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la-noire-phelps

Cole Phelps: super-cop and part-time tour guide.

Despite learning some interesting facts about life in 1940s Los Angeles, such as no men were ever murdered, and most murder suspects had tiny feet, the meat of Rockstar games’ police-em-up, LA NOIRE is in its interrogation scenes. A bit like how the first 30 minutes of the A-Team were contrived to lock them in a garage with some watermelons and a combine harvester, each section in LA NOIRE is designed to get you in a darkened room with a semi-recognisable actor.

There’s not much to be said for the rest of it; the virtual recreation of LA makes for a glossy and beautiful locale to explore, but it’s really something of an empty shell (there’s probably an interesting point to be explored here, but it requires someone on a higher rung of the intellectual ladder to make it, so unless they drop something, I’ll move on). In fact the world on display is so lifeless that it only really serves to undermine the steps LA NOIRE takes in presenting itself as serious adult entertainment.

For example, Detective Cole Phelp’s leisure time appears to involve stealing cars and taking himself on a sightseeing tour of the city – earning ‘Detective Points’ for driving past notable landmarks. Similarly, a frantic chase after a suspect can often result in quite a large fine if you happen to run over several innocent citizens. Non-player character lines are repeated to such an extent that it feels like you’re in a virtual recreation of Groundhog Day, as opposed to Chinatown.

It’s clear that the interrogations are where the developers put most of their resources, something that’s all but confirmed by the pre-release hype. And while the facial animations are undeniably impressive, the biggest disappointment is in the performances themselves – which is perhaps a backhanded compliment to the strides LA NOIRE takes to bring itself in-line with cinematic entertainment. The problem is that the competent performances take a back seat to the game mechanic, which requires pantomime levels of subtlety and nuance to enable the player to ‘read’ the characters.

Take a look…

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You’re engaged in an interrogation with someone who was in the pilot of Lost but found more success in the series Heroes, before it became crap.  You’re listening to what he has to say but, like most people in LA NOIRE, he’s already run away from you, his tiny feet propelling him down narrow alleys like a plaid-clad gazelle. You check your notebook for contradictory evidence and then he pulls this shit on you…

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Now, is he telling the truth? Judging from his expression you think ‘probably’, but the next question prompts this expression…

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For some reason you suspect he’s lying but where’s the evidence, Detective? Time for another question…

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BAM! You have the evidence that the game requires you to use. Welcome to jail, ‘scheisse-vogel’.

/Mild trolling.

It’s not a complete game breaker but the facial animations are about as subtle as a hippo driving a flaming steamroller into a fireworks factory. As mentioned, it may be to the game’s credit that the biggest flaws are more to do with the direction of its performances than any kind of game mechanic (the repetitive ‘wash, rinse repeat’ detective work may be a flaw, but perhaps that’s what police work is actually like?) but it’s disappointing to find out you’re engaging in an experience that’s more like Brian DePalma’s take on The Black Dahlia than Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of LA Confidential. The earlier Heavy Rain may have been more like a top-shelf erotic thriller, but it took