Is L.A. Noire Kotaku's Game of the Year?

The hardest thing at the end of the year is to parse yourself from the hype you're experiencing and think back to the games you played during the summer, the spring, and yes, 2011's early months.

This fall, when so many of the big games were released, the studio that made my GOTY was going down in flames. This was after a ridiculously long seven-year development period, a stupid misspelling ("Noire?" No, you mean noir), and seemingly endless workplace abuses. The behind-the-scenes development story was dark and destructive. It's amazing the game was even released at all.

That game was L.A. Noire.

WHAT I LOVED

Here's a Yarn - I play video games for gameplay and story. And this year, L.A. Noire sophisticatedly told a great tale with dialogue that sparkled, thanks to smart writing and talented actors. So often, video game plots feel dumbed down. L.A. Noire didn't. I believe Totilo once brought up the importance of whether or not a game was worth playing again—who cares, I can think of countless wonderful movies I'm content with seeing only once. That doesn't make them any less great.

Point-and-Click-and-Talk - This must be the most expensive point-and-click game ever made. I loved combing through crime scenes, finding clues, and then shaking down suspects. The gameplay was so different from everything else, which always relies on shooting (L.A. Noire has that, too) and driving (ditto). L.A. Noire felt fresh, different, and unlike anything else.

I Love L.A., Hate the Main Character - I got lost in the jazz, the old cars, and 1940s Los Angeles. The world of L.A. Noire seduced me, just like real L.A. Protagonist Cole Phelps, while sympathetic, is a bit of a dick as are most noir archetypes. Filmmaker Paul Schrader pointed out that film noir isn't not a genre. Rather, it's a mood and a specific time period in film history. For all its references and hat-tips, L.A. Noire understands that. The bleak characters are fitting for a game inspired by the genre and for a game barreling towards a nihilistic conclusion.

WHAT I HATED

That Is Not How You Hold a Notebook - Seriously? Who holds a notebook like that?

As flawed as L.A. Noire is (and it is flawed), the game did so much, so well and so differently, that it not only merits to be my GOTY, it also merits to be yours.


Stephen Totilo Responds:

WHAT I LOVED

Gamble of the Year - I love when studios take risks. This was a huge one for Team Bondi and the crew at Rockstar that brought this across the finish line. If you're trying to make a guaranteed hit, you make a shooter, not a game about determining, from tones of voice and facial expressions, if a person is lying. I'm so glad they made this.

Who Can you Trust? - Games have too few liars in them. Most lore-dumpers in role-playing games and bragging bosses in action games ramble the truth. Not here. This game was all about sifting truth from lies. My favorite strain of that: wondering if even the guy I was controlling was the kind of man I thought he was.

The Partners - Every one of them was a character, in the best possible ways.

WHAT I HATED

The Necklines - The faces of L.A. Noire's characters looked human. The bodies looked mannequin. And there cracked the illusion the game was made to build. As real as vintage L.A. looked, its people looked fake. The tech seemed halfway there, a mile marker toward future gaming graphical achievements.

I don't think about L.A. Noire much these days, which is why my gut tells me it's not the GOTY. It didn't linger, but it did do so many things well. It deserves this nomination.


Evan Narcisse responds:

When it came to sheer drama in AAA video games this year, very little came close to beating the battle of wits in L.A. Noire's tense cop/suspect confrontations. Yet, after the dazzle wore off, Rockstar and Team Bondi's joint effort left me with some, um, doubt, as to whether it should be a Game of the Year.

WHAT I LOVED:

That Old-Time Religion: Thanks to the motion capture technology and great preformances, playing through L.A. Noire felt like getting to participate in a 1940s radio play, only in updated, interactive form. The attention paid to design and aesthetics make L.A. Noire a period piece on par with the Assassin's Creed games and Team Bondi's willingness to downplay action elements to focus on investigation and interrogation made the game stand out even more for other titles this year.

WHAT I HATED:

Get a Move On, Ya Bum: L.A. Noire was one of those games this year that I felt was just too long. I realize that the story structure and flashback statement was in service of building suspense and a sense of the characters, but I just wanted to get on with it after a while.

L.A. Noire can be looked at as part of video games' journey of evolution. Still, the crime drama felt more frustrating and a little less perfect than other games this year. Bold? Yes. Best? No.


Owen Good responds

L.A. Noire is by far the most maturely presented and professionally acted story I have ever encountered in a video game. But as a game it left me almost painfully disappointed, wanting more.

