More video games and history: LA Noire this time

LA-Noire-Box-Art

As I mentioned earlier, I was ill over Christmas, and even after recovering I was pretty low on energy for a couple of days. What I did during this period was sit around in my pyjamas and play L.A. Noire. Although the game came out in 2011, I only recently got a 360, so it was new to me — which is also why I did my series of posts about archaeological themes in Skyrim so recently.

Anyway, this game was a gift from a good friend who knows that I love interwar and postwar Americana in general, and James Ellroy in particular, so there was always going to be some rich stuff in there for me.

Murder mysteries in general are usually about digging up the past, metaphorically and often literally. Not for nothing are historians often compared to detectives. And the “sunny noir” genre — LA Confidential, Chinatown, even Who Framed Roger Rabbit — are often specifically how the sordid micro-history of a murder investigation is related to the grander history of an American city, usually Los Angeles. Given that it’s basically a pastiche of these novels and films, LA Noire is no different — we start with the usual series of crimes, but the unfolding backstory of what happened to Cole Phelps and his comrades during the war will provide the context for the end of the story. In the meantime, however, the individual personal tragedies are part of a larger setting where unstoppable “progress” is transforming the American landscape.

So, interesting in that respect. The other aspect of the game’s use of history that interested me was the role of the murder of Elizabeth Short (the “Black Dahlia”), one of LA’s most famous unsolved crimes. It’s a particularly gruesome crime and it’s provoked a lot of speculation about the killer’s identity, particularly after it was fictionalised by James Ellroy and then made into a film. But somehow there was some aspect of the killing’s use in the game that rubbed me the wrong way, as if the statute of limitations on the Short case had not yet expired. Which is weird — I’m certain there are several games that use the Jack the Ripper murders as part of their gameplay, and that probably wouldn’t bother me. But somehow in this case it seemed … I don’t know. It didn’t sit right with me, and I’m not sure why.

The third thing I thought was interesting was the game’s use, or non-use, of racial epithets. Racial and social prejudice is depicted throughout — there are characters with insulting things to say about Jews, African-Americans, Latinos and above all women; the second act pairs Phelps with a misogynist boor of a partner. But the language is mostly toned down. Characters sneer about “blacks,” or “Hispanics,” but there are only a few instances of racial epithets. The N-word comes up once, in the mouth of a black character. I thought that was very odd. If they had left it out altogether, I would have said “yeah, they’re making an (admittedly unrealistic) concession to modern sensibilities.” If they had larded the game with it, I would have said “yeah, they’re depicting (admittedly kind of offensively) the way people probably talked in 1947.” But to have it appear just once (together with just one example of a few other ethnic slurs) felt very strange, and I’m not sure of the reasoning behind that decision. Not that anyone has to explain anything to me, of course.

So yeah, part of the pleasure for me was just the visual design — the houses, the cars, the ads, the documents, all evoking a certain time and place. If it weren’t for the game’s frustrating, repetitive driving gameplay, just driving around the city would have been half the fun. But I do think the historical themes in the game go a little deeper than that, although largely because they’re so important in the genre from which it’s derived.

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More video games and history: LA Noire this time

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