Negative Space, Noire Space

Bearing in mind that I’ve only played L. A. Noire for a few hours, I’m getting a strange feeling from its city. As we all know, L.A. is a “driving city”, but it feels as though all the driving you do in the game serves to somehow negate the city around you. In some ways, I guess, this feels like the real L.A.: epic drives in which you just want to get where you’re going. For a game with attention lavished on a virtual environment, though, it just feels off.

The major reason for the awkwardness of the virtual L.A. is that, so far, the structure of the game has revolved relentlessly around cases. Specifically, you’re always in the middle of investigating something, and that means driving from place to place. Because you’re doing important police work, it doesn’t make sense (or, to me, feel right) to stop the car and look around or even to drive slowly (or even to obey the traffic signs!). What dawdling there is in the game is reserved for very local environments in which the pace of the game, quite pleasingly, slows to a crawl and you find yourself scouring an alleyway for clues.

In this setup, L. A. Noire reminds me of the original Police Quest. In that game driving was extremely functional – irrelevant locations in space barely existed. If you pulled over to somewhere that wasn’t a part of the narrative, you’d just see a generic parking lot or suburban street. Move along. L. A. Noire has the same impatience with the majority of its city, except that in this case the “irrelevant” parts are lovingly modeled and detailed.

As such, this ostensibly beautiful city is generally just whipping past my windshield as I drive on and on, listening to my monotonous partner’s directions for where to go. Technically I could stop and experience the sublimity of the general environment, but I don’t. It would be rude and unprofessional and, frankly, kind of boring. Although the city is there, it’s also not there: it’s irrelevant. This doesn’t have to be the case, either: consider how consistently ripe with meaning Fallout 3‘s wasteland manages to be.

In a way, it might be that L. A. Noire falls “victim” to its devotedly cinematic style: you’re always trying to get to the next scene in both a crime-busting and a movie-making sense. The rest of it is all chaff in the wind. Which is actually pretty ironic. Consider that in watching a movie you’re transported from scene to scene without the intervening space being required, just in some sense implied. Because it doesn’t contribute to the story it’s literally not there. In video games, of course, in this age of large scale virtual environments, the intervening space generally has to be there – game design simply demands it. Thus, in this extreme cinematic mode of play, we have the worst of both worlds: the intervening space is both irrelevant and frustratingly present.

In fact, as I’ve played, I’ve found myself wishing more and more that the rest of the city wasn’t there. As I walk toward my virtual car with my partner I pause for a moment, and then I say:

“You drive.”

17 June 2011
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