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.
Detective Phelps and I are in an interrogation. Phelps is notoriously fickle. He’ll respond to some inputs with abandon, flying off the handle for no apparent reason at old ladies and innocent children, and going easy on clear-cut criminals. Sometimes, I can only sit in embarrassment, watching the carnage my ‘doubt’ selection has wrought upon an otherwise fairly pleasant individual who made the mistake of bending the truth in front of Cole Phelps.
I’m driving Phelps, just like I drove the Cadillac, but he’s more missile than Chevrolet, and his responses are less acute. Sometimes he takes a wrong turn. Sometimes, he screams at an innocent child. Sometimes he cascades into a head-on collision, and all you can do is watch.
What L.A. Noire also doesn’t say on the box is that the game’s interrogations are not battles of will, nor are they really a contest of minds or logic and deduction.
They are staring contests.
L.A. Noire allows the player an indefinite amount of time to make decisions during interrogations. A character will make a claim, and the trinary choice of truth, doubt, or lie will appear and wait for an eternity if the player needs that long. The character under observation might squirm, might hold your gaze, or might even ask how much longer you’ll be with your answer, but the moment will never stagnate until you make your selection.
All this time, you’re watching their faces. You’re contemplating your three choices, knowing how easy it is to get it wrong, for Phelps to get the wrong response just like I did with the cleaning lady. Their faces – so eerily sketched into the game by Team Bondi’s state-of-the-art facial capture technology – are supposed to betray their truthfulness, and you search their features for a sign.
I’ve spent ten minutes debating a decision, running over clues and plot points, and trying to predict the outcome of each possible response, like a chess grandmaster who doesn’t trust his pieces to move as ordered. It doesn’t always help. I’ve seen liars who look as innocent as babes, and honest citizens who look like perjurers. Often, Phelps and I get it right. Sometimes, we get it wrong.
So here I am, driving Phelps through an interrogation, watching the faces. This face belongs to the model’s boyfriend, though he won’t admit it. He looks away briefly when he claims that he only knew her vaguely. He’s in the clothing business, she did some modeling work for him, he says. Then he swallows, and holds my gaze. He holds it so clearly, for so long.
Maybe we’re wrong, Cole Phelps and I. It’s my turn to swallow, and I hit ‘doubt’. Phelps readies himself, and I put down the controller.
In 1947, jazz was fast. The war had taken away many of the best musicians of the old age, and in response, those who stayed behind were forced to form small, agile groups and be less reliant on the seventeen-or-more-member big bands of the past. A new form of jazz arose as a result, more focussed on rapid improvisation and virtuosity than melody and tonal colour. It was called bebop.
For a game set in 1947, bebop is strangely absent from L.A. Noire. Instead, the game’s soundtrack is largely anachronistic, dominated by a kind of late-1950s modal jazz that was simultaneously formed out of, and in response to bebop. This is introspective, moody music, more Miles Davis than Charlie Parker.
This kind of jazz has little thematic relevance to the game save for its speed. It is slow music. Listen to the key musical motif of the game – not the main menu theme, but the melody that plays most often (most clearly heard in “Slow Brood” on the game’s official soundtrack). The melody is two sets of two notes – Eb-D, and Bb-F – and it emerges frequently to form the heart of L.A. Noire’s music.
This is telling: the central musical idea of L.A. Noire is comprised of just four notes. Four notes, in two groups of two. This is music for space and for silence, and the beats and possibilities that are not taken. It is music that is about driving and staring and watching, music for a game that takes value in absence.
Of course, one of the big reasons that the soundtrack draws on modal jazz is because of the game’s co-option of cinema. The association of film noir with this kind of soft, balladic jazz comes largely from Jerry Goldsmith’s music for Chinatown (1974) and L.A. Confidential (1997), two touchstones for L.A. Noire. But L.A. Noire’s music is different, lacking both the sour beauty of Chinatown and the anxious cross-rhythms of L.A. Confidential. It is cold instead of beautiful in its minimalism, as inwardly turned as its damaged protagonist. Even L.A. Noire’s orchestral swells (“New Beginning, Pt. 1” on the soundtrack), so clearly on loan from Bernard Herrmann’s Taxi Driver (1977), are blunted of Travis Bickle’s New York psychosis and instead roll into Los Angeles inevitably and uncaringly, as unthreatening as knee-high breakers at a wading beach.
