The audience laughed loudly once during the first film festival screening I've ever seen of a video game.
There hadn't been much comedy and, even more importantly, not much awkwardness. The video game had masqueraded successfully as a movie, drawing its viewers in to its world rather than repelling them for any of the clumsy reasons video games can bore the people not holding the controller.
For about half an hour in a movie theater in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City, an employee of Rockstar Games had been playing his company's next game, L.A. Noire, on the big screen for a special event during New York's Tribeca film festival. He sat stage-right, PlayStation 3 controller in his hands, steering detective Cole Phelps through the investigations of one of L.A. Noire's gruesome murders.
We'd seen Phelps examine the blood-stained naked body of a woman found slain near a tree. We'd seen him and his partner grill a bar owner, poke through a house for clues, charm fresh information from nosy neighbors, punch one resistant suspect and, later, chase another—the one with a bloody wrench in his apartment—across a couple of roofs.
Then came the car chase. Rockstar's professional game demonstrator made Cole Phelps' car hop a curb and subsequently neither served nor protected the citizen standing in the way of his bumper. That elicited the group guffaw. The poor bystander got smacked by a fender, but Cole Phelps, in pursuit with his partner shooting at the tires of the car ahead, got his man.
You don't laugh much at L.A. Noire, I don't think. But that was the theme of that L.A. Noire night for me: How do people react to this game?
L.A. Noire is not Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead Redemption, the most famous and most recent Rockstar games. It's certainly another Rockstar sprawl and another Rockstar risk. The company that makes vast interactive landscapes has a new grand one here in its recreation of 1947 Los Angeles. This is from the only company to ever make a ping-pong game and a satire about being in high school and a game about a maniac who encourages a person to murder others as gruesomely as possible. And now they've made a slow-paced detective story that will only please you if you would enjoy thinking about clues, interrogating suspects and sorting out an arson or a murder to learn how it was done. You rise through the ranks, investigating more and more serious crimes, learning the story of your detective, World War II veteran Cole Phelps, a good man, along the way.
At the film festival, the most awkward and the most promising reactions to L.A. Noire came from the film festival's chief creative officer, Geoff Gilmore, who sat in one of those cloth-backed collapsible chairs that only movie people sit in and interviewed one of L.A. Noire's developers and a Rockstar p.r. guy. Awkward was when he burst the promotional bubble by calling the game's most-hyped element, its unusual facial-capture and animation system, "really crude, frankly" and "weird." It turns out that he didn't mean it was bad, just that it screamed that he was looking at a video game, a type of entertainment he seldom participates in. By the time he was asking the Rockstar men about how their game could surpass the achievement of Myst (that prototypical favorite of people who vaguely were aware of video games in the 90s) he didn't need to tell anyone that he wasn't a gamer. It didn't matter, because his lack of familiarity was in fact the asset Rockstar needed.
Gilmore probably was unaware of how much better L.A. Noire's faces animate than those in Final Fantasy XIII or The Ballad of Gay Tony. He was and is a movie guy. He said he got lost in L.A. Noire's story during the game's interactive screening. He'd fallen for the narrative and the sheer watchability of Cole Phelps' investigation. Those occasional hitches of animation that those of us who play games take for granted were the things that probably jarred him from the fantasy the L.A. Noire had become as real to him as the on-screen actions of any film. More importantly, he'd said he wanted to know what happened next as he watched L.A. Noire and, I thought, how many games can get that kind of praise from the Geoff Gilmores of the world?
I'm with Gilmore. I've seen L.A. Noire three times, played it once, and I'm always wanting to see what happens next. This is a plot game, a game that needs to have a good story for it to be enjoyable, because it doesn't afford you enough opportunities to bump your car fender into a pedestrian for it to be more of a guilty-pleasure laugh riot.
