A car sits deserted in a dusty lot. One door hangs open. The driver’s seat and windscreen are bathed in gore – certainly way more blood than anyone could safely lose. A pipe lies nearby in the dirt, and elsewhere a pair of broken spectacles. A receipt in the car’s trunk begs the question: who’s A Hogan, and why did he pick up a live pig yesterday?
Deduction is the core of LA Noire, an open-world detective game steeped in the fiction of Dashiell Hammett and James Ellroy, informed by the police records, newspapers and maps of ’40s Los Angeles. Evidence is gathered and examined, witnesses interrogated, suspects shaken down. Though published by Rockstar and taking place in an open city (a near street-for-street recreation of LA circa 1947), those expecting GTA to turn up in a fedora have been following a bad lead. As Cole Phelps, a cop working his way up through the LAPD, you’ll spend considerably more time thinking about the case before you, and the constellation of facts that comprises it, than you will mowing down bad guys. The distinction is most obviously drawn by the fact that you are now on the other side of the law, but more profoundly because LA Noire follows a different rhythm to open-world action titles like GTA, a meditative pace in which detection rather than destruction is the propellant. There may be bodies aplenty, but most of the cadavers in question have cooled well before you encounter them, framed by chalk outlines.
Back at the parking lot, with its bloody abandoned car and missing pig, there is a distinct lack of chalk outlines. The absence of an actual body means the case falls to Phelps, currently working the traffic desk. As the game progresses, Phelps moves up from regular beat officer to dealing with traffic offences, and then through robbery, vice and homicide, tussling with new partners each time. The late ’40s is a tumultuous period for the LAPD, and Phelps, a man of moral standing and ambition, finds himself embroiled in the tussle between bent cops and the anticorruption witch-hunts that seek to straighten out the force. Australian development studio Team Bondi is tight-lipped about how this larger narrative thread unravels, save for the fact that it is structured like a TV serial – each episode enclosing a single case, while feeding in to the grand sweep of the overall story.
This particular episode has the name ‘The Driver’s Seat’ – words which splash across the screen in italics, like the title of an old cop show. But its deference to genre doesn’t, from what we’ve seen, lead it into simply regurgitating Bogart-flavoured clichés. Nor does it feel like you are being presented with a prescribed puzzle – perhaps because the case in question, like many of those in the game, is drawn from real police records and newspaper reports of the time. Though Team Bondi has massaged the nebulous details of these crimes into clearer lines of inquiry, and occasionally conceived solutions to cases that were never actually solved, there is a fidelity to the complex situations and the subtleties of detection. Its elements of sleuthing may owe as much to Phoenix Wright as its vast urbanity does to GTA, but that sense of freedom familiar to open worlds is imported to the process of investigation, differentiating LA Noire from point-and-click mysteries. Depending on who you talk to, how much evidence you turn up and what you are able to deduce from these, cases might take any number of directions, or indeed fail altogether.
“With traditional adventure games, everything is based on what the designer wants you to figure out,” says Jeronimo Barrera, vice president of product development at Rockstar. “We’ve kind of gone for a different approach which is more like real-world detective work.”
Team Bondi co-founder Brendan McNamara
“You don’t have to find an anchor and combine it with a grapefruit,” adds Brendan McNamara, co-founder of Team Bondi and the primary creative force behind the game. “Everyone knows cop shows – I think that keeps it reasonably approachable. Players know if you turn up at a crime scene you usually have to go and talk to someone and look at the clues around a dead body. Even if the game isn’t that familiar to them, that format is.”
Nonetheless, the crime scene investigation is almost overwhelming in its possibilities, with myriad details inviting scrutiny but needing to be carefully sorted for their relevance to the case. An officer at the scene informs us that the abandoned car is registered to a Eugene White, reported missing the previous evening, and as we pace around the vehicle we find a wallet lying in the dirt, yielding his name, address and picture, along with that of his wife. As Phelps pores over the scene his head automatically tracks to items of interest; the player is able to pick up and articulate each one, the camera panning in as Phelps rotates a bloodied pipe to reveal the word ‘Instaheat’. A pair of glasses throws up a brand name too, and Phelps observes that they’ve been broken and repaired – such commentary flags up possible clues, which are logged in your notebook. Tucked into the boot is a receipt for a pig, purchased by an A Hogan. The plot thickens.
Armed with this handful of disparate details, we turn to our first witness, Earl Wilkie, the local rail worker who called in the abandoned vehicle. It’s little exaggeration to say that the rest of the game was conceived around the idea of interrogation, and it’s quickly apparent why. Wilkie’s face shifts between impatient and nervously deferential, eyes flicking, every part of it as alive and mobile as a real human face – and, vitally, just as readable. LA Noire’s facial animation, it seems, has scaled the precipitous slopes of the uncanny valley, leaving the likes of Heavy Rain still scrabbling at the escarpment below.