I’m running late.
I’m supposed to be somewhere on the other side of downtown Los Angeles, investigating the death of a young model from an overdose of morphine. She was meant to have drowned in the bath, but the marks on her arms and neck suggested otherwise. I should have had a few leads from the woman who discovered her body, the housecleaner Mrs. Reynoldson, but I made mistakes. I believed her when I had evidence of a lie. Mrs. Reynoldson just wanted to protect the dead woman’s reputation, but I failed to push her in the right direction. The man I control, Detective Cole Phelps, is not a subtle interrogator.
So now I’m on the other side of town, driving my partner’s brand new (it’s 1947) Cadillac Series 62 Convertible down one of Los Angeles’ main arteries. The traffic is terrible, but not the bumper-to-bumper way we imagine of contemporary Los Angeles. The drivers move without noticing me, through my lane, cutting me off and slowing me down. It’s like I don’t exist.
“It’s more fun with the siren on,” says my partner, Vice Detective Roy Earle. Suddenly, I do exist, a blunt force instrument that people get out of the way of. I pull out on the wrong side of the road to overtake a Ford Sedan, but another car turns through an upcoming intersection without warning, heading straight towards me.
We have a head-on collision. The driver gets out of his car, hands on hips, and starts yelling. Cole Phelps drives on.
I’m running late.
This review is eight months overdue. L.A. Noire was released in May last year, and since then, it’s become a figure of division. Upon release, opinions of the game were split fairly evenly between those who loved the game’s openly referential cinematic style, and those who loathed the unclear limits of the trinary interrogation system (players only have three possible responses to any witness under interrogation – truth, doubt, or lie). The game’s reputation took a further hit by proxy when reports about an unethical workplace environment surfaced, and finally, when L.A. Noire’s developers, Team Bondi, went into administration.
In those intervening eight months, L.A. Noire and I have had an awkward relationship. For most of it, I’ve been sitting on my hands, unsure or unable to say anything of interest about the game. For the videogame world, so often focussed on an agile and forgetful news cycle, it is a strange thing to write a review eight months after a game was released. Opinions are formed quickly. The pack rarely lingers.
But for eight months, I’ve been watching, and I’ve been driving. L.A. Noire is a slow game. Here is a slow review.
Back in the Cadillac Series 62, Cole Phelps is fleeing the scene of the head-on collision. The detailed, verisimilitudinous scenery flows past without any need for comment, as though each individual building didn’t take some poor worker at Team Bondi many hours to perfect. It’s just there, just like how the real Los Angeles is just there. It spreads impossibly outwards, a super-network of roads and dwellings. The labour of carpenters is difficult to comprehend when you’ve just seen two thousand California bungalows in a row.
What L.A. Noire doesn’t say on its box is that most of your time with Cole Phelps will be spent driving. At a point, driving ceases being a punctuation mark, an ellipsis between interrogations and short bursts of action, and becomes a core component of the game. For the most part, L.A. Noire is a car driving simulator set in 1947 Los Angeles. The driving sequences are mostly skippable, but once you get into a rhythm with them, they become defining.
Driving is the surface and the current of L.A. Noire. The traditional Rockstar GPS system of navigation from the Grand Theft Auto games has been ditched for a more setting-appropriate waypoint system. It transfigures the streets of Los Angeles from the anonymous lines on a map that they would’ve been into great barriers that shape your movement even as you try to close on your target.
Driving is the game’s flow; L.A. Noire’s drifting, ebbing lack of a gravitational pull. L.A. Noire is far from a boring game, but it is meandering. It is decentred.
All videogames have rhythms, and so do the people that play them. Many are quick. Some are even rapid-fire, the staccato frequency of actions and responses calculated to achieve a form of sensory overload.
Many, like L.A. Noire, are long. The traditional Role-Playing Game, which, in its Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) manifestation, takes on a rhythm not dissimilar to that of an occupation. People play these games with a regularity of effort that mirrors work, performing endless repetitions of simple tasks, busywork that holds the promise of eventual reward.
But L.A. Noire is unusual. It is slow.