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Clones war

Rooting for Goliath


Everybody loves the underdog. As a critic, it's always fun to write about undiscovered or under-appreciated games, and it feels good to shine a light on small development studios producing quality work. Half the fun of the burgeoning indie game movement is watching a World of Goo, Braid, or Minecraft emerge to swim with the big fish and garner praise and attention.

Today I’m rooting for Goliath. On the eve of its latest and most risky release to date, I’m here to shine my little light on a studio that already produces enough by itself to illuminate a small planet: Rockstar Games. That’s right. I’m singing the praises of a giant studio with nine subsidiaries scattered across the world, wholly owned by one of the largest game publishers, developers, and distributors (Take-Two Interactive) in the world. Sort of like rooting for Exxon Oil, isn’t it?

No, actually, it’s not. Because Rockstar really isn’t like any other studio in the industry, big or small, and its colorful history suggests it’s hardwired - for better and worse - to behave like...well, a bunch of rock stars. Wildly creative, reckless, self-aware, and driven to disrupt, Rockstar’s games are iconic symbols of all that’s right and wrong about video games, depending on whom you ask. 

While it’s easy to focus on the pop culture impact or billions generated by the GTA and Red Dead games, I’m drawn to the in-between moments in Rockstar’s history: the times when the Housers greenlit projects like the original Manhunt, The Warriors, and Bully, each a departure from the studio’s GTA oeuvre, and each driven by a singular creative vision. 

Somebody probably needed to prove that a game could, by design, outrage and horrify by implicating the player as a killer holding a controller. Manhunt did that. I don't ever want to play it again (and Manhunt 2 illustrates Rockstar's penchant for judgment lapses), but I can't help admiring the potency of the game. For its part, Bully tells more truth than a dozen angsty-teen RPGs and remains one of the most underrated games of the PS2-era.

Big companies learn to be risk-averse, and Take-Two is no exception, but Rockstar has managed to carve out creative elbow room inside that corporate bubble, and its team of designers appear to enjoy throwing an elbow here and there to keep things interesting. 100 million GTAs sold buys a little freedom.

I mentioned earlier that Rockstar was about to release its riskiest game ever, and I'm sure some will smirk at that assertion. L.A. Noire will be seen as Rockstar being Rockstar: more guys with guns in stylish genre trappings. The slick new facial animation tech looks great, but it's still a game about driving around, triggering missions, and admiring the fidelity of a recreated urban setting. RDR was GTA as Western, and the new game is GTA as Film Noir.

We’ll all learn more when the game appears tomorrow, but I’ve taken a peek at L.A. Noire, and I can tell you it’s a significant and surprising departure. Rockstar is promoting the game (wisely, perhaps) as a gritty character-driven game set in a glamorous but unruly post-war L.A. Its familiar billboard ads and TV spots look a lot like their GTA IV cousins, but fans of GTA may not realize just how much of the GTA formula L.A. Noire jettisons.

Not really a rock star
For one thing, it’s not a Rockstar game. Certainly, Rockstar claims co-developer status, and game director Brendan McNamara credits the studio with enabling the game’s impressive animations and action sequences, but L.A. Noire was primarily developed by Team Bondi, a third-party studio unaffiliated with Rockstar. When the game appears tomorrow, Team Bondi will conclude seven years of work on the game.

Not a sandbox
The studio that refined and popularized open world design with GTA III has greatly de-emphasized it in L.A. Noire. While the player is free to roam the streets of 40s-era L.A., the game is far more directive than its GTA or RDR cousins, and its narrative relies on a sequence of events that feels less expansive than those games. There's plenty to do roaming around L.A., but the game glues you to its protagonist's primary narrative arc more powerfully than GTA IV's immigrant story. The city itself, at the risk of cliche-mongering, is a powerful character too, and its environments function as more than window dressing or mini-game offshoots. They communicate an ambiance that mostly lives up to noir's powerful connection to time and place.

Long live the author
L.A. Noir presents a tightly plotted story within which the player can probe and investigate, but not significantly impact by his or her choices. Each case functions like a mission, and the game ultimately assembles these into an overarching authored story that the player uncovers through experience. It’s hard to imagine film noir without the strong hand of an author - I’ll have more to say about this in another post - and L.A. Noire definitely communicates a carefully constructed authored narrative, albeit hyperextended over many hours.

Let’s talk
McNamara has described L.A. Noire as a “game about personal interactions and humanity.” While it’s clear that Rockstar hasn’t abandoned action elements (fast driving and gunplay still come in handy), this game can be seen as a far more sober contemplation on violence than previous Rockstar games. In a way, L.A. Noire is even more violent than previous games because the grisly effects of murder are omnipresent. The crimes presented to the player are startlingly vicious, but they require thoughtful investigation and interpersonal savvy to solve.

This approach makes sense. Film Noir is the antithesis of the Western. Dark psychological dramas in dank urban interiors would seem less conducive to gameplay than showdowns and horses on an open range - or carjacking, drug-running and flying helicopters. L.A. Noire isn't Out of the Past - and Aaron Staton is no Robert Mitchum - but the game reconfigures the RDR/GTA template surprisingly well. It may not be Noir in all its twisted complexity, but it's a respectable stab at it.

Reviewers will likely fixate on L.A. Noire’s dialogue system and its relationship to other dialogue-tree games like Mass Effect. It’s a useful comparison, but to my eye the game owes a greater debt to classic adventure games of the ‘90s. Players will spend most of their time carefully assessing their surroundings, looking for visual clues or behavioral markers to help unlock the puzzle each case presents. In this regard, L.A. Noire feels more like a LucasArts game than a Rockstar title, and the player’s ability to pay close attention pays more dividends than his or her ability to aim and shoot.

Out the window
L.A. Noire jettisons other contemporary de rigueur design elements. The player has no control over character creation. The game includes no multiplayer modes or features. Side missions are available via your police radio, but they’re likely to be less about gun-blazing action and more about preventing a suicide or resolving a hostage situation. Life feels more precious in this game because the protagonist, a WWII vet, has seen so much senseless death.

It’s not easy maintaining your transgressive cred when you’re beholden to shareholders and a corporate parent that may be shopping itself for acquisition. Rockstar occasionally comes off as the corporate dude with the ponytail, but we shouldn’t overlook its cheeky willingness to go where others won’t. The satirical fake television shows in GTA IV targeted Bush-era paranoia, militarism, and hyper-patriotism more viciously (and cleverly) than just about any other pop culture artifact of its time, and Rockstar’s take-down of American consumerism and self-absorbed exceptionalism has no parallel in other games. L.A. Noire has other things to say about America, and I’ll discuss those in another post.

L.A. Noire appears on shelves tomorrow. Feel free to share your thoughts on it here or on my posts to come later this week.