LA Noire

I’m playing LA Noire at the moment, and it’s just starting to grow on me. As usual with me — particularly in a game with a lot of controls to remember, like this one — the main barrier to my enjoying it is that I’m still getting use to which button does what, which means that, even though I’ve been promoted from uniformed cop to traffic to homicide (“This is the big time, Phelps!”), I’m still a danger to the good citizens of LA while simply driving at low speeds from location to location (and a lot of this game involves covering the eight square miles of 1940’s LA streets that makes for its backdrop), let alone when giving high-speed chase. And when faced with a genuine armed perp, I’m as likely to jump out from behind cover and start frantically re-loading my fully loaded gun as I am to actually shoot the guy. (So far, all the gun-wielding perps have been guys, but there have been some pretty shady dames…) The thing is, there’s always a few controls you get used to more quickly than others — moving around, picking up objects to examine them for their clue-potential — while others, usually the more emergency-oriented ones, like taking cover when being fired at, or blocking a punch, or applying the brakes in a moving vehicle(!), you only need to use in situations of dire emergency, so you don’t get used to them till you really need them. But that’s just me. I’ve never been a power gamer and never will be. As I’ve said before, what I play games for are immersive stories.

LA Noire‘s big selling point is its “revolutionary new facial animation technology”, by which actors’ expressions have been used to program the reactions of suspects to the questions you fire at them, and you then have to use their body language (alongside the evidence you’ve gathered) to judge whether they’re telling the truth. So far it’s not been too difficult. If, after answering a question, the suspect looks you in the eye with a relatively placid expression, they’re telling the truth, but if they immediately start looking at anything but you, they’re lying. (Though I did upset a female clerk in a shoe shop by calling her a liar when she was probably just upset her boss was lying in a bloody pool on the pavement outside.) The thing is, they keep doing their reaction while the game waits for you to make your choice of truth, doubt, or lie, so it’s not like you’re checking for telltale micro-expressions. What this aspect of the game hangs on is the realism of the faces, and I’m happy to say that I find the faces believable enough to react to as faces, rather than the weird things you found looking back at you in games from only a few years ago (those starey bubble eyes in Oblivion always made me a bit uncomfortable).

So far, LA Noire has been pretty forgiving of my kack-handed way with the controls. I haven’t been kicked off the force for the not inconsiderable amount of injuries to pedestrians and car prangs I’ve caused while heading to the next location. Also, if you fail an action sequence (such as a chase, car-tail or shoot-out) three times, you’re given the option to skip it at no game-cost. So far, I’ve only skipped one, and that was accidental because, the first time I was given the option to skip it, I didn’t read the message properly. (One annoying thing about all these lush new immersive games coming out at the moment is they really need you to have a big, preferably HD, TV. On my old CRT one, the tiny text is often near-indecipherable. I’m beginning to feel a bit technologically outmoded.)

It’s got me thinking about interactive stories, though. There are two ways interactivity can add to your enjoyment of a story. One is that, through your actions, you can change the outcome, and that’s usually seen as the holy grail of interactive storytelling. The other is that, because you get the chance to explore and examine the environment at your own pace and in your own way, you really feel as though you’ve stepped into the game world, and so feel much more involved in whatever story you’re being guided through. And really, it’s the latter I prefer. As far as the former is concerned, I think a story has a pretty fixed structure, otherwise it just doesn’t work. Influencing the outcome is okay for minor changes, but usually there’s one correct way through a story, and you either hit that or you fail. I’ve never really been fussed by that sort of game, anyway. (Perhaps because I’m not much of a re-player.)

LA Noire — so far at least — has been pretty well structured in terms of its stories. After all, these are crimes that have been committed and there’s only one correct way to see them through, which is to arrest (or kill) the criminal responsible. (I’m not sure at this early stage if it’s possible to arrest the wrong person, yet. But certainly there are a few shady characters who don’t get arrested, even if you feel they should.) It would be nice if the investigations themselves were a bit more free-form — at the moment, you’re pretty much guided to each succeeding location or suspect till you’ve gathered all the necessary evidence, but I’ve a feeling things will be getting more complicated as the game progresses. (Hopefully, I’ll have figured out the difference between the punch and drop-your-guard buttons by then.)

And, of course, it’s the setting which is a big part of the fun of playing LA Noire. LA in full, sunny colour isn’t really a very noire-ish place (you can play the game in black and white if you want, but what you really need are stark shadows and shady personalities, and they’ll come through equally well in colour or mono), but the cynicism is certainly there. It’s an immersive world of forties slang, seen-it-all-before detectives, glamorous broads and drunk no-hopers, sleazy bars and cheap hotels, fading starlets, dodgy vice squad officers, drugs, blood (a lot of blood), corpses, fast-talking wise guys, strong-arm dumb gangsters, dodgy psychiatrists and an awful, awful lot of waiting at goddamned never-changing red traffic lights.