The question of whether L.A. Noire is actually film noir is, of course, misguided and hollow. The game’s incorporation of elements of specific films (the case I’m playing, “The Naked City”, is a transparent homage to the 1948 film of the same name) rather than stock genre tropes is an unusual strategy that lends itself to derision. It is too easy to look down one’s nose at L.A. Noire and its superfluous ‘e’ and to conclude that Team Bondi only understood the surface of the genre they were working with.
But noir is an ambivalent collection of attributes at the best of times. It is a genre only recognised after the fact (contemporaries often identified film noirs as melodramas), which makes every attempt at a modern neo-noir a play at the strange game of resurrecting an old cultural ritual that has only recently been ritualised. But this is not always cinematic necromancy, as some neo-noirs seem to operate within their own universal frames of reference, like Blade Runner (1982) and Gattaca (1997), films that redeploy the noir association in strange new patterns.
With time, the rhythms and associations of even a loose genre like noir will shift. Just as they cascade outwardly for Blade Runner, they curve inwardly for L.A. Noire.
Cole Phelps runs with his chest out, his thumbs pointing upwards, and his feet flat. He looks a bit like Tom Cruise when he bustles. Despite his speed and effort, Phelps’ hat never dislodges itself from his running, and he’ll never run out of energy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Tom Cruise out of energy, either.
I’m running after one of the two members of a burglary ring that murdered the model that the housecleaner Mrs. Reynoldson wanted to protect, and the boyfriend who was in the clothing business denied dating. We arrested the boyfriend already, when we caught him planning on fleeing to Mexico City. He planned and commissioned the murder, and two paid men carried it out.
One is dead. The other is running away from Cole Phelps.
Action sequences thankfully occur only once or twice per case in L.A. Noire, because they operate under a heavy logic. Phelps won’t catch his quarry until the game says he will, and his turning circle on foot is even worse than when he’s driving a Cadillac. It makes chase sequences a peculiar test of simply keeping pace with your target, and treading water has always been less tense than a sprint.
For now, Cole Phelps and I are running at the corner of Hollywood and Vine, and our murderer has decided that ascent is his best chance of evading capture. We follow him up some drainpipes and a stairwell, to the top of the old Broadway department store. The flat, open space of the roof is the perfect place for an ambush, and few moments pass before our murdered opens fire from above, still climbing as he goes up the famous neon Broadway sign. There’s no cover, and Phelps is left completely unprotected.
Like everything else in the game, though, there’s time for composure. Shots ring out and gun muzzles flash, but Phelps does not recoil in pain. He’s been hit, but it takes more than a few bullets to down a videogame protagonist. I take my time, shooting out all the lights on the Broadway sign before turning my attention to the gunman. As the neon letters fall, my Xbox notifies me that I’ve been awarded a bonus achievement titled, “Give my regards to…”.
Videogames are like that.
There’s no negotiation in L.A. Noire. No running for cover and talking the gunman down. No non-lethal submission, no capitulation. These are real-world options simply not available within the world of the videogame. I carefully turn the sights of my pistol towards the murderer, and fire. The mission ends.
So here I am with my eight month late review of L.A. Noire, the slow game.
I have spent so much time with L.A. Noire, with its guilty, staring faces, with its slow driving, and with its graceless detective, that I have fallen for it. I have fallen for L.A. Noire and I have fallen for its awkward rhythms. Its rhythms have become mine.
Reviewing a videogame within a week of its release can force you to overlook its subtleties and emphasise aspects that, with time, reveal themselves as far more important than apparent at first blush. Yet leave it too long and you risk falling into the cracks, the familiarity of a videogame massaging over the faults. Each game may have a rhythm, but so does every player, critics included. I am stuck in the spaces between L.A. Noire’s four-note musical motif.
But by now, I know L.A. Noire, and I know that it’s worth playing, worth watching, and worth spending time with. It’s worth thinking about. It’s worth contemplating.
It’s the day after the Broadway store shootout, and Cole Phelps sits and listens to his commanding officer in the briefing room at the Hollywood Police Station. There’s been a shooting at a club and three people are dead. Homicide detectives are already there, but there’s more morphine involved, so we’re to attend.
Phelps gets up from his desk and I walk him slowly down the corridor, towards the exit and towards the Cadillac Series 62 Convertible. We’ll get to the crime scene eventually, but there’s no rush.
There’s never any rush. It’s a slow game.