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My History of Games series is intended to be an exploration of wargaming. Here I take a little diversion into some different genres.

L.A. Noire was billed as a major innovation in gaming at the time it was released. It had been developed using live actors and proprietary motion capture technology to use not only realistic looking 3D graphics, but to use the lifelike qualities of those graphics in-game. The player interacts with characters and can, indeed must, interpret their tone, body language and facial expressions to read between the lines of what is being said. A critical gameplay element is to observe suspects body language during interrogations in order to determine whether or not they are lying, and it is the motion capture that makes that body language realistic enough to read.

But in many other respects, L.A. Noire has the classic game elements that have been around for generations of PC games. Inside the overall L.A. Noire narrative, there’s the driving game, the the chase and shoot game, the button-mashing fisticuffs, and the pixel hunt. Even the “interview” innovation is probably very similar to many previous efforts – at its core, you are given a statement that you have to choose whether it true, false, or something in between.

So how do does one talk about this game? Is the focus on the facial reading? Is it on the “classic game?” Is it meant to be a “Grand Theft Auto” goes to Hollywood in the 40s?

Say Goodbye to Hollywoodland

One of my first reactions after starting up the game was wondering how much was made up. After all, they had replaced the iconic Hollywood sign with Hollywoodland! What I didn’t know then, but I know now, was realistic. Indeed the reproduction of Los Angeles paid meticulous attention to detail. The original sign was put up to advertise a new housing development called “Hollywoodland” and it did in fact still read that way in 1947, when this game is set. It wasn’t until 1949 when the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce assumed responsibility for maintenance of the sign and, as part of that effort, removed the “LAND.”

The things you learn.

L.A. Noire has a minigame that involves spotting various landmarks in Los Angeles. When driving by a landmark for the first time, a key or button is pressed to glance at it, after which you receive some sort of bonus points for having found it. The rest of Los Angeles is also very detailed and varied, and the experience of driving from crime scene, to bar, to apartment, and then back to the police station does give the impression of being there. I don’t look for, and haven’t noticed, the repetitive scenery which often fills out games. It is obvious how much work has gone into the details. It does make me wonder about its accuracy. How close is this to a Google Earth from 1947?

Beyond the scenery, the style of the game is a mix between ripped-from-the-40s-headlines and the film noir of the period. Probably more the latter than the former. Any semblance of historical immersion, though, is pretty much limited to the visuals. Driving, shooting, as well as any other activities are meant to be gamey, not realistic. Dialog is meant to mimic movies, and modern ones at that. The story arcs are an exaggerated form of what we know to expect from this type of thing.

The Uncanny San Fernando Valley

So how about those graphics?

The game was some $50 million dollars and 7 years in the making. The concept of using live actors to provide realistic body-language in-game was heavily marketed in the development phase and meant to be a big new thing in the world of gaming. I don’t know much about video game marketing, and what constitutes a commercial success, but I’ve read it sold some 5 million copies. It sounds like it did OK.

On the other hand, I’ve yet to see any further use of this technology in any other games. There was initially some talk of a sequel, which I think people assumed meant more L.A. detective stories. Later, the developer announced a game taking place in China in 1936. That project was eventually shut down before release. One assumes that, whatever success of the original game, the costs of this style of graphical interface exceeded its value.

Back to the Basics

Putting all the rest of it aside, it isn’t a bad gaming experience, although for me not in that “best game ever” category by any means.

My impressions are marred by a few problems, mostly part and parcel of porting a console game to the PC.

One is the save and load system, necessary for console games but out-of-line with most made-for-PC games. Besides hardware and software limits on consoles, fixed save points can be used to up the challenge of a game – you can’t save right before a difficult task and then replay it until you get it right. Of course, it is frustrating have to go through a cut scene and some action to get back to the point that you actually want to play, because you couldn’t save where you wanted. It is also annoying to want to stop playing for the night, only to have to wait until the game decides it is time to save.

Another point of irritation is the lack of support for left handed mice. This game is hardly the worst offender, because some of the clicks can be remapped. But it forces me to think backwards with other menus. I plan to call out other culprits in future articles.

Speaking of key remapping, I’ve never been able to drive properly with WASD keys. I don’t have a console controller, so I dug out my wife’s old steering wheel. Unfortunately, this doesn’t quite work either. Besides the fact that I keep reaching for a non-existent turn signal, the steering is designed around a controller, and doesn’t respond to the wheel in a natural way. I frequently find myself swerving down Ventura, as I try to get my steering back under control.

Then, to add insult to injury, with the steering wheel mapped in, some of the other controls don’t work as configured. In order to interrogate a suspect, I need to use one of the buttons on the steering wheel to interact with my notebook. I don’t know if it is a buggy port or just an unexpected controller fighting with other inputs.

Some of my issues with the game are not related to UI, but are baked into the design. As I said, despite all the 3D, the interrogation game comes down to a dialog tree with three choices. You can believe, disbelieve, or accuse them of lying (given proof found elsewhere). Choosing launches you into a further dialog. If you guessed right, you get additional choices or information. If wrong, the characters (you and the suspect) generally get mad at each other. The problem is, the apparent intricacies of the story don’t always fit this simple model.

I’ll give an example, hopefully without spoiling the plot. I am at the home of the husband of the victim, where I find a clue that would seem to indicate he had bad intentions toward his wife. However, other clues point towards someone else, yet to be discovered. In the dialog tree, I accuse the husband of killing his wife, which he vehemently denies. I believe him, but I do want to ask him about the clue. The problem is, the only way to bring up the clue is to accuse him of lying, bring up the clue, and then allow him to explain that it isn’t what it looks like, and he wasn’t lying after all. Not at all intuitive.