At the film festival, people from the audience chimed in. One asked about putting L.A. Noire's tech in other games (sure, if it makes sense, a Rockstar man said); another just wanted to say the game looked awesome. One lady prefaced a forgettable question with unforgettable enthusiasm about how she tolerates her boyfriends' video game obsession, but that this game, this was one she could watch and care about. Rockstar's Rob Nelson was answering a different question but could have been addressing that lady when he said "the multiplayer aspect of this game is sitting in a room and talking about it."
The audience questions elicited a batch of catchy numbers: 2200 pages of script; 400 actors used in the game; 20 cases; hundreds of developers working on this game during the last couple of years; two TV seasons' worth of content to experience. Good info, but through it all, the hardest question to answer—the thing Geoff Gilmore and the girlfriend who watches her boyfriend's games wouldn't know to ask—wasn't brought up. How fun is this game?
Convinced as I am that L. A. Noire will be a pleasure to watch, I wanted to know more about what it feels like to play and how fun it can be. I'd get my chances to ask, after the screening near a roof-deck where Rockstar's Rob Nelson and Team Bondi's Brendan McNamara were doing short press interviews and then again at a bar one floor below street level where Rockstar people were hanging out.
It's a little rude, but I had to ask the fun question. L.A. Noire doesn't have those easy gameplay hooks. You do car chases, but not all the time. You shot a gun, but not frequently, not from what I've seen in multiple cases. Much of the gameplay is interactive conversation and clue-searching. You'll have Phelps leaning over the ground, picking up some lipstick or a scrap of paper and staring at it, jotting his clues in his notebook. Can that stay fun?
"When it was a text adventure, everyone was saying, when's it going to be fun?" McNamara told me, referring to a phase of the game's creation when it was basically an interactive plot and none of the graphic sizzle it now possesses. This game was his baby; its realization is a dream six years in the making. "But what actually is fun? Is being scared fun? For a lot of people, on a roller-coaster or at a horror movie. For a lot of people, that whodunnit moment when they put two and two together is fun. We have a lot of those, a lot of those mini epiphanies."
Nelson told me that he'd played the game tons of times. The word he started to use to describe its appeal was "engaging," though he veered in a rhetorical direction that excited me more, a direction other Rockstar people would go in when I asked them about how fun the game is. He started comparing it to long-form TV series. He and others would talk about the pleasures of watching episodic TV, of staying up too late watching too many episodes. And they'd talk of the delight of noticing how elements of one episode would reveal deeper truths in later episodes, how things would layer and connect. Again, I noticed, this could all work if the plot was good, an element of the game impossible to assess the three brief times I'd seen it.
McNamara brought up more unusual joys. "People say it's a cerebral kind of game," he told me. "Whether it is or isn't, it definitely challenges you to remember stuff, and remember relationships and that sort of thing. It's things you do every day, but you're probably not presented with in a game. TV cop shows do that all the time. They find a piece of evidence and go, ahh it was that guy. Chandler does that too."
Back to Nelson, and, granted, these are the people who made the game telling me why it's good, but note what unusual things they'd chosen to praise in L.A. Noire: "You're always meeting different people. They're real people and they have real personalities. And they're funny and interesting…"
Someone would tell me that Cole Phelps grows through this game, that he's not the same man at the end that he is in the beginning. Another suggested I'd like a plot twist. We wound up talking about detective novels and spinner racks and the idea that people who love mysteries, whether they love video games or not, are the people who might love this game.
As much as Rockstar has asked gamers to trust them before, they are in a position, with mountains of credibility earned, to again make that request. They really have made a game that will live or die by its writing, by the construction of its plot and the ingenuity of its unfolding narrative. I still think the fun question is the right question for a video game, because it is ultimately a question about interactivity, that key component that drives people to consume games with a fervor other forms of entertainment don't always enjoy. But for L.A. Noire what matters most—and what I believe the Rockstar folks were telling me mattered to them—is what happens in the game.
Whodunnit is the draw. That's the reason to play, to crack the case and witness a story we won't forget, whether it feels like a TV series, a movie or, hopefully, the next impressive Rockstar game.