When I heard that the 2011 detective game L.A. Noire was getting remastered for current consoles, my first thought was, “Oh, cool! That was an interesting game.” Then I remembered that L.A. Noire was a very weird game, and one I didn’t even like back when I first played it.
A thousand years ago in 2011, I reviewed L.A. Noire for the outlet Kill Screen. I found the game profoundly odd. It felt like I was starring in a Twilight Zone episode, where the twist at the end reveals that the protagonist was trapped in purgatory the whole time. (Note: that does not actually happen in L.A. Noire.)
Here’s what I wrote at the time:
As I ambled exhaustedly along, I decided that L.A. Noire is not a detective story at all. It is a parable about death and purgatory, a story of forgiveness. A man named Phelps went to war. He had his share of flaws, and in the midst of battle he made some bad decisions. Those decisions had repercussions that no one could have anticipated. Some of them were terrible, but then, war is terrible.
Phelps died at Okinawa, and his soul became lost. He couldn’t move on until he found his own justice, acted out his part in a morality play born of his own cowardice and insecurity. So now he wanders a half-remembered vision of his home city, playing detective, solving cases over which he has no real control.
Cole Phelps is not looking for criminals; he is looking for absolution. He must make peace with his failings before he can finally let them go, and this gauzy straitjacket of a city will not let him rest until he has done so. L.A. Noire asks not for players’ help or guidance in this matter; it asks only if they would like to tag along.
Nowadays when I think about L.A. Noire, I think about that killer soundtrack. I think about those men in their fedoras, out solving crimes. My memory probably mixes in some scenes from L.A. Confidential. Then I stop myself and really think about it, and I remember the strangely empty city, those disjointed interrogations, and the uncanny jolt of seeing familiar TV actors’ faces stretched onto puppet-like digital bodies.
I remember how the whole thing was basically just a straightforward point-and-click adventure game dressed up in big-budget open-world clothes. That’s hardly a knock against it, but it highlights its awkward place in history. L.A. Noire was published by Rockstar Games but created by the now-defunct Australian studio Team Bondi, in what was reportedly an extraordinary rocky development process. Rockstar’s own Grand Theft Auto IV had come out three years prior, in 2008. Its sequel, Grand Theft Auto V, was already in development and would come out two years later, in 2013. Open-world games in 2011 were about to go the way of GTA V and its lucrative online counterpart; the way of multiplayer sandboxes and perpetually updated games as a service. L.A. Noire was an unlikely, ultimately incorrect guess about what might have been.
In the spring of 2012, Telltale Games released the groundbreaking first season of their Walking Dead adventure series. Like L.A. Noire, it focused primarily on dialogue and storytelling. Unlike L.A. Noire, it didn’t attempt to stretch its story over an expensive-looking, largely empty open world, nor did the developers use high-tech cameras to graft actors’ faces onto the characters in the game.
The Walking Dead won over critics and fans, and even went on to beat out Journey for a couple of 2012 Game of the Year awards. It also set the template for what a mainstream, console-friendly adventure game could look like. Its example has been followed by other licensed Telltale games like Tales from the Borderlands, Game of Thrones and The Wolf Among Us, as well as Dontnod’s terrific Life Is Strange series.
After five years dominated by the Telltale template, L.A. Noire feels like more of a historical oddity than ever. As a dialogue-heavy living-room adventure game, it was ahead of its time. As an open-world cops and robbers game, it was a miscalibrated failure. As an actual interactive detective story, it was all over the place.
My sense is that L.A. Noire has maintained a hold on our collective consciousness thanks mainly to the fact that no subsequent games have tried to replicate or improve on its formula. Every so often (including this morning) I’ll fire the game up on PC and play a bit before remembering, oh yeah, this game is weird as hell. I’m sure that with fresh eyes and a dedicated playthrough, I’d find new things to appreciate. My colleague Heather Alexandra recently streamed the game on our Twitch channel and found plenty to criticize but also plenty to like. She praised the homicide investigations, which I recall strongly disliking, and also found the ending to be a perfect noir finale.
Rockstar’s new remaster, which brings a few changes like some new (or at least re-labeled) interrogation options, might make the game feel more coherent. Certainly it will be a novelty to play it portably on the Nintendo Switch. And perhaps, with the game newly at the forefront of game designers’ minds, some intrepid individual will take fresh inspiration for a new game we’ll play years down the line.
For now: Cole Phelps is not actually a detective in L.A., he’s a dead soldier suffering through purgatory in order to atone for his sins in life. Crackpot theory, or fair reading of a deeply strange game? You decide.