L.A. Noire and Authenticity for Authenticity’s Sake

I recently picked up L.A. Noire’s port for the Nintendo Switch. It’s been an enjoyable return, plodding and driving around Los Angeles’ streets, though one that is littered with frame drops, stutter, and numerous other technical quirks that also drew attention at its original 7th generation console release. If you’re here for a review, version specific or otherwise, I’ll be brief: L.A. Noire is good, and you should play it. However, oftentimes recommendations and reviews can become too bogged-down in a holistic assessment of everything the game does right (and wrong) to really delve into the minutiae of what makes the game so playable, or something you should avoid. I don’t want to review L.A. Noire, but instead unpack and try to make sense of the electrostatic fuzz of contrasting and contradictory impressions I have of this game. The main thing I want to talk about here is authenticity: the game’s pursuit of it; promotion of it in the run up to the game’s release; and ultimately its contribution in making L.A. Noire the game it actually is.

L.A. Noire was the first and only title developed by Team Bondi, whose dubious working practices and awkward relationship with their publishing partner, Rockstar, have been covered extensively by many more legitimate outlets than this one. It was against this backdrop that a commitment to crafting a relatively faithful, believable recreation of Los Angeles became central to the game’s early development. Team Bondi relied on an enormous cache of photos of the city taken from a biplane in the 1920s,with one developer calling them tantamount to “satellite photography” in their quest to map out the city centre and some outlying districts (Wilshire and Hollywood). Great attention was paid to the placement and design of well-known L.A. landmarks to cement this vision: the L.A. County Art Museum in particular strives for an accurate representation of the building’s facade.

The purpose of this accuracy seems simple: the game is closely tied to its setting in terms of both time and place. It channels an entire sub-genre of film and literature in its atmosphere and sound design, meaning a po-faced pursuit of authenticity is essential to the game’s internal believability and the serious tone it maintains throughout. After all,the game’s main plot centres on a man returning from the Second World War’s brutal Pacific front, and juggles themes of corruption and social climbing in a city rife with crime and racial tension.

This might seem like an obvious point, but few games take this commitment as seriously. L.A. Noire’s closest peers — Grand Theft Auto, perhaps even Mafia II — both employ fictionalised cities that might borrow heavily from a real-life location, but ultimately make that conscious break from a pursuit of reality and instead shoot for a realistic city. Mafia II, for example, uses Empire Bay as a stand in for mid- and post-war New York. This allows for some creative license where the game needs it — such as driving you away from the downtown core so you can have 20-minute-long tommy-gun shootouts with hot rodders in peace, for example — but gives the developer flexibility to riff on that real life location for world-building. Empire Bay’s Grand Upper Bridge sits in the centre of the map and is almost a copy-paste of the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s there to remind you you’re in a New York-y type place in the early/mid 20th Century. The GTA series has taken satirical aim at California, New York and Miami in similar vein. It seems bridges — and Brooklyn Bridge in particular — are a fertile source of these ‘callback landmarks’: Broker Bridge in Grand Theft Auto IV’s Liberty City is an even more faithful recreation of the real-life bridge.

L-R: Mafia II’s Grand Upper Bridge, Grand Theft Auto IV’s Broker Bridge

I view these kinds of design choices as a pact the developers make with the player. The inclusion of callback landmarks and ‘real-world’ music allow the player to immerse themselves in a rich, believable world, but they also balance out the more gamified areas that might take the player out of that immersion. In Mafia II, it’s too convenient that there is a large, empty pier by the docks with countless crates and stairways that sits unused for the majority of the game. Of course, by the penultimate chapter, its clear that this space is for a section of bombastic, theatrical cover-shooting. The player’s end of the bargain is to forgive these moments, or at least suspend their disbelief for them, and recognise their presence in the open-world as a vehicle for gameplay set pieces.

So when L.A. Noire commits to an authentic representation of the city of angels in the late 1940s, it forfeits a good deal of that broad artistic license. This is not to say that L.A. Noire is completely accurate or even attempts to be, but it’s use of fictional locales is rarer, instead choosing to play-up actual places or fiddle a little bit with the city’s actual history. The best example of this is the ‘Intolerance’ film set. D.W. Griffith’s film was shot three decades before the story L.A. Noire tells took place, by which point the set had long been taken down. The developers recreated it, using it for one of the game’s more memorable chase and then shootout sequences. It isn’t accurate, but it isn’t as obviously so as those conveniently empty areas of GTA’s Los Santos or Mafia’s Empire Bay. Within the game’s fiction, it’s believable, or plausible, to outsiders that a street in Hollywood in the 1940s might have a temporary film set on a given block. That is compounded by the set’s relevance to the case where the player might first encounter it: a crashed car and bad blood between Hollywood actors and prop artists. The set-piece is exciting as the case’s climactic closing section but still maintains a credibility that abandoned warehouses or empty lots might lack in other open world titles. Rather than the bargain other developers make with the player in GTA, Mafia or the excellent Sleeping Dogs, Team Bondi banked on the player buying into this authenticity in such a way that the areas they took a modicum of artistic license might either go unnoticed, or their gamification of those areas might be subtle enough or enjoyable enough that the player continues to buy-in anyway. Subjectively speaking, I think the gamble generally pays off in these areas. The painstaking attention to detail in these recreations, real addresses, etc is essential to the game’s hard-boiled, film noir tone.

Here’s the thing, though: there’s a reason GTA dispenses with real-world cities. Likewise, in Sleeping Dogs, there’s a reason United Front Games offered a truncated version of Hong Kong with shorter distances between the fraction of the city’s districts they chose to include. Sleeping Dogs is an example I want to talk much more about here, especially compared to L.A. Noire despite their strong gameplay and tonal differences. L.A. Noire’s self-imposed commitment to an authentic game-world has utility to a point, but eventually becomes a case of diminishing returns.