However, having learned my lesson, I’m faced with another suspect later in the game. Again, I’m pretty sure he’s innocent, but when I ask about his contact with the victim, he seems to be hiding information. So, this time, I accuse him of lying, referencing witness accounts of him being seen with the victim to back the accusation up. Turns out this isn’t the answer the game is looking for and the suspect gets all sullen and refuses to give information. Never did quite figure that one out. This guy, like a number of characters, seem to lie to the police for no reason whatsoever. I know they’re lying, but also know they have no involvement in the crime.

One part of the frustration is, unlike the traditional puzzle game conversation tree where you can generally get through all the branches eventually, in this game it is very easy to shut yourself off from the solution by picking the wrong choice. And when that choice starts to feel like a random stab at one out of three options, well, I don’t like those odds.

Overall, though, I can’t complain about the game. While it didn’t appear good enough to make it as a high-end development, top-tier game, as a bargain bin puzzle/action game with some very cool technology – it was worth what I paid for it.

Another Story about Night Vision

As it happened, the next book on my to-read shelf happened to be based in this same period. Once again, a fictional story based on real events.

Hot Springs by Stephen Hunter is a novel expanding out the story of his protagonist Earl Swagger. Much like L.A Noire, it starts with Earl’s return from the Pacific War, release from the (in this case) Marines, and beginnings as a officer of the law.

Rather than risk a review that might give away too much of the plot, I’ll offer a few impressions. However, if you want to know nothing from the book, skip ahead to the next section.

This book is what I would call a literary version of gun porn. Gun erotica, perhaps (although I’d advise against googling that)? The story describes firearms and their functionality in detail, including thorough and accurate descriptions of training and firefights. I suspect firearm aficionados love this stuff, and others probably don’t so much.

I was a little taken aback when I hit a point in the novel where an early version of night vision technology once again took on a major role in the plot development, as it did in several earlier novels by the same author. It became just one plot point of many that was built upon technical details of historic firearms models and tactics. And as I said above, this is good.

I do wonder how well the story holds on its own, without the “gun erotica.” I’m not sure it does, but I’m also not sure it matters. When we pick up an “Earl Swagger” novel, we expect a well told narrative peppered with guns, fights, and gun fights. It did strike me that this story would translate well to the big screen, and that may even be by design. If I were in the movie biz, I think I would enjoy paring this book down into a screenplay. It seems like it would fit just about right into a feature length film.

Día de Muertos

To wrap up this post, I give you Grim Fandango: Remastered.

Why? Why? Why? you may ask.

I started playing this at the same time I started L.A. Noire, in part to amuse my children around Halloween. And amused they are – they regularly ask to continue with the game. I also had never finished the game when I bought it in the CD jewel case, probably a year or so after it came out.

No, it’s not a wargame. It’s not even historical. It isn’t even an attempt to create a self-consistent reality. However, if I had to date it, I could see putting it sometime in the late 40s. The scenes back in the land of the living have a 40s look and feel, and the cars look shortly post war. Plus, the vibe of the game is, like L.A. Noire, that same film noir style.

At the time it came out, it was touted as one of the best of its genre – the puzzle game. The genre is one that I’ve generally avoided, although I have played enough to form the opinion that I don’t like it. At their worst, puzzle games involve hunting through the graphics for hidden hot spots, and then using the found items in non-intuitive combinations to “solve” the particular puzzle. I find it extremely frustrating. I suppose it would be one thing if the puzzles were truly brain teasers that could be worked out with some effort and knowledge. Too often, it seems to me, the only useful knowledge is a background in puzzle games, thus knowing what tricks tend to be thrown at you.

Grim Fandango was an improvement. It had a better story, better dialog and genuine humor. The puzzles themselves were supposed to be a bit easier than the norm for games at the time. At the peak of the puzzle games’ popularity, it was a game targeted a bit more towards the mass audience.

Back then, I was working on it at the same time as my wife. We would both try to do the same “level” at the same time, and help each other out if one of us figured it out first. Problem was, I’m not sure we very often figured it out. Eventually, she would crack and look up the solution on some cheat site. We only got so far. I decided that I was going to figure out the thing for myself, and I guess she lost interest to the point where she wasn’t looking up the answer. So we stopped.

At this point, I’m not yet back to where I’d left of before. Somewhere in Year 2, if you know the game.

It is worth making a gameplay comparison to L.A. Noire. The main difference between the two is that some of the L.A. Noire puzzle involve physical reactions – the driving, fighting, or shooting pieces. In Grim Fandango, all interaction (at least as far as I have seen) is simple moving and clicking. Unlike Grim Fandango, L.A. Noire has the ability to “fail.” However, if you fail on an action sequence or die in a gunfight, you’re simple given the opportunity to try it over. If you “fail” in an interrogation, you’re given a poor rating on the case, but you move on to the next case anyway. Effectively, not that much different than the keep-at-it-until-you-get-it mode of a Grim Fandango.

So in many ways Grim Fandango is an easier, “lighter” version of L.A. Noire. One drawback of Grim Fandango is that it can’t entirely get away from the puzzle game solution that is built of seemingly unrelated stuff you’ve found. L.A. Noire at least has you matching the clues in an intelligent way to the facts of the crime you are trying to solve.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the “Remastered” part of this game. It really does look and play great, post-facelift. In fact, a few UI anachronisms aside, I’d say the game could easily hold its own as a current title. Maybe not the A-list title that it was in its day, but its likely worth its full asking price of around $15 and definitely worth picking up on sale (as I did.)

And as I said, (quite unlike L.A. Noire), Grim Fandango is something that can be played with the kids.