L.A. Noire is Babylon 5

In between work, home projects, and other things, I’ve also been spending some time playing L.A. Noire, and trying to fit it into my worldview of the current state of the video game industry.  The following is going to be completely spoiler-free, so do feel free to read it whether or not you’ve played or are planning to play the game (and I would absolutely recommend anyone interested in the current state of the video game industry to play this game)

To begin with, I should again mention that I’ve been in the commercial video game industry (with one recent six month break) continuously for the last fourteen years;  that’s more or less since the first accelerated 3D cards hit the market.  My comments in this post (and indeed, all the rest of this site) reflect only my own opinions, and not those of any of the fine people who have employed me or with whom I have worked in this time.

I should also mention, just as full disclosure, that there was a point where I might have gone to work on L.A. Noire during the latter half of its seven year development timeline, and that I now know and work with people who did work on various parts of this game.  I’m not going to go into any of those details, but I thought I should put it out there just as fair warning, so that people can take the following comments with any grains of salt they feel are deserved.

Full discussion is below the fold.

At its core, L.A. Noire is what I call a “kitchen sink” project;  a project which is defined by a bulleted list of unrelated features.  “Kitchen sink” projects are typically started by a designer (or set of designers) brainstorming all the features they can think of, writing them down, and then telling workers to go and implement them all, without ever considering how those features fit together into a coherent game.

These sorts of projects usually can never be completed, because they were never considered as a game in the first place, only as a list of bullet points which each on its own would be “cool”, and so therefore must be even more “cool” when taken in aggregate.  As a result, development gets stuck in a loop of “the game isn’t fun yet”, “well, maybe if we add Fun Feature <X>, that’ll make it fun”, “no, it still isn’t fun yet.”   As a result, they usually either get cancelled for simply taking too long to complete as feature after feature is added to the list, or else they get dramatically cut down into a more manageable feature set, in order to cut the losses and just release anything.  L.A. Noire (apparently) did neither of these.

So yes, to me it’s surprising that L.A. Noire took seven years to make;  it surprises me that it could be completed at all, much less that it would be completed in just seven years.  Most development studios could not ship this game in any amount of time.  And there’s some amazing stuff in it.  But to be honest, the game is a mess.  An eclectic jumble of the awesome and the awkward and the beautiful and the buggy.  It is not at all (in my mind) a candidate for “game of the year,” but it absolutely is a signpost which, from now on, every other video game will have to measure itself against.

So.  From my vantage point up here, high atop the majestic VectorStorm tower, this is my rundown of what’s notable in L.A. Noire:

Facial motion capture

Yes, this is by a substantial margin the best facial motion capture we’ve yet seen, and it’s the main reason why people are talking about L.A. Noire.  The facial acting is definitely on the north face of the “uncanny valley”, occasionally even climbing fully into the “this looks just like television” category, which is pretty much unheard-of in realtime video games, and is a major achievement.

It’s just a pity how little attention was spent on hats, given how much time those near-photographic-quality-heads spend next to single-color hats which are made from 200 triangles and don’t properly fit.

The facial motion capture, more than anything else, is why L.A. Noire is Babylon 5.

Back in 1994, Babylon 5 was the first thing out there making substantial use of computer generated special effects instead of traditional physical models, and it looked stunning at the time.  But Babylon 5 inspired people to realise the possibilities in those effects, and everyone built on those first steps so quickly that it’s difficult to take the special effects from Babylon 5 seriously any more;  they just look so primitive by modern standards.

Similarly, L.A. Noire is the first to do high quality facial motion capture, and it’s completely revolutionising what everyone else thinks is possible in the medium.  And as a result, there’s going to be a lot of innovation in a very short period of time, and L.A. Noire is almost certainly going to look quite staggeringly dated in just a few years.

So play it now, while it’s fresh.  Because this technology isn’t going to be notable two years from now, and in fact will probably look quite dated. (caveat:  unless the mainstream video game industry crashes before then).


The game has a plot targeted exclusively at grown-ups, which is extraordinarily rare for video games.  It does stray into the gratuitous several times, but the writing is substantially better than the norm for video games.  I’m really not going to say any more on this, because anything else I said would put me in serious spoiler territory.  Let me just say that for me, this is the real thing that makes L.A. Noire notable and worth playing, far more than anything else I pick out in this discussion.

And I really wish that development studios would be inspired by this crafted, intelligent plot and mimic this, instead of fixating on the facial motion capture.  But I’ve been in the industry for long enough to know which of these two features gets publishers and marketing departments excited.