Let’s go back to Sleeping Dogs, a curious and excellent triple-A title from the same console generation. Vancouver-based United Front Games took the GTA open world formula, did away with guns (for the most part), and took things across the Pacific Ocean to real-life Hong Kong. The result is an excellent story told in an enjoyable, believable environment. It pours with rain frequently, and Wei Shen’s undercover cop caper takes him from the grimier North Point to the skyscrapers of the Central district and everywhere in between. These are real places, in that they are styled after and named after their real-world counterparts. They are not, however, ‘authentic’ in the way Team Bondi so doggedly pursued for L.A. Noire. United Front still wanted the player to buy-in to the whole story taking place in a real-world city, but stopped short of Team Bondi’s steadfast commitment to authenticity. You still find yourself taking part in hotel and hospital shootouts with well placed gurneys and desks for cover, and a drive between Hong Kong’s districts is much shorter and easier to undertake in-game than in real life. Yet, immersion remains: Sleeping Dogs’ Hong Kong has atmosphere nailed down thanks to some solid voice acting, more dynamic NPCs, and a handful of mini-games that fit perfectly within the game’s internal fiction. Vendors will pester you to buy a pork bun, or a walk through the seedier streets might allow you to bet on a cock fight or get a ‘massage’. This gives the city a liveliness and at least creates the illusion that life is going on here whether or not you, the player, is there or not.

If you hop in your detective car (or requisition one that looks nice on the grounds that it’s a ‘police emergency’) and take a drive through Team Bondi’s L.A., you mightn’t find a whole lot to do. It’s not to say that all open world games need to have boatloads of filler side activities, and L.A. Noire isn’t necessarily an open world game. But the drives through the city get steadily duller during the thirty hour or so run-time. Seeing and marvelling at the game’s faithful recreation of the city streets is a treat initially, until you realise that it is skin-deep. You can’t enter 90% of the buildings you see, but that’s true of most open world games. What’s worse is that you can only enter the open locations during certain cases and at certain times. In other words, driving around the city for its own sake is pointless. Beyond being dispatched to various ‘street crimes’ that never waver from being a foot or car chase resulting in a fight or a crash, there’s nothing to see. There’s no food vendors. NPCs outside of cases do little more than walk around and react if you bang into them with a pithy line from a stock of ten or so that you’ll hear over and over again while you play. Hell, even clothing, a staple customisation option of the open world games, is done through a menu that instantly changes Phelps’ outfit, rather than visiting a store or going home to peruse your wardrobe.

I appreciate that L.A. Noire is an open world game but not a sandbox, and to compare it to titles that fit closer to that second option might be unfair. But the commitment to authentic city construction in some areas compared to the boilerplate attention it receives in others is confusing and distracting. Driving around the city is like driving around the film set of your favourite period drama or war epic: painstakingly accurate, but little more than scene dressing without the actors and extras to breathe life into it. I’d wager that Team Bondi knew it, too: anytime while you’re working a case and need to drive to a location, you can have your partner do the driving for you. Certainly, this is a welcome option: some of the drives take a decent amount of time, especially if you are moving back and forth between a couple of locations, and this tedium might annoy players who have already cracked the case and just want to see the conclusion. Equally, the ability to skip this feels like an admission from the developers that the player’s enjoyment of their assuredly beautiful post-war L.A. would eventually wear thin. This is where the utility of that commitment to authenticity is lost, and where it begins to detract from the game. If this is where a lot of development time went, why did Team Bondi include a feature that ensures players see as little of the fruits of that labour as possible? You can’t fast-travel in Grand Theft Auto V, or Sleeping Dogs, or Mafia II and some of my favourite memories in those games were driving around with the radio on moving from point to point. For L.A. Noire, that glorified fast-travel feature proves that this authenticity, while an astounding achievement, outlives its usefulness as a means of immersion and atmosphere and instead becomes a burden. The fact that a mechanic exists to skip what was, along with the mo-cap technology, one of the most touted features of the game pre-release says everything about how much (or how little) fun it is to drive around 1947 Los Angeles.

I can’t begin to imagine the amount of work, passion and patience that went into the creation of L.A. Noire’s recreation of its titular city. The accuracy it strives for and the tone it builds are a testament to that effort, and, given the hardware it ran on, make it an astonishing technical achievement. But it’s only a technical achievement. The singular focus on accuracy left other features by the wayside, and it becomes more and more apparent the longer you spend in Team Bondi’s L.A. Better games balanced a pursuit of accuracy with decisions that were more conscious of how their game would actually play. When driving around Los Angeles, there’s something cold, even calculated about the world, something uncanny about how true-to-life parts of it might be yet how it is also so blatantly divorced from reality in others. I’ve tried to put my finger on that feeling here.

I’m sensing my own tone here is overly critical, so I’ll try to close with some positive points that better convey my overall opinion of the game. L.A Noire is so deeply flawed, yet is also unique in what it offers the player. Where it might borrow from other titles in world design or driving, it remains the only game where you play as a detective in a way that sometimes touches on feeling real. The crime scenes are methodical fun. The interviews give the player a rush when they correctly respond to a suspect’s answer, and the rising music teases the player that they might be on the cusp of a breakthrough. All of that is a joy to experience, and is tied together by a painstakingly put-together world that regrettably sours the longer you spend with it. Play it, live out that detective fantasy, and remember that L.A. is not a city for you to explore, but set-dressing in your engrossing crime-solving adventures.