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OnlySP 50 Favorite Games

OnlySP’s Favorite Games #29—L.A. Noire

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OnlySP Favorite Games 29 - L.A. Noire

Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week’s game goes against the grain of many of our choices; neither a massive franchise nor a forgotten diamond-in-the-rough, but a modest success that was cut off at the knees.

L.A. Noire promo

#29. L.A. NOIRE, by Damien Lawardorn

L.A. Noire may be Rockstar Games’s most out-of-character title ever, but that comes down to the fact that it was not developed by the house that Grand Theft Auto built, rather by Australian developer Team Bondi. Absent are the self-aware satire, penchant for excess, ultraviolence, and misanthropy. In their stead is a game that plays itself as straight as its upstanding veteran-turned-police-officer protagonist, Cole Phelps.

After returning from World War II as a decorated hero, Cole joins the Los Angeles Police Department (L.A.P.D.), quickly becoming a poster boy thanks to his proficiency as a detective and unimpeachable character. However, the job is not one suited to a paragon. The force is rife with corruption, and moral ambiguity can seem the best way to get ahead.

Nevertheless, Cole forges forward, dedicated to the tenets of truth, justice, and all the qualities deemed most virtuous. As he does so, he uncovers a sprawling crime racket that links street drugs to murders and a massive insurance scam, encompassing many of the cases that he works on alongside the player. The intricacy of the interconnectedness of this investigation is jaw-dropping, but one area that might have benefitted from deeper treatment is Cole’s personal journey.

L.A. Noire gameplay 1

Later in the game, the star detective becomes embroiled in a personal scandal that damages his reputation. However, players receive only the barest glimpse of this series of events. For all of its literally game-changing effects, Cole’s personal life dangles just outside the player’s ken, and L.A. Noire suffers—ever so slightly, perhaps—from this lack.

As valid as that critique may be, one thing that must be remembered is that developer Team Bondi never aimed to tell a personal story.

Rather, as the name implies, L.A. Noire is about a city, a time, and a mood. In this respect, the game is an undeniable triumph, every part of the world dripping with a mixture of post-war hope and existential dread. Grand theft auto, violent murder, statutory rape, and much more; the game shies away from little in its depiction of a city of devils.

L.A. Noire gameplay 3

The cases that comprise Cole’s time with the L.A.P.D.—across the Traffic, Homicide, Vice, and Arson desks—draw from news reports of the time. This incorporation of fact enhances the fiction, bringing it to vivid life and lending each investigation a sense of truth. As a result, any potential sense of tedium that may arise from the processes of investigation and interrogation falls to the wayside, subsumed into the heady hunt for that most elusive of things: the truth.

Nevertheless, the question of whether the game would have outstayed its welcome without that veneer of realism is doubtworthy. Admittedly, the find-a-word style of investigation at crime scenes could have been spruced up more often, but they are only ever the first step. The game shines when Cole walks up to a witness or tracks down his perp. At the time of release, much was made of the revolutionary MotionScan technology: a 32-camera set-up that captured every nuance and tick of the actors’ facial expressions, which were then transferred wholesale into the game. Technology has improved since then, but no other developer has sought to use motion capture to invest the player into the experience in quite the same way.

Here, in the interrogations, the player becomes complicit in Cole’s mission. No longer the action hero, the gamer becomes the active observer, watching every movement for the telltale signs of truth or lies and responding accordingly. However, Cole—at least in the original release—got a little weird during interrogations. When pushed to doubt the witnesses, he would often lash out, his responses sometimes seeming almost sociopathic.

L.A. Noire gameplay 4

After release, creative director Brendan McNamara remarked on this dissonance, revealing that the prompts were changed late in development. Players of the more recent PlayStation 4, Switch, and Xbox One ports were lucky enough to have those prompts changed from “Truth,” “Doubt,” and “Lie” to the more fitting “Good Cop,” “Bad Cop,” and “Accuse,” in just one of the examples of how remasters are capable of improving on their source products beyond just updating the visuals.

Regardless of the update, in some ways, this snafu may be read as symbolic of the reportedly shambolic production cycle. A prominent criticism of Team Bondi (which has since recurred in other Rockstar products) revolved around alleged unjust work practices, including excessive crunch time and the failure to provide credit to approximately 130 people who were involved in the game’s creation. The problems went further, though: a seven-year development, a change in publisher from Sony to Rockstar, a stream of delays, rumours that Rockstar wrested creative control from McNamara late in the process.

A lesser game might have been crippled or even killed by these setbacks, but L.A. Noire proved to be Sisyphus successful. The game launched to a rapturous reception, generally lauded by critics and becoming the best-selling new IP in gaming history—a record it would hold until the 2014 launch of Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs.

L.A. Noire gameplay 2

However, the success was not enough to save Team Bondi. One of Australia’s last major studios, the team moved on to the controversially named spiritual successor Whore of the Orient, which promised to explore a corruption-ridden 1930s Shanghai. By that time, the death spiral had already begun. Team Bondi was sold to film production company Kennedy Miller Mitchell (Happy Feet, Mad Max) and later almost silently put out of its misery.

Since then, the L.A. Noire name has been dredged up from the depths, remastered and also repackaged as a VR experience, but absent of any apparent movement to move the IP forward. Once upon a time, Rockstar indicated that the franchise was important in the publisher’s portfolio, but nothing has yet arisen and, given Rockstar’s development rate, nothing will likely appear for years yet.

And that may be the biggest crime of all.

L.A. Noire gameplay 5

VIDEO CRIMES

Even though crime video games are never rare (and might as well have grown up along with the medium) the inimitable L.A. Noire cannot be said to be similar to many others. That said, these games were not left behind with the failure of Team Bondi, and several other crime sagas, gangster stories and such have since carried the torch: if not in technology, than at least in cinematic ambition.

Sleeping Dogs was more the traditional kind of Grand Theft Auto-derived open world gangster game, but from the perspective of an undercover cop. Set in Hong Kong, the game brought with it visual inspiration from Asian crime stories rather than the standard American ones. Unfortunately, positive reception and millions of copies sold were not enough to offset much larger costs incurred by Square Enix in acquiring the game (Sleeping Dogs began as a new entry in the True Crime series) and promoting it as a mega-blockbuster.

With two predecessors that were as close to L.A. Noire as anything 2K Games released—being both praised for highly scripted, cinematic stories and criticised for their empty open-worlds—Mafia III was a departure, developed by a new studio and taking an approach inspired by Far Cry‘s outposts and Shadow of Mordor‘s Nemesis system. The game sold much better than Sleeping Dogs, but apparently not enough to guarantee a Mafia IV. Still, Hangar 13’s work was praised for being one of the most detailed works of historical fiction in video games.

Fans of the Yakuza series were excited to hear of Judgment, the Yakuza team’s new IP that puts players in the shoes of a Japanese detective. Having been received rather well at its initial release last year, the English-language version of this investigative drama will release later in 2019.

And of course, players can always find solace in the excellent Red Dead Redemption 2.

Thanks for joining us again for a look at our favourite games. Next week, a totally different franchise at a very different speed—in the meantime, why not share your own favourite one-hit-wonders like L.A. Noire? As always, you can keep locked to OnlySP on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube.

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OnlySP 50 Favorite Games

OnlySP’s Favorite Games #34—Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us

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OnlySP Favorite Games 34 - The Wolf Among Us

Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. The game this week is another Telltale series (The Walking Dead is at #19) that continued to push the envelope for adventure games.

The Wolf Among Us gameplay screenshot 1

#24. TELLTALE’S THE WOLF AMONG US, by Sep Gohardani

In 2012, a video game adaptation of the popular comic book and television Show The Walking Dead catapulted Telltale Games from niche studio obscurity into the limelight. The company’s model of securing the rights to popular IPs and moulding them to its adventure game format resulted in other acclaimed titles like Guardians of the Galaxy and Batman that sought to twist the common formula and offer something different in those massive franchises.

In amidst the rising tide of their reputation, the company took a chance on something that was not quite as big or as popular, opting to give the Telltale treatment to Bill Willingham’s long-running comic book series Fables. What ensued was a wonderful twist on the tale that quite possibly makes The Wolf Among Us Telltale’s greatest achievement amidst a plethora of other very creative work.

The game is set in a world where fairytales are real, but not in the way one might expect. Instead of a magical far off land, the game is set in Manhattan (though maybe that is Manhattan for some), in a specially created enclave called Fabletown. This small settlement is where a plethora of characters from famous fairy tales and myths have been living after having fled the Homelands, which is now ruled by a mysterious, dark Adversary whose draconian regime became too difficult to bear.

The Wolf Among Us gameplay screenshot 2

Those who escaped have managed to assimilate in to America without much trouble due to cloaking magic, while any non-human ‘fables’ must use an enchantment known as a ‘glamour’ to maintain a human appearance and not arouse suspicion, or be taken off site to The Farm, a refuge that those who cannot change their appearance go to.

Bigby Wolf (formerly known as the Big Bad Wolf) is the Sheriff of Fabletown in the year 1986. He is charged with maintaining order, but Fabletown is not too eventful of a place. Soon, however, trouble is brewing and a simple trip out to help someone get home starts to unravel to reveal something dark and insidious in this last refuge of the great Fables.

This is a game that nails its tone. As soon the opening titles appear, Jared Emerson-Johnson’s brilliant score, and the moody, purple lettering of the title make clear that the game was going to be drenched in noirish atmosphere. The art style welcomes this theme: it is vivid and evocative, but never overstated, providing a rich setting for the characters and embodying both the darkness of their situation and their new gritty reality.

The Wolf Among Us gameplay screenshot 3

The player takes control of Bigby and is tasked with figuring out why things are getting increasingly out of hand when no one can afford them to, meaning lots of detective work. Bigby himself is fascinating. He is the gruff, sardonic, chain-smoking main character one might expect from a game like this, but he has nuance under that exterior. He is moulded by the decisions the player makes. The extent of the choices available mean that the way Bigby interacts with those around him dictates what the most important aspects of his personality will be, whether that is compassion, dedication, or a thirst for blood. Adam Harrington is brilliant in the role, and was well deserving of his BAFTA nomination, his main triumph being the subtlety in his line delivery and the way he makes each version of Bigby feel a bit different.

As everything unravels, Bigby slowly finds himself having more and more dots to put together as each environment contains clues and answers that are pivotal to figuring out how to stop those at the heart of the problem. This example demonstrates how immaculately written the game is that each of these moments feels gripping, from the very beginning of the first episodethrough to the end. The way the mystery is built up, with all the twists and turns along the way, makes for a thrill-ride worthy of any famous detective.

But not just the mechanics of the plot make the game Telltale’s greatest output. The characterisation of each and every one of the prominent characters is fantastic. Each citizen of Fabletown feels unique, with their own issues and opinions and sometimes even skeletons in the closet that Bigby has to deal with, and those character moments indelibly affect the way the game plays out and what sort of person Bigby wants to be. Notably characters like Snow White, who here is pragmatic and adamant that the rules in place keep the Fables safe, do end up having an impact on Bigby and his decision making, while others, like Colin the Pig, can help to show a different side to him, presenting him with many dilemmas along the way.

The Wolf Among Us gameplay screenshot 4

In this way, The Wolf Among Us becomes more than just a simple detective story. The game becomes a rich, intricate world full of complex interpersonal relationships that is barely managing to hold together and is straining even more while the mystery is solved and the threat is increased. These relationships become central to the game’s moral dilemmas, and in true Telltale style these are difficult decisions to make because the characters feel important, their perspectives understandable, their circumstances challenging. Bigby’s journey through these problems shapes him and those around him, ultimately deciding the future fate of Fabletown and potentially bringing him eerily close to the villain of the piece.

In a certain way, one can easily guess the kind of experience Telltale will provide for them in gameplay terms. The gameplay is fairly standard, and quick-time events make up a large part of the gameplay in moments of action or urgency, while exploration and discovery are encouraged in the detective work. The gameplay can at times be frustrating, but it is ultimately a mechanism to further the story and allow the player to shape Bigby in their image, according to how they would try to solve the problem.

Despite some frustration with the aforementioned quick time events, The Wolf Among Us is the adventure genre at its best. The perfect mix of characterisation, intense action, and world building works well in tandem with Telltale’s tried and tested gameplay and art style, the latter of which here is perfect. Emerson-Johnson’s score is always evocative and adds more texture to that innate feeling of immersion that the game provides. That the game will now no longer be getting a sequel due to the studio’s closure is a giant shame, but at least this example of video game storytelling at its best was made to show how it is done.

The Wolf Among Us gameplay screenshot 5

Do you have a favourite adventure game that did great work in story, but perhaps never had a fair shake? Maybe you could recommend the game for other players—why not join in the discussion below? Next week’s game also did great work with game narratives, though it is very much not an adventure game. In the meantime, you can follow OnlySP on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube, and join in with the OnlySP Discord.

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