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1947 Mystery That Matters Now—The New York Times
May, 17 2011

By Seth Schiesel

For video games, the real world is the final frontier.

Most games have nothing to do with reality. When you’re dealing with orcs or aliens, or even when you’re pretending to be a special-forces commando, you’ve gone to a place completely divorced from the here and now.

That’s fine. We’re all entitled to some time away. But we’ve learned over eons that the narrative entertainments — novels, plays, films, television shows — that elicit deep emotional and intellectual engagement are those that speak directly to the circumstances of everyday life. And that’s been hard for video games, both creatively and technically. The one company doing it at a high level is Rockstar Games. No one makes the real world virtual like Rockstar.

We’ve seen it with the Grand Theft Auto series, and we saw it with last year’s Red Dead Redemption. Now Rockstar has turned out its most pointed, and poignant, statement with L.A. Noire.

This game tells a deeply moving and relevant story that speaks to the player because it feels so possible. Grand Theft Auto is a sweeping, over-the-top satire on the modern world. L.A. Noire, by contrast, takes itself very seriously, but then it has a serious tale to tell.

Set for release on Tuesday for the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360, L.A. Noire begins in Los Angeles in January 1947, just before the infamous murder and mutilation of Elizabeth Short, nicknamed the Black Dahlia. Your character, a Los Angeles policeman named Cole Phelps, is a former Marine officer who won the Silver Star on Okinawa.

Detectives examine dead people, including dead children, so you do too. Soon, you’re investigating a series of similarly gruesome murders in the wake of the Black Dahlia killing (which was never solved in the real world), and you eventually uncover a city-spanning conspiracy.

As you progress from the traffic department to homicide, vice and arson, you tackle 21 cases that should each take 60 to 90 minutes to complete your first time through. The gameplay is actually quite simple. You walk around crime scenes, waiting for your controller to buzz in your hands to tell you to pick up a clue. Then you interrogate witnesses and suspects, listening closely, watching their facial expressions and piecing together the clues to decide if they’re telling the truth (and, more important, whether you have enough evidence to prove they’re lying).

If you miss a clue or react incorrectly to an answer, that doesn’t mean that you fail; it just means that the case may unfold differently. There are some action sequences, like chases and shootouts, but if you fail one of those a few times, the game just lets you skip past it, so those of slow reflex and clumsy thumb need have no fear.

Instead of action, the focus in L.A. Noire is squarely on basic storytelling elements like narrative, character, setting and plot: 322 actors delivered voice performances for the game, and their efforts are generally superb. The Rockstar hallmark — gritty, believable, wry dialogue — is on full display.

Yet none of Rockstar’s previous games have been so emotionally powerful.

That’s because the big theme here is the difficulty soldiers have in readjusting to civilian life and the profound social trauma that can result when that goes awry. As one of Phelps’s partners remarks on the way to another murder scene, Los Angeles in 1947 is awash in young men who got used to killing every day in the war, then returned and were expected to take orders from their wives. Not all of them could.

As L.A. Noire unfolds, through flashbacks the game also tells the story of Phelps’s own war history and his fraught relationship with the men under his command. Without giving away the plot, the stories of past and present end up colliding in spectacular, heartrending fashion. Like so many of his suspects, our hero has demons of his own, and like so many of his suspects, he does not handle them easily.

The accounts and effects of post-traumatic stress among World War II veterans upon their return are not often brought up, probably because the war itself was a huge victory for the United States, and because the country soon embarked on a huge economic boom. In that sense these stories have been obscured. L.A. Noire treats this very human reality with a deft, mature hand that lends all the police-procedural gameplay an emotional heft rarely felt in video games.

Thankfully, there are a few straight-up villains to take out. But ambiguity is the order of the day, and L.A. Noire serves it up with flair. As in Red Dead and Grand Theft Auto, you have a vast virtual landscape to explore outside of the main story — in this case a broad swath of Los Angeles — but there is far less actually to do out there than in either the Liberty City of Grand Theft or the Old West of Red Dead. (One technical note: L.A. Noire is among the growing number of games that highlight the inadequacy of the Xbox 360’s current optical disc format. While the game comes on a single Blu-ray disc for the PlayStation 3, for which it was originally designed, it takes up three discs for the Xbox 360. This game is best played on the PS3.)

Along with Red Dead Redemption, my other favorite of last year was Heavy Rain, also a grim serial-killer story. L.A. Noire draws heavily from both games. The one thing they all have in common is that they are set in, and reflect, visions of the real world.

Perhaps the final frontier isn’t that far away after all.