Out-Phoenix Wrighting Phoenix Wright

The detective work in L.A. Noire is heavily inspired by Capcom’s GBA/DS game series, Phoenix Wright.  In structure, it’s nearly identical.  But L.A. Noire improves on Phoenix Wright in one major way:  In Phoenix Wright, every story was strictly linear;  you were stuck in every conversation until you found every contradiction in what you were being told.  If you couldn’t figure out a contradiction to press a witness about, then you couldn’t leave that conversation, and would eventually lose the game if just guessed at random.

In L.A. Noire, the stories branch (to a certain extent).  The actions you take change what happens next, and even if you don’t realise that a particular piece of evidence contradicts what someone has told you, you can simply continue on with the conversation, and still reach the end of the case, often still with a correct outcome due to receiving the same (or similar) evidence in some other manner from some other character.

Both games are based around simple prepositional logic;  “I know A, he says B, so therefore he is lying, and I can show him A as proof that he’s lying”.  This works great when there are simple cases and simple lies.  In practice, though, this stops working as cleanly once cases become more complicated.  Often you end up with several different pieces of evidence which could each equally apply as “proof of lying” for a particular statement (say, I have evidence A1, A2, and A3, each of which contradicts statement B), but the game only recognises one of them (say, it only recognises A2 as the contradiction, and penalises you if you try to present A1 or A3).

In the case of Phoenix Wright, this is almost a game-breaking problem in some of the more complicated cases;  you’re left to try to apply every piece of evidence to every possibly-incorrect statement until you find the combination that the game will accept.  L.A. Noire’s approach of only letting you try only one thing and then moving on makes this far less frustrating.

Although it’s still frustrating.  You’re still punished for not magically knowing which of the relevant pieces of evidence the game was thinking of.  But at least you’re only punished once, instead of forever.

Needless to say, there’s still a lot of room for someone to further improve on this game mechanic, in future games.  But this is a big step forward.

A game that isn’t about shooting, except when it is

At the moment, in the same way that pretentious know-it-alls will claim that there are only three plots for stories, I’m claiming that there are currently only three genres for mainstream video games.  These three genres are:  Killing, Racing, and Sports.  Virtually every mainstream game that’s made these days fits into one (and only one) of these three genres.   (Note:  casual and mobile games include a lot more genres;  it’s only the mainstream boxed product that has atrophied to this state, thus far)

So it’s always refreshing to have a game which is about something else, something we haven’t seen a dozen times already this month.  The problem is that… well… L.A. Noire doesn’t really know what it’s about.  Progression in the game is tied to its investigation and interrogation modes, and those are quite novel, as I said above.  But on the other hand, the game is continually putting the player into cover-based shooter sequences.  Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I suppose.

The problem is that L.A. Noire’s gunplay just doesn’t feel right.  There are several reasons for this:

  1. Awkward controls.  (R1 either runs or shoots, depending upon whether you’re holding L1 before you pull R1.  And depending upon whether you’re in a game mode which allows you to shoot.  Which, incidentally, the game won’t tell you until after you’ve actually tried to shoot.)
  2. Awkward camera.  (L1 auto-targets, except when it doesn’t work.  Manual targeting has too much momentum to allow precision aiming.)
  3. Awkward cover. (The mechanism for moving from one piece of cover to another isn’t intuitive or consistent.)
  4. Bad pathing + AI.  (Not much else to say about this one)
  5. Awkward conclusion.  (After defeating enemies, we’re left looking at the player from an awkward angle, doing nothing, for the duration of a slow fade out, as though we had completed the level in an unexpected, non-optimal way.  We then are shown an unsatisfying cinematic closing out the gunplay sequence, usually of the player watching bodies being loaded into a vehicle and being taken away)

I would be jumping up and down with glee about all of these things if the game was doing them intentionally as part of taking a “this is not supposed to be a game about shooting” stance.  In the mid 1980s, Chris Crawford wrote a masterful cold war game, Balance of Power.  In that game, if the player brought tensions up to the point where World War 3 was declared, the game displayed a simple text screen which read: “You have ignited a nuclear war. And no, there is no animated display of a mushroom cloud with parts of bodies flying through the air. We do not reward failure.” Game over.  How great would it be for a game to intentionally make its gunplay unsatisfying, because at the end of the day, it was trying to get the player to approach the conflict differently, and didn’t want to be a game about shooting?

But sadly, I really don’t believe that these things are there intentionally, consciously designed to prevent the player from feeling like he has received a reward.  They just feel like the game is unpolished.  These are all the usual places where games are difficult to polish;  it seems much much more plausible to me that this is just one of the game’s rough sides.

Especially since they immediately undercut any possible “shooting a criminal is sometimes necessary, but doesn’t deserve a celebration” moral of the story by keeping score and displaying how many times you’ve done it.  (And I haven’t checked this, but I’d be mightily surprised if there wasn’t an achievement/trophy for fighting through all of them)

A free-roam mode that isn’t.

In most games with an open world, the “free-roam” mode serves as the central hub for all gameplay.  You go to and from it, between the various other game modes, and there are plenty of things to do within the “free-roam” mode as well.  In any game with this sort of massive free-roam world, most of the development time goes into building this large and open world.  There is a lot of tech that goes into supporting this, and a lot of art (and often tech as well) that goes into populating it.  So normally, development teams want to get the most bang for their development buck as possible.

But in L.A. Noire, you can completely skip the free-roam mode;  at all times, you have the ability to quick-travel to the next game segment that you’re supposed to take part in.  That, combined with the lack of things to really do in the free-roam mode (apart from enjoy the recreation of historic Los Angeles), makes this mode feel kind of pointless, like it’s just a time-sink.  Which is a shame, because it’s very clear that a huge amount of work went into crafting this depiction of historic Los Angeles.

Now, there are a few things you can do in free-roam mode;  you can find hidden cars, you can find notable landmarks, and you can respond to a limited number of police alerts (see “A game that isn’t about shooting”, above), but that’s about it.  The hidden cars are even helpfully marked on your map before you find them, so you can quick-travel to their locations instantly.  Neither finding the hidden cars nor discovering the landmarks nor completing the police alerts are relevant to the game;  they are simply bafmodads for completionists to collect.

I find myself wondering:  How much faster could this game have been finished, if the development team had focused on just making the parts of the game which are actually required for the game, and not on everything else in the periphery?

Global illumination

I’m not even sure why I’m mentioning this.  But apparently L.A. Noire is one of the first games out using a global illumination model.  Personally, I don’t think it works for the game.

I think it’s just a problem of resolution;  it looks like they’re doing a weird dithering filter to try to hide how low-resolution their global illumination maps are, and it just makes all the lighting look messy.  Maybe this type of lighting tech will really be ready for prime time on the next generation of consoles.  Or maybe it’s just me slowly morphing into a visual effect programmer and going all graphic snobbish.

Community Features

I’m not a huge fan of inserting social media features into games.  The whole “tweet this?” or “post this to facebook?” thing that’s showing up everywhere is a pretty transparent advertising ploy that just feels a bit gauche to me.  (On the other hand, it apparently works, so by even mentioning it I’m probably just marking myself out as an old man shouting at kids to stay off his lawn).

But I love this one thing that they’ve done in L.A. Noire, where you earn points which you can use to “ask the community”.  If you’re having trouble deciding how to best reply to a statement from a witness, you can spend a point to ask the community what to do, and you’re told the percentages of how many people chose each of your options.  Additionally, you’re told that of those who had asked the community, how many chose the correct option after seeing those percentages.  I really love this, and wonder how it could be incorporated  into other, deeper game situations.  There’s a big possibility here for building a sense of community in a concrete game-relevant way, far more meaningful than simply getting people to advertise you to their friends list.

In a way, it’s similar to the bloodstains from Demon’s Souls, but more reliable (and with a built-in estimate of its own reliability, too!)   To my mind, this “ask the community” button is the single most intriguing piece of game design in L.A. Noire.

Black & white mode

I’ve mentioned before that I once worked on a 3D game using a Looney Tunes license, where I argued vociferously against including any real-time lighting, in order to emulate the flat look of the original cartoons.  I still believe that that was clearly and obviously the right look for the game, even though we could easily have lit the characters in real time if we had wanted to.  Similarly, L.A. Noire should have been presented in black and white, even though they had the ability to present it in color.  Black and white is clearly and obviously the right choice for this game, for exactly the same reason that Bugs Bunny should not be drawn with CGI-style lighting.

Now, L.A. Noire does provide an option to play it with black and white graphics (and it does a fantastic job of balancing contrast to keep everything visible), but sadly, the game is not truly playable in that mode, since often you’re called upon to make fine distinctions which rely upon color.  This is particularly the case during trailing and chase sections of the game.  So you are forced to return to the options screen and to turn color back on, every time you reach one of these sections.

I would suggest that the game should have played entirely in black and white, but with a small amount of a pale color (perhaps in a flower or a carried bag), wherever necessary to act as visual cues during these sections where you need to be able to pick an individual out of a crowd, similar to how Spielburg used that technique for the same purpose in Schindler’s List.


And while I’m on the topic of “my opinion is objectively right and everyone else is stupid and wrongheaded”, Red Dead Redemption ought to have ended five minutes and one mission earlier than it did.

Yeah, I said it.