There is no greater teacher than failure.
While we yearn for the sweet sensation of victory, we reflect more as we swallow mouthfuls of bitter defeat. It is through our greatest mistakes that we learn our most valuable wisdom. This is true of all of life. And especially of the wide world of geekdom.
There is no shortage of failures in comics, movies, games, and so on. It’s tough to make art, it’s even tougher to make art well. But just because we have to wade through knee-deep dreck to get to our Symphony of the Nights or Mad Men(s), doesn’t mean those we cast off should drown.
There are lessons to be learned from the broken. And today will be the first volume of their defense. Today I’ll be defending Rockstar Games’ L.A. Noire.
Rockstar Games is easily one of my favorite game studios out there. They’re hard not to love…even if you hate them. Their games are in your face, over the top, and totally reckless. Kind of like..well..rock stars. They’re charming in that way. And golly do they know how to curse.
This devil may care attitude is a big reason why so many of us love the concerts that Rockstar Games put on. Whether you want to play cowboy, robber, or get revenge on all those high school bullies, this was the company for you. You got to be the bad guy and it never felt so good.
That’s why it came as such a shock when RS announced that in their next game you’d play a hard-lined, no-nonsense detective in 1940s Los Angeles. No, there wouldn’t be a radio channel with silly talk radio and commercials for Pisswasser. Yes, you could fail if you ran over too many pedestrians. And, sorry, but we will not be serving any Hot Coffee this time around.
While a clear departure from the naughty ne’er do wellery from previous RS outings, fans still picked up L.A. Noire seeing that Rockstar seal of quality slapped on the cover. They picked it right up.
And many set it right back down.
While critics liked it and sales were strong, many Rockstar fans felt alienated by the radid stylistic departure from other Rockstar outings. Others, like me, loved the new tricks, but felt that a few weren’t implemented as smoothly as they should have been. And I think just about everyone was baffled by the rapid turn near the end of the game.
The game wasn’t perfect. Few are, but the faults in this foundation were a lot more noticeable.
Quite simply, L.A. Noire was broken.
But what a beautiful mess.
There’s a concept that I…dare I say…aped from the movie Fight Club, and that is space monkey. Those frontiersmen that lead the way through unexplored terrain. Usually they fail, but not without making progress. To me, L.A. Noire is one of gaming’s biggest, still unrealized space monkeys.
Photo-realism is creeping its way into gaming whether we Nintendopes (of which I am a proud member) want it to or not. And while L.A. Noire certainly had some dead below the neck graphical glitches here and there, tell me you weren’t wowed with your first interrogation. The uncanny valley is all the more avoidable with the creation of this game, and before you know it, the dreams once promised by the Sega CD will become the new normal.
But graphics are only so interesting, and is, quite frankly, a discussion in gaming I’m tired of having. Instead, I’m much more interested in LA Noire’s more controversial aspects. Especially in gameplay.
LA Noire was a detective game through and through complete with clue gathering, suspect questioning, and, ultimately, solving the case. Gameplay was definitely out of the ordinary, and rarely was everything crystal clear. Instead, the game forced you to use something that I had never before and haven’t since seen:
And through that, LA Noire advances from simple entertainment to electronic art.
By utilizing intuition, LA Noire makes you an integral, active part of the game. But instead of relying on you to make the characters go left or right or jump, it places you right in their world, transforming you from third-party god to mortal member of their digital domain. It removes the aesthetic distance we typically have in games where we’ll throw Mario into pits of doom and feel nothing since, after all, we have thirty extra lives and know where the one-up is hidden.
Suddenly we became a flawed individual capable of injustice and bad choices. Suddenly the ever-present apathy we had in gaming was roughly thrown out and replaced with an uncomfortable but unforgettable sense of empathy.
Because the game wasn’t telling us what to do. The game wasn’t built to do that. The game did what no other game did and only took us so for leaving the rest, all the rest, all the rest that mattered to us.
That is a broken system.
A well-designed game should lead you throughout its many corridors with flawless execution. It shouldn’t rely on leaps of faith or that we’ll just “figure it out.”
At least, that’s what I used to think.
After playing LA Noire I realized that there is still so much to discover. So many new ways to engage with games. So many questions to ask, let alone answer.
Art is unquantifiable. There really are no rules except the ones we create and hold onto. Sometimes it takes a rule-breaker, a “broken” thing to show us that we were looking at it all wrong. And then it’s up to whatever follows it to lead us to pristine, unknown horizons.
LA Noire was weird, wild, and littered with problems. And I cherish each and every one. They were missteps but also first steps. And I can’t wait to see where we go next.
Adam Esquenazi Douglas is a playwright who was born in Texas, grew up in Arkansas, was raised by a Jewish man and a Cuban woman, and, somehow, he doesn’t have an accent. His plays have been produced across the United States, as well as in Canada and Japan.
He is co-host of two podcasts, The JimmyJew Podcast Extravaganza and Schmame Over, which can be found at http://jimmyjew.libsyn.com/ and http://schmameover.libsyn.com/ and http://schmameoverlevel2.libsyn.com/ respectively, as well as on iTunes. He is a contributing writer to www.GamersSchmamers.com.
He currently lives in Brooklyn where he drinks far too much coffee.