WHAT I LOVED

The Last Good Man - Of all characters I encountered this year, none meant more to me than Herschel Biggs, the arson desk loner who partners with Cole Phelps in the game's concluding act. Phelps' partners were all foils for his ascent and fall, yet Biggs earns his own redemption as you pursue Phelps'. Biggs' turn from a disinterested, paper-pushing skeptic into a corruption fighter with a renewed moral code delivers the subtle optimism that the best in film noir is never too hard-bitten to show. With a beautiful acting job by Keith Szarabajka, Herschel Biggs stands for all that is good in L.A. Noire.

WHAT I HATED

I Still Need Him - For all of its luxurious set decoration—and it conveys a powerfully vivid sense of place—the basic interaction offered by L.A. Noire is very thin, leaving this gorgeous city to serve only a sightseeing purpose. It is a painfully linear game that is done a disservice by having the action-oriented side pursuits segregated from the main experience. Ordering your partner to drive began as a time saver, but then exposed how little I was actually doing in this game other than turning over evidence and pressing a button to ask questions. Because the game's true novelty is in the suspense of puzzling out each case there is almost no replay value in the game, even to correctly ask all questions and find all the evidence.

Trading in L.A. Noire was my saddest day as a gamer this year, but I knew I would never play it again.


Luke Plunkett responds:

I thought we were voting for Game of the Year. Not Game Show of the Year.

WHAT I LOVED

Face On - Not much else in L.A. Noire was worth the wait, but that face tech sure was. For the most part. When it wasn't coming apart at the neck or mouth, it provided more punch than any video game face has ever managed before, and was the only thing keeping one of the game's core mechanics from being 100% guesswork.

A Time and a Place - God I love me some proper historical games, and I appreciate the lengths to which Team Bondi and Rockstar went to really bottle 1940s Los Angeles. Especially the hats.

WHAT I HATED

Game Show - L.A. Noire is, at its heart, the world's most boring game of Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

Face Off - When Team Bondi's face tech worked, it was mesmerising. When it didn't, it was a horror show.

This might merit your vote, Brian, but it doesn't merit mine. "Mostly boring with nice faces" isn't a quality I look for in my GOTY.


Kirk Hamilton responds:

Oh, L.A. Noire. I have such complicated feelings about you. So many things I liked, or wanted to like, but so many things I found frustrating, alienating, and weird. If only there were some binary way of breaking down my thoughts…

WHAT I LOVED

Let's Play Together - 2011 was the year that I rediscovered how fun it can be to play single-player games with your friends. L.A. Noire lent itself to this kind of social play extremely well.

Points for Ambition - I liked how the facial-capture tech wasn't just for looks, but allowed the designers to build a game that revolved around a new mechanic rather than the same old running, jumping, shooting, etc.

Play It Again, Sam - I adored L.A. Noire's fantastic jazz soundtrack. Any game that scores a chase-scene with a bass clarinet solo is cool by me.

WHAT I HATED

Empty Suit - The film-set façade of L.A. Noire's Los Angeles creeped me out. It wasn't just boring, it was oppressive. Ditto the Phelps-obsessed NPC street-chatter.

The Opening Chapters - Things picked up after Homicide, but the first half of the story was a predictable, unsatisfying slog.

Unclear Rules, Unfair Play - The rules of each interrogation were unclear, and several scenarios were built around forced failure. I didn't like that I had no choice but to put innocent men away, even though I could tell that they had been set up.

Whadda "Dick" - Protagonist Cole Phelps was a real knob, and not in a compelling antihero way. He was blustery and confused, pathetic and abrasive. Shut up, Cole Phelps.


Michael Fahey responds: :

As a long-time fan of the adventure genre, I wasn't quite as overcome by the power of L.A. Noire as players that had never experienced the joy of pointing and clicking their way through a crime scene.

WHAT I LOVED:

So It Gave Good Head: L.A. Noire did feature some of the most realistic facial animation ever seen in a video game. This was accomplished using a process so complex it required each actor to say his or her lines in exactly the same way their video game counterpart would. Why not just have full motion video? Come on people, this is the year 2011, it's not like anyone is rotoscoping anymore.

WHAT I HATED:

Yep, That's Another Dead Woman's Arm: L.A. Noire successfully made finding a dead woman in a park and rifling through her things seem boring. After the third or fourth lady corpse I'd completely had my fill. I bet somewhere out there an aspiring serial killer played this and decided he'd rather run a fruit stand that secretly sells alcohol on the side.


There you have it, our arguments for and against L.A. Noire as Kotaku's 2011 Game of the Year. This is the last argument of the week. Now, we are going to vote and announce the winner on Monday, January 2.

Read the rest of our 2011 GOTY debates.