From Rockstars to Sleuths: Has 3D Game Storytelling Matured?

Have gaming and interactive storytelling finally matured to a new level? This is the impression I’m left with after reading reviews and watching clips from Rockstar/Team Bondi’s impressive new game, “L.A. Noire”.

Granted, I’m no gamer. Hell, I’m practically a neophyte. In the last year, I’ve probably spent more time playing Bejewelled and Angry Birds on my Palm Pre than I have playing any 3D first-person shooter on any platform in the past ten years. Remember Doom, Jedi Knight? I played those a fair bit, back in the nineties. I also spent hours exploring Second Life. That’s about as immersed as I ever got. Good times, but a bit meager compared to active gamers, but that’s pretty much my gamer cred.

Convergence of Pulp Fiction, Cinema and Gaming

Seeing a game that looks like a cross between an animated Raymond Chandler novel and the movie L.A. Confidential really piqued my curiosity. I think that the nature of the content – the hard-boiled detective genre and the quality of presentation – is what has drawn my attention to L.A. Noire. I love social realist authors like John Steinbeck and I’ve been reading classic hard-boiled detective fiction for years too.

From golden-age masters like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and cold-war veterans like Ian Fleming, John D. McDonald, and John LeCarre, through to modern crime writers like Elmore Leonard and Ian Rankin – the crime fiction genre is still alive and well in the written word. TV has, of course, made it even more prevalent. Is there anyone in the western world who hasn’t watched an episode of “Law and Order” on TV by now? I doubt it.

I’m probably the new audience that the game creators were hoping to attract, along with the folks who already play 3D games. I think that L.A. Noire is definitely a “crossover” game – an attempt to draw readers and cinema-goers into gaming. From a marketing perspective, the ads I’ve seen for L.A. Noire definitely emphasize the action-adventure aspect, showing lots of gun-play and violence, obviously aimed at existing gamers who are still at the core of its potential market.

However, the “How-to” videos I’ve seen of L.A. Noire remind me of the behind-the-scenes extras you’d get on a special edition DVD of your favourite movie. Here, production values, innovation and name-brand performers are all promoted and explained, which adds a new level of credibility. Overall, L.A. Noire and its marketing and promotion seem to have a very strong cinematic feel.

A More Mature Approach?

If 3D gaming were a coin with GTA on one side, Noire could be the other side, opposite in goals and attitude. In Noire, you play a cop fighting corruption and lawlessness, instead of embracing it as in GTA. The major emphasis of Noire seems to be on strategy, deduction, and observation, and not just action, although it still has a good deal of that. The soundtrack is different too, made up of period jazz and swing music that probably wouldn’t appeal to many younger gamers. Overall, it feels like this is a gaming experience that was designed as a cinematic period piece, for a more patient, mature audience.

From the promo clips and walk-throughs that I’ve seen so far, there also seems to be a higher-level of artistic maturity and (IMHO) name-brand performance involved in L.A. Noire than in previous Rockstar games, like GTA. (Set me straight if I’m wrong about that, GTA players. You know better than me.)

The creators of L.A. Noire say that the ability to use your emotional intelligence is a major factor in succeeding in this game. Because of the effectiveness with which characters in L.A. Noire portray realistic facial expressions and body motion, you can actually decide if a character is lying to you or is telling the truth based upon their facial ticks, dodgy eyes, or body language.

Aren’t these all emotional intelligence and empathetic skills? I remember reading about how the military would use 3D gaming platforms to develop combat training scenarios for young soldiers? Are sensitivity, social skills and good judgement now the skills that gamers will require to win? Can games now help a gamer develop those skills? I find that possibility totally fascinating.

Similar to how comic books shrugged off their childish associations from the 1940s to evolve into complex, challenging graphic novels written for a college crowd, 3D gaming may be evolving closer to cinema. At least in the case of  L.A. Noire, 3D gaming seems to be growing up.

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