Trouble is, I’m just too honest a cop to use my siren except when it’s a real emergency. But as soon as I do, you get to see mailboxes, street lamps, and even innocent pedestrians fly!

BioShock 1 & 2

I play one or two video games a year, partly because I don’t spend many hours per week playing them, and partly because my tastes (and gaming abilities) seem to be different enough from the marketplace in general that I can’t find many I know I’m going to enjoy. (And also, of course, because they’re expensive, which puts me off too much experimentation.) I like, above all, games which tell stories — and I don’t just mean those which have a cutscene or two to explain why we’re moving from level one to level two, but games with some sort of genuine emotional content. Failing that, games which allow me to explore an atmospheric environment. Among the former, I’d place the Myst series (particularly Myst III), Final Fantasy VIII, and Ico; among the latter, the early Tomb Raider games. (I haven’t finished any of the more recent Tomb Raider offerings, but the first five are among the few I’ve played twice, all the way through.)

BioShock 2, which I finished recently, sits sort of halfway between.

The BioShock games take place in the city of Rapture, built in the 1950s by plutocrat Andrew Ryan, whose idea was to create a place in which people could live without government interference — specifically, without the government placing any limits on what profit-hungry businessmen and knowledge-hungry scientists could get up to. And as the only place to build such a city is the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, that’s where he builds it: a magnificent Art Deco temple to consumerism, leisure, and wild genetic experimentation. In its later, semi-ruined state, it makes a wonderfully weird game environment.

Ryan’s ideals are based on those of the writer Ayn Rand. What little I know about Rand comes from my one attempt at reading her brick of a book, Atlas Shrugged, which seemed to be mostly about self-indulgent industrialists moaning at how labour laws interfere with their profit margins. Rand believed governments shouldn’t get in the way of business tycoons by imposing such things as minimum wages and worker’s rights. Life, for Rand, was meant to be a fight for survival in which the strong impose their will on the weak as much as their strength allows. Rapture was conceived of as the living example of her ideals, but it quickly descends into chaos, and by the time you visit it as an outsider in the first BioShock game, it’s nothing but a once-beautiful ruin populated by deranged, feral “gene splicers”, and a handful of holed-in entrepreneurs clinging to their failed ideals.

But the core story of BioShock is about rescuing innocence. Fifties America, from which the games get so much of their look and feel, was one of the last modern eras to have a culturally-accepted idea of innocence. It was an era that allowed itself to believe in simple ideals. This tends to be seen, nowadays, as a veneer over the decade’s intolerance and repression — as typified by the image of the housewife going quietly insane trying to live up to advertisers’ ideals of perfection, or the awful race riots in the country at the time — and anyway it was all put paid to by a combination of Senator McCarthy’s paranoia, the fear of atomic war, the disaster of Vietnam, and the assassination of JFK, among other things. By the sixties, the belief in innocence was relegated to the hippie counterculture, and then was pretty much laughed out of court. Since then, cynicism has become the cultural norm, to the point that it’s often referred to as realism.

The ruined Art Deco beauty of the city of Rapture is ruined innocence in concrete, glass and formica. But it’s the figures of the Little Sisters who are the real focal point. The Little Sisters are little girls, dressed to the girliest in Alice bows and petticoated dresses, but who have evilly glowing eyes and go around draining corpses of the gene-modifying substance known as “Adam” with monstrous syringes. In this, they’re accompanied by their protectors, the Big Daddies — dumb, lumbering giants looking like old-fashioned deep sea divers, who tramp obediently after their charges and attack anyone who gets too near. But the Little Sisters are in fact real little girls — orphans, as if the screw needed a further turn — who’ve been genetically altered by Rapture’s scientists to harvest Adam. The story of both BioShock 1 & 2 is ultimately about freeing these little girls from the tyranny of Rapture, and returning them to being innocent children once more.

BioShock allows its players to make a few moral choices. You need to capture Little Sisters to get supplies of Adam, for instance, but having captured them, you can choose to rescue them, or harvest them (which gets you more Adam, but kills the girl). I, being an awful softie, just couldn’t harvest them, even to find out how it alters the game’s outcome.

Other than that, BioShock is basically a shoot-em-up. The story part progresses mostly through taped journals from a variety of characters you find throughout the game, but the gameplay generally consists of collecting a wide variety of ammo and blasting the hell out of gene-splicers and Big Daddies.

Which was fun.

As a game, I found both BioShock 1 and 2 to be wonderfully playable, and though the story never quite reached the heights of the games that really involved me in their characters (Final Fantasy VIII, Myst III), it at least had some thought-provoking ideas behind it. Games achieve their effects in a different way from films and books; the major factor is the time you spend in the game’s world, doing the same sort of action (exploring, puzzle-solving, fighting) over and over again. It’s in this area that the real meaning of a game comes out, not in the cut-scenes. And it’s in this area — the gameplay — that BioShock works best.

