Once upon a time I wrote an earnest article about how games and stories could never be mixed. It seemed to me then, and it still seems to me now, that every time we try and combine games and stories to make something new – an adventure game or interactive cinema or whatever we decide to call it – it doesn’t work. We end up with a hybrid monster, neither fish nor fowl. We end up with a chimera.
And yet, deep down, I’ve secretly hoped to be proven wrong. The dream of combining the best bits of storytelling with the best bits of gameplay is a beguiling one. Finally this year, with the release of LA Noire, it looked like it was going to happen.
Steve Brooks in his Guardian review wrote that “the games industry has dreamed of creating one thing above all else – a game that is indistinguishable from a film, except that you can control the lead character. With LA Noire, it just might, finally, have found the embodiment of that particular holy grail.” He gave it five stars out of five. He really really liked it.
And he wasn’t alone. Gamer magazines and websites have been universally positive about LA Noire. It’s an ambitious piece of work which pushes video game technology in exciting new directions – above all with a new way of capturing facial expressions called MotionScan which lets the game designers incorporate the subtleties of non-verbal communication into the gameplay itself.
Over four million copies have been shifted so far so it’s with some trepidation that I write these words. LA Noire doesn’t work. It doesn’t work as a film, period. It almost works as a game – but it’s trying so hard to look like a film it forgets how to be a decent game. LA Noire is another chimera in a long line of chimeras, a hybrid she-monster with the head of a lion, the body of a goat and the tail of a snake.
Why is it so hard to mix games and stories? The technical reason (bear with me) is to do with the way we reference time. It’s the difference between ‘story’ time – the time which passes in a story – and ‘discourse’ time – the time it takes to tell a story. The time that it takes to ‘tell’ a story isn’t the same as the time that ‘passes’ in a story.
But in a game they are the same thing. Discourse time is story time. A game is a story unfolding in real time. A game puts us inside story time, whereas narrative keeps us on the outside, in discourse time. Maybe the best way to think about this is in the different way that stories and games end. In a story the ending has already happened. In a game it hasn’t.
We’ve all experienced the strange sensation caused by transitioning from the opening sequence of a game to the game itself and jumping from one kind of time reference to the other. It’s always a bit of a jolt, always kind of weird. Exactly the kind of weirdness I feel when playing LA Noire.
Let me give you an example. Somewhere near the beginning you go and interview a witness in a Hollywood prop store. You leave your partner with the witness and have a snoop around the rest of the back lot. If you’re smart, you find lots of clues and a scary little hidden room which looks like it’s been used to keep someone locked up. You work out that a film producer has been using the prop store to sexually exploit underage actresses and that the witness – the prop store manager – must be in on it. So you head back to confront him. Then you get lost and stumble around for ages, or at least I did. Finally, nearly 30 minutes later you find your way back to your partner and the witness and you find something extraordinary. They are standing exactly where you left them, looking at each other, not speaking. How can this be? Have they really been standing together silently for 30 minutes while you’ve been outside hunting for clues?
The thing is, the time they’re in isn’t the same time as the time you’re in. You’re in a game, but they’re characters in a story, and they’re waiting for the game to catch up. It feels odd.
Then there’s the MotionScan technology. It’s life-like, but it’s not perfectly life-like. It’s just life-like enough to drop your character right in the middle of the uncanny valley, that place somewhere between ‘cute’ and ‘real’ where zombies live.
There’s an uncanny quality to the gameplay, too. When you drive to a crime scene across a beautifully rendered 1940s Los Angeles, you can, if you want, drive like a total maniac, causing complete mayhem, crashing head-on into oncoming traffic, scattering pedestrians on the pavement, knocking down lampposts. And nobody reacts, nothing bad happens to you, apart from the loss of a few points. Once again, it feels weird – unheimlich, even.
Don’t get me wrong: I admire LA Noire. I think it’s an enormous achievement and playing it has been a fascinating experience, but deep down it’s an old skool adventure game with superior graphics. And I’m still waiting for someone to prove that interactive fiction doesn’t have to be a chimera.
Andy Cameron is interactive creative director at Wieden + Kennedy London