here is the licence, Sesame Street as opposed to an original IP is firmly lodged in childhood. At the same time, the level of nostalga for Sesame Steet characters is rather strong, the licence is used for adult clothing after all. Put is simply, there are people over the age of thirty who have fond memories of Sesame Street and at the moment, seemingly as a means of escapism, older people seem to be clinging to nostalga as a way of recapturing their youth. The second part of what they are doing is using Kinect, a device that has been strongly targeted at all ages, specifically families. Having used the hardware a little recently, it is solid but the wait for better and varied experiences seems to be the main call of a lot of gamers. This could be the type of game to do that.
While I don't think that this Sesame Street game will break any new ground, I've personally been waiting for a solid Kinect adventure game, the tech lends itself to the genre. Double Fine are known for their creativity and their ability to take fairly common game experiences in new directions. Personally, I have faith in them, I just hope the licence isn't what holds them back. What I mean by that is that I simply have a hard time imagining myself alone in my bedroom playing this game. Ah who am I kidding? All Double Fine games end up in my collection eventually. However, as I see other complex all ages works in other industries such as the comic book series Owly (which a number of older readers buy) and of course Pixar, we can only hope that the complete experience of an all ages game hits soon be it Sesame Street or not.


A piece of my thesis

For your reading pleasure, allow me to note a moment in my thesis where I mention the Fallout series:
" The post apocalyptic setting is a common science fiction setting often termed as a sub genre. It is also a setting used in popular genre works outside of literature. The 1968 film Planet of the Apes for example takes place in a post nuclear environment as do a number of popular video games including the Fallout series. The post apocalyptic setting allows the artist to explore a destroyed world while raising issues associated with the cause for the disaster, in the two examples above, the fear of a nuclear war. Similarly, The Road uses its setting as a comment on modern environmental concerns. "


A video game influence

I do a lot of writing, I play a lot of games. Do games influence my writing?
The other day my housemates were having a joke that I don't really seem to do much all day but play video games despite the fact that I do a hell of a lot of writing when they're not home. One of my housemates quipped that I am probably just stealing all my plots from games. It was a pretty interesting thing to think about. I think that most creative people are influenced by a great deal of mediums. I consume many books, comics, films and of course, games. It only makes sense that these various mediums have an influence on my work.
Naturally though, games are a little more unrefined than the other mediums. What a lot of games do seem to get right lately though is plot. While dialogue and character in a lot of games may be a little lacking for the most part, most developers know how to structure a plot. Of course, more often than not a three hour plot will be extended out to make a 10 hour game and that can often make the story fell a little awkward. Anyway, I'm not saying anything new here, back to the question at hand.
So the other day I was plotting a story, could be a short story, could be a novel, I haven't really decided yet. As I was working on the characters and their motivation I sort of realised that my main characters situation was somewhat like that of a favorite game character, Manny Calavera. I don't feel like I should drasticly alter my character because of this for a couple of reasons. The first is that Manny himsel is a vessel for a number of film noir characters and that is the general feel I am going for with this work. The second is that the similarities are only really on the surface (employment situation) and even there they are minor. I feel like though that my subconscious led me down this path because I played Grim Fandango. 
Of course there was another time when my subconscious ran me into problems. I was reminded that my plot was a little too similar to something else causing me to put an entire project in the bin but that didn't happen here. It's just a matter of knowing the differences between influence and copy and being able to justify those influences if anyone ever asks.