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Playing L.A. Noire: A book nerd detects and tries to drive

May 20, 2011 |  8:15 am


It doesn't matter that I have driven, without incident, across the country more than two dozen times -- when it comes to making a right on Alameda in a classic 1940s automobile, I haven't got a chance. I'll mow down light poles, send hot dog carts flying and plow right through magazine stands. Once, I managed to hit three pedestrians simultaneously -- pinning two beneath my wheels and trapping the last between my bumper and a wall that I swore came out of nowhere -- and I had to back over their squirming, bleeding bodies to get free. I covered my face with my hands. "I'm sorry," I cried. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry!"

Of course, this wasn't a real road. It was 1947 Los Angeles, and bookish me was bumbling my way through the detective-novel-inspired video game L.A. Noire.

L.A. Noire, which debuted this week, is from Rockstargames, the same people who brought us Grand Theft Auto. Yet with its fully illustrated main character, detailed action and deep narrative, it is a very different game from the one that made the company famous.

Nevertheless, it still has a significant driving element. For people who mastered it years ago, the driving is a snap -- when a group of us played Wednesday night, the most experienced gamer, upon a whim, adeptly steered through the soft green lawns of Pershing Square. Then he decided to try to shoot the car up a set of stairs ascending Bunker Hill (the attempt failed, but with a little more momentum, it could work).  But if you're someone who isn't accustomed to steering a car with an XBox controller, just getting around the L.A. Noire world will take some practice.

Letting novice players find their footing is something the game designers had to consider. L.A. Noire seems targeted at a crossover audience -- people who, like me, are attracted by the classic detective story content, or the vintage Los Angeles setting, more than the whiz-bang game-iness at hand.

So is there any hope for someone whose gaming experience started with Zork on a mainframe and stopped with the high score on Ms. Pacman? Can those who are new to new video games actually play L.A. Noire?

Getting around L.A. Noire's world takes some practice -- and it does, I'm nowhere near quick enough to run down an alley and catch an escaping suspect, because I veer into walls along the way -- but those truly clumsy get three tries at any major encounter and then the option to skip it and move onto the next, no harm done to the gameplay. And with that three-tries-and-move-on safety net, what's important is that there is, indeed, a rich and fascinating world to explore.

It is 1947 Los Angeles, rendered in close proximity to perfection. When I play the game again, I will bump around and discover for myself the geographic boundaries -- roughly the L.A. River on the east, Wilshire on the south I think, Sunset and above on the north and somewhere near Vermont on the west. One report said that driving down Wilshire you can't quite reach the famed Ambassador Hotel, which is just east of Normandie.

If the Ambassador isn't there, there are several other iconic buildings and locations. Finding them gets you points -- we stumbled across two, Olvera Street and Union Station right nearby -- and a player could choose to ignore the task at hand and travel around, collecting landmarks.

In fact, it's not necessary to chase down the clues to the assignment right away. You can stand in an alley and pick up irrelevant dirty beer bottle after irrelevant dirty beer bottle. Sometimes messages on the screen gently remind you that some items aren't helping you solve the case -- but I bet if you turn off the hints, you won't know whether they're pertinent or not.


Pick up a newspaper and it will flash to backstory, which involves you, the detective, and two other young men entering service during World War II. There is also an academic-doctor-psychiatrist type, who is either helpful or creepy (he's wearing a turtleneck: Signs point to creepy).

It's not hard to figure out what items of interest might be significant in terms of gameplay. When they are, the controller vibrates in your hands. Did you look at that photograph? Did you look closely enough?

This is where the game got interesting for me, when the car was left behind and the story and detection kicked in.

When you uncover clues, they get automatically logged in a notebook, which includes names, items and questions. Sometimes the case involves interrogation, and you can ask questions and are given a choice of responding to the answers in different manners -- is the suspect telling the truth? Are they lying? The sophisticated graphics, built from motion-capture with real actors, make you feel like you're interacting, almost.

Of course, this is also a video game, so in our early investigation we went to two gun shops and got involved in one shootout. It wasn't me who had to aim and fire; to successfully pull that off, I may die a thousand deaths (well, OK, three).

Sometimes, the game isn't entirely subtle about the hints it puts in your path. Exploring a suspect's residence, a matchbook appeared on a dresser, on a table, and on the kitchen counter. All the same matchbook. OK, OK! We'll pick up the matchbook.

This is a linearity that isn't common to all contemporary video games, from what I've been told. Sometimes your actions and choices create a path that opens up other possibilities and closes off others. But so far, after playing for just a few hours, L.A. Noire feels like there are specific clues that need to be gathered in order to reach a specific goal, and that as much as you might wander around and amuse yourself, you're still supposed to stay on task. You're still supposed to pick up the matchbook and follow where it leads -- like the plot of a detective story, one thing happens, then another, and then the dame turns out dirty and Marlowe is left alone in his office, a shabby private dick with nothing but a sense of honor and a bottle of booze.

Honestly, I have no idea how this story ends -- but that's the basic ending of Raymond Chandler's books like "The Big Sleep," "The Little Sister" and "The Long Goodbye." His books and the works of James M. Cain are clearly evident in the look of the Los Angeles in L.A. Noire, in the overarching dark sensibility and the turns the story takes. The modern noir reboots from James Ellroy are evident too, particularly in the close-to-based-on-reality characters, like an Irish police chief, and, we can guess, the Black Dahlia-like murders that come later in the game.

But between those original novels the video game is another layer, the films that postwar French critics dubbed "noir." So too there are the directors Billy Wilder and Fritz Lang and Anthony Mann, the lighting of John Alton, the attitudes of actors like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and Robert Mitchum.

The game isn't trying to be a movie or a book or a lost, bulldozed Los Angeles -- it's a video game. That's why action is important, why it has its own boundaries and shaky handset, and why the music isn't the era-appropriate jazz and bop but contemporary jazz-ish video game music.

Looking for clear signs of the game's literary heritage was almost as hard as making a left turn without smacking into a Red Car. For example, shortly after being assigned a first partner, I predicted his imminent death, a la Dashiell Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon." No dice. He lasted longer than our first patrol car.

Later, after getting promoted, our character's sarcastic new partner was standoffish. It was only later that I realized his name -- the biggest literary nod of the early part of the game. It's Bekowsky, a phonetic dead ringer for Charles Bukowski, an L.A. author who would certainly appreciate the tribute.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photos: Top, a screen capture from Rockstar Games' L.A. Noire. Credit: Rockstar Games. Bottom: Playing L.A. Noire. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg