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Even though he awarded L.A. Noire a "perfect" 10, Aaron still thinks that the game represents a great big missed opportunity.

 

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Curse of the Noire Monkey

 

The news that LA Noire developer Team Bondi had shuttered its windows, bolted the door and the "Gone Fishing Forever" sign hung on the door knob, took me by surprise.

Thinking about it a little longer though, I can almost understand why, given that LA Noire was so many years in the making. How could it ever recoup its investment on the title after millions of dollars was spent creating a massive city environment and
curse of the noire monkey some really uncanny facial animation. It was a critical success and as far as I can tell a commercial success as well (relatively), but I suppose that whatever internal mechanism was in place at Team Bondi managed to slip and the whole thing ground to a halt. And what a shame!

Rockstars own Red Dead Redemption game spawned a myriad of downloadable content both for single player and multiplayer. And the same was done for

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 Grand Theft Auto IV. All that LA Noire got was a handful of downloadable cases. And maybe no one cares. Gamers played it, enjoyed the story elements and somewhat erratic behaviour of protagonist Cole Phelps.

But LA Noire represents a massive missed opportunity.

 

There was a chance for the developer and publisher to mine the 

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detective stories of radio's Golden Age in North America and real hard boiled detective fiction. I'm writing about the likes of Dragnet, Tales of the Texas Rangers, The Adventures of Sam Spade, the writings of Dashiell Hammett and Raymondcurse of the noire monkey Chandler, Richard Diamond, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar ("The man with the action-packed expense account").

The most damning part is that all this source material to which LA Noire owes its style, sensibility, and vibe is so perfectly suited to episodic or serialized downloadable content.

curse of the noire monkeyBecause it's the best parallel, I'd like to focus specifically on Dragnet, though I could branch out to Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, that focuses on an insurance investigator (which is a role the player assumes near the end of LA Noir).

Dragnet "taken from actual police files" focuses on Joe Friday -- his mother invariably calls him "Joseph" -- and his partners investigating cases in various departments. One week Joe and his partner might be on bunko detail; the next, homicide; the next forgery. From week to week, you never know what you might get. Joe and partner hunting down a shoplifter known as "The Little Mother" then tracking down the source of pornography being distributed to high school kids then busting television repairmen overcharging for repairs that were never actually made. Whatever division or case they worked there were some common events thatcurse of the noire monkey occurred. Usually there was a foot chase, a shoot out, interrogation of suspects and witnesses, banter between Joe and his partner and superior, and possibly the most famous four notes in entertainment history.

Each of the episodes was compact, most of them running less than 30 minutes. Most of the episodes feature a deftness in characterization that many writers could learn from, even today. Some of the writing was broad and wide, and gaps between story points are connected by "three weeks later..." so it's seems the perfect opportunity to bring Dragnet to the digital realm. With the seemingly innocuous "three weeks later..." a good writer could squeeze in a couple more crimes for Friday and company to investigate then pick-up the thread of the first story again.

LA Noire's digital environment is the one place that makes sense to resurrect these stories. Dragnet is set in Los Angeles during the very period that LA Noire covers, a post World War II America where a fedora wasn't a warning sign that you might be dealing with a douchebag or a hipster. Such a missed opportunity!

For the most part, LA Noire always partners Cole Phelps with another investigator (just like Dragnet, in case you're missing my beats, brother), but some of Dashiell curse of the noire monkeyHammet's lone wolf characters would fit right in here.

The Continental Op, the nameless protagonist of Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, is a perfect match for a more footloose, action-based approached. The Op is never one to shy away from a fight, and spends a lot of time dealing with gangsters and ne'er-do-wells, sometimes directly with a bullet or fist, and at one point substitutes gin for sleep. He's a perfect fit as a video games bad-ass and parallels with Max Payne wouldn't be off-base. Then there's detective Sam Spade, from Hammett's best known novel, "The Maltese Falcon." Even though he's based out of San Francisco, Spade wouldn't be out of place in Los Angeles, though lack of consistent fog might spoil the mood a little. Spade is also a bit of a bad-ass and in the end demonstrates a dedication to his craft that actually surprised me the first time I read it. "The Glass Key" focuses on Ned Beaumont, a gambler with a keen political knowledge that elevates him above the rabble of common gangsters in the novel. He's probably the most complex character to deal with as a game character because he's operating on his own strict moral code. Maybe even more difficult would be translating Nick Charles from "The Thin Man." Married to a much younger woman, he spends a lot of the novel hung-over or drunk, ordering room service, and talking a lot. Plus, the novel is set in Prohibition-era New York (i.e. before Worldcurse of the noire monkey War II). In fact, all of Hammett's novels were written prior to World War II, but it would be no jump to position these characters in a post-war world, maybe ageing them a little or even just flat-out re-tell the Hammett stories in a slightly different setting.

The fact the digital world of LA Noire was created over so many years, so many thousands of hours spent crafting a setting that in the end is so underutilized, it represents a phenomenal failure to live up to its full potential, moreso now that the developer has been sunk.

The one silver lining is that the publisher, Rockstar, retains the rights to the LA Noire as an intellectual property. I hold out some hope that they might be able to capitalize on the potential of the setting and technology that could be used to tell some awesome hardboiled detective yarns using the best of the genre from the '30s, '40s, and '50s as touchstones.

- Aaron Simmer

(October 18, 2011)

 

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