So many of our gaming experiences are about superhuman man-children blowing things up, overly endowed women acting like one of the boys, and villains with no motivations outside of being the bad guy. There once was a time when men were flawed, women were ladies, and crooks were vile crackpots. You can visit this place in Rockstar's L.A. Noire.
Like many Rockstar stories, L.A. Noire takes place during a time of social upheaval, when technological advancements force major changes that deeply affect the criminal underworld.
In Red Dead Redemption, it was the threat of modernization, which turned common outlaws to desperate acts. In Grand Theft Auto IV, technology and societal changes put the screws to organized crime and led rich crooks, feeling immense pressure from the feds, to turn on one another. And in L.A. Noire, once again Rockstar tells the story of a world on the edge of major changes and the effects it has on cops and crooks alike.
January, 1947. Los Angeles bears witness to the brutal murder of a celebrity. Elizabeth Short's murder, nicknamed The Black Dhalia case, kicks off a year of incredible violence in the city. Racial tensions are high, and the police are doing their best to show the public it can keep everyone safe. All of this is juxtaposed against the rising glitz and glamour of Hollywood. This is the world of L.A. Noire.
Just as L.A. was a mix of beauty and brutality in 1947, so to is the world Rockstar and Team Bondi constructed. This is L.A. before it had the Dodgers and right before the highway, which pushed a lot of people out into the suburbs, was built. Men fresh from saving the world -- men like L.A. Noire's hero, Cole Phelps -- returned and attempted to settle back into domestic life at home. Women, who had to step up and fill in traditionally male roles during the war, were suddenly asked to go back into the kitchen and cook supper. World War II had changed America, but the LAPD was doing its best to cram the populace back into its old form.
The moment a case in L.A. Noire boots up, you get it. It's not "like" 1940s L.A. It is 1940s L.A. From the attire to the cars to the music to the language -- it feels like being transported back in time. There are no winks to the camera and no cute references to anything in the modern age, at least that I've seen. None of the typical Rockstar spoofing so prominent in GTA and Bully is here. There's humor, yes, but it's a different tone. That's what's impressive about L.A. Noire. It's not built to be like another Rockstar game; it's designed as a detective novel played out in the '40s.
A lot of the era is defined by how people dressed and what they drove. Gentlemen wear hats. So do dirty cops. Proper ladies don't show much, but plenty of ladies show too much. It's blazers and wingtips, not printed t-shirts and Chuck Taylors. The attire suggests this is an era where you can tell the decent citizens from the bad by how they dress and that 1947 is somehow a more civil time. That's hardly the case.
Appearances can be deceiving. Detective Cole Phelps might look like an all-American boy, but can even he be a tough guy when he needs to be, with a sharp word or a well-placed bullet for those standing in the way of an investigation. No one is altruistic, no one is pure of heart. This is a Rockstar game after all. Everyone seems to have a dark side. Whether it's an unhealthy desire for fame, a cynical view of what's becoming of the world, or a need to spill blood.
You might not feel this on the streets the way you instantly get a sense of the cynicism in Liberty City, but it's very present when you start interrogating witnesses and suspects. As you choose between believing, doubting, and accusing people, they show their true colors. Even those with little to hide seem to have sharp remarks while others hint at unsettling behavior that might have no bearing on the current case.
Looks like another late night for Cole Phelps.
There are little touches in the language that cue in the fact that this is a different era. There's something old-fashioned in the cadence, more a style of the noire setting than anything else. But it helps set the right mood the same way John Marston's vocal inflection gave a sense of the Old West in Red Dead Redemption.
Gameplay is important, of that there's no doubt. But setting in a period piece can have a dramatic effect on your immersion in the game. The more you feel a part of Cole Phelps' world, the more emotionally invested you become in the story. Setting and tone are things Rockstar has always done well, and from what I've seen, the team has succeeded once again with L.A. Noire.
These are like episodes of NYPD Blue or any other hard-boiled procedural drama set in a city with immense problems in a year of incredible violence. It's hard to imagine Cole Phelps can come out unscathed, but I'm looking forward to finding out.