What kind of a game is L.A. Noire?

I wrote recently about how infrequently I replay videogames, and how small the selection of games that get replayed even is. This summer, L.A. Noire became a strong candidate for inclusion. It’s only my second playthrough but it turns out to be a great summer game: it’s sunny most of the time, there’s a big, beautifully-modelled city to drive aimlessly around in, the game is episodic so it’s easy to slip in a go between, I don’t know, barbecues and extreme frisbee or whatever the fuck people do during the summer, there’s a compelling story, great performances, fantastic soundtrack, a selection of outfits and it’s almost completely without challenge. It’s my kind of game, but what kind of game is it?

L.A. Noire has many typically-gamey trappings, but I can never shake the feeling that they’re there only to trick the hardcore gamer into thinking they’re playing a game, a real game with 40+ hours of ‘content’: get all the DLC, visit all the landmarks, find all the police badges, unlock all the cars, get all the Achievements. All of this is about as meaningful as it is in any other game, but L.A. Noire doesn’t have much else to balance this out; the game’s action moments are simplistic and cursory, driving sequences can usually be skipped and fighting may as well be a quicktime event.

Furthermore, the game itself is tremendously forgiving. Fail an action sequence three times and you’ll be permitted to skip it. You can’t fail to solve a case, but you can work them badly enough that they end with your superior chewing you out. Seeing the end of the game, then, is not a question of if, but when. What’s the incentive for doing well? You can drag your heels through the entire game, coming out of every case with the bare minimum of points but if you have the time and the will, you’ll complete the game and see the same ending as everybody else.

God, doesn’t it sound dreadful? Yet, here I am playing it a second time through and enjoying it just as much as the first time, because while it was received and marketed as Grand Theft Auto set during ’40s L.A., this isn’t a game in which you must kill 400 people and mug a gaggle of prostitutes in order to proceed: the goal of L.A. Noire is to construct a convincing narrative. L.A. Noire is an author simulator.

The city on the verge of greatness

Big, story-driven games have often struggled when it comes to narrative coherency, where you have cinematics showing the protagonist’s desperate desire for a life of peace alongside missions demanding you gun down dozens of people, alongside the player themselves muddying the waters by, say, deciding to steal a fire engine in between missions.

It’s less of an issue in L.A. Noire because the player has so much less agency. You only draw your gun when the game decides it’s time. You can try to run down pedestrians but they’ll usually hurl themselves aside at the last second. You can steal a fire engine and arrive at the next case with your vehicle festooned with broken lampposts but the next scene will see your squad car miraculously awaiting your next move. Try as you might, you’re playing the narrative the game gives you. Try to go off on a tangent and the game quietly pulls you back in the opposite direction.

Given this narrative to play through, the only question for the player is how well they play it; playing the game as a failure isn’t that satisfying or fun, and completing your cases well makes for a better story: instead of a story in which Phelps fumbles case after case but somehow uncovers a city-wide conspiracy and is constantly promoted, you play a story in which Phelps is a hot-shot case man that makes him a threat to the establishment — more L.A. Confidential than L.A. Story.

Played as a standard AAA blockbuster game, L.A. Noire can be an empty experience. Played as an interactive novel, it’s a different story.