Nice to know there’s a bit of artistry as well as mere commercialism in games, still.

The Doctor Who Adventure Game – City of the Daleks

How long have I waited for this? A Doctor Who adventure game? At least since my own (entirely unauthorised) efforts many years back, in which all I managed to do was get a 2-character-high Dalek to chase a 2-character-high TARDIS (why the TARDIS was moving, I don’t know) across my TV screen, zapping it as it went, with smooth sprite scrolling (feat enough, for me, in them days), all thanks to an overheated ZX Spectrum.

I can’t think of many fictional worlds I like enough to want to play in a game, but which wouldn’t be ruined by being made into a game. Mythago Wood the adventure game? No! A Fafhrd & Grey Mouser hack’n’slay? No! An Earthsea rpg? Definitely not! Alien, perhaps — I remember being terrified by an Alien patch for DOOM!, something that didn’t quite translate when I got some friends to play it. And Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, definitely, but although it has been adapted into several games, none of them so far has got anywhere near recreating the atmosphere of the stories. But Doctor Who’s format is perfect for gaming. And what’s more, the BBC have released the thing for free! (Or for the price of the license fee, of course.) And for the Mac! And when I’ve got a week off work! How could Heaven and Earth get any closer? (Well, for me, it would be to play a Doctor Who game with Tom Baker as the Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith as the companion, and Robert Holmes as the scriptwriter, but I’m pretty sure I’ll have to wait for the Rapture for that particular beatitude.)

City of the Daleks is the first episode of the Doctor Who Adventure Game. It starts with a trip to 1960s Earth, only to find Trafalgar Square in ruins, and the last surviving member of the human race battling it out against a host of Daleks. From there, we move, in Act Two (the episode has three acts) to Skaro to find out what’s gone wrong with the timestream that has allowed the Daleks to wipe out the human race before Amy has even been born.

I think it’s crucial that any game adaptation sticks to the feel of the original, and the Doctor Who Adventure Game certainly does that. For a start — thankfully — the Doctor isn’t equipped with a Dalek-busting BFG9000, but has to defeat his age-old enemies with only his wits and his trusty, do-anything sonic screwdriver. (And, in keeping with the feel of the current series, a total disregard for narrative believability. It may seem narrow-minded to accuse a show that’s based on the premise of a centuries-old, ten-times regenerated man time-travelling around the universe in a battered old police box of lacking believability, but I think once you’ve believed that many impossible things before breakfast, it helps for the actual plot to be a bit more down-to-earth. Not that I’m saying the Tom Baker era never sinned in this direction — destroying a Rutan spaceship with an improvised laser made with a lighthouse and a ruby isn’t exactly convincing either. But the best stories — Genesis of the Daleks, for instance — got their power from the plot not hanging on the Doctor improvising himself out of some impossible situation, but by having a bloody good story to start with. Now, back to the main programme.)

So, a lot of the action is just the sort I like in a game — sneaking round Daleks (who are all thankfully short-sighted and deaf), solving mini-puzzles (such as Tetris-like code-cracking in the Dalek city), finding objects and putting them together to make other objects, and making decisions. And the controls are very simple, too, which is always a bonus, particularly in a short game like this. (I’m also, at this moment, playing DragonAge: Origins, on the XBox. I’ve been playing it for about three weeks now, and still flounder around manically whenever I enter combat.) And there’s only one time-limited sequence, so while I did do some panicky running right into the path of a Dalek gun, I at least didn’t do it all the way through the game.

This is one thing I’ll say was definitely good about the game — it was well-paced, building up in tension as it moved towards the end. The puzzles got slightly more difficult, and the action slightly more intense as the game went on — not too much, so that cack-handed Sunday gamers like me don’t feel out of their depth, but not too little, either, so it felt like I’d accomplished something in finishing the game.

Also, the game was quite short. It’d probably take a game-savvy player about the same length of time to play as it would to watch one of the current series’ episodes. Me, I took a bit longer, not just because of running into the path of shooting Daleks, but because the damn thing crashed — just hung, in fact — four times, meaning I had to restart my computer to keep playing. More than a little annoying, but fortunately the game’s frequent auto-save meant I was never too far from where I’d left off. (There was one other annoyance, when a video that was supposed to show on a Dalek console just came up as a white band. The Doctor and Amy’s comments were enough to let me know I should have been seeing a wave of Daleks arriving on the planet; all I saw was fuzz.)

But overall, it was fun, and it did the main thing, which was let me feel I was participating in the Doctor Who universe for a little while. I’m certainly going to play the next episode, which looks like it’s going to feature Cybermen.

I wonder how long it’ll be before someone comes up with a Tom Baker patch?