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Back in Feburary David Jaffe (famed creator of Twisted Metal) said that storytelling “stunts the growth of video games.” Now, as someone who finds story to be an integral part of his gaming experience my kneejerk reaction was an eyeroll and some quasi-witty comment pertaining to the archaic-ness of the newTwisted Metal demo.
It was only several hours later that I realized that even though Jaffe is wrong as far as the big picture is concerned—he pretty much invalidated the RPG genre with his storytelling comment—he’s not completely wrong. He is right in that games are not movies, and they shouldn’t be. However, it’s incredibly silly and demonstrates a disconnect with the industry and its consumers to say that stories like the ones featured in Mass Effect and Uncharted stunt the growth of gaming. It would be one thing if there was this huge movement that was critical of games embracing storytelling and the cinematic conventions that go along with it, but these games have received almost perfect critical scores–not to mention the millions of copies sold.
What Jaffe is missing out on is the fact that games aren’t trying to be movies but are instead trying to achieve a happy medium that offers interactivity and a cinematic experience. Well, unless you are/were Team Bondi. If we take a look at Jaffe’s comments within the context of L.A. Noire, he suddenly doesn’t appear to be so crazy—in fact, he’s completely right in this context. I realize that I’m in a minority when I say this, but I genuinely feel that L.A. Noire is one of the most disappointing games ever created, precisely because Bondi forgot they were creating a game. As a digital movie, Noire is a fantastic journey through gritty recreation of 1940s Los Angeles that pays great tribute to the likes of Chinatown andL.A. Confidential, but a colossal story like the one in Noire cannot be supported by flimsy gameplay. And you better believe that Noire has some of the flimsiest around. I use that word particularly because it’s not gameplay that’s broken by bugs; it’s just a dreadfully dull mixture of cover and shoot—that you don’t get to do that often—and detective sections.
For the majority of L.A. Noire, you’re driving around town, interviewing suspects, and examining clues to solve cases. And for about three or four hours I was hooked. I absolutely loved driving around and beholding a meticulously recreated 40s Los Angeles, and the first hoodlum I took down with a gunshot through the eye did raise my blood pressure, but after that point the game was just one big serving of tedious monotony. Despite the GTA sandbox, you couldn’t go on a rampage or even do much of anything. The protagonist is a douchebag (as are his partners) and the two overarching storylines that dominate the second half of the game don’t particularly do anything to pull you in. I kept playing on until I was about three missions from the end just to see if the game ever got better, but—like any Philip Roth novel afterSabbath’s Theater—it remained mediocre at best. Later on I watched YouTube videos of where I stopped playing just to satisfy my curiosity only to shrug my shoulders at the ending and be thankful I hadn’t wasted the hours playing the game to get to that point. In fact, I think that if I had watched the entire game being played before me, I would have enjoyed it a great deal more.
In this instance, Jaffe is absolutely right: L.A. Noire is a game stunted by its commitment to storytelling and cinematic conventions, and the sad thing is that it didn’t have to be. Even the most hardcore film fanatic would probably grow weary of L.A. Noire’s lackluster gameplay. If the game had just given its players a little more to do—I mean, the sandbox engine of the game cries out for it for Pete’s sake—or even a little choice in Cole’s character development, it could have been a great game. But ultimately Team Bondi forgot that they were designing a piece of entertainment for gamers.
And the sad thing is that it doesn’t have to be that way, and it isn’t most of the time. I’ve already mentioned Uncharted and Mass Effect, so let’s talk about another game that gets combining cinematic storytelling with gameplay just right: Heavy Rain. Now, before you pick up those rocks and stone me while shouting “He loves Quick Time Events! Kill him!”…hear me out. Heavy Rain, released a year before L.A. Noire, succeeds where Noire fails because Quantic Dreams didn’t forget they were ultimately creating a game. Heavy Rain is full blooded game that emulates a “catch the serial killer” sub-genre of crime drama films.
How the hell is that different from L.A. Noire emulating a noir movie?
Namely the difference comes in that Noire emulation is so good that it becomes a movie—and a bad video game. Heavy Rain, despite what the first hour or two will lead you to believe, never forgets it’s a video game because it gives the player(a) plenty of gameplay and (b) choices that matter. Granted,Heavy Rain’s gameplay consists of investigating environments—in a manner not unlike Noire, actually—and scripted Quick Time Events…but here’s the thing: there’s a lot of gameplay and the majority of it is fun. Noire’s uninspired shoot and cover mechanics, which should serve as breaks from the investigation sequences that become boring so quickly, are few and far between. Heavy Rain also makes you feel like your choices matter. In Noire, if you screw up a case—oh well. You suffer a minor disappointment and the game goes on, and Cole remains an uptight dick no matter what choices you make during a case. In Heavy Rain, you make the wrong choice and one of your characters dies, and the game goes on. Nearly every choice matters and there are 22 different endings. Every playthrough has the chance to be an almost completely new experience. You can play Noire a second time and perform better on cases that you bombed on the first try, but the story remains the same.
Okay, so maybe Jaffe isn’t as crazy as he sounds: an overzealous commitment can in fact stunt the quality of a video game, as evident by L.A. Noire. However, I think that saying storytelling can stunt the growth of games as a whole is a bit overboard. For one thing, creating a digital movie under the guise of a video game isn’t profitable; Team Bondi reportedly sank because of financial debt accrued duringL.A. Noire’s development and the fact they couldn’t sign on to another project quick enough. So, let’s be serious here: when was the last time the game industry as a whole was concerned with artistry over, say, making money? How about never? That’s right, friends. It seems that the greedy game companies such as EA and Activision that we often find ourselves criticizing for releasing insipid, uninspired games have inadvertently come to the rescue and saved us from Jaffe’s forecast of a market filled with boring, pretentious art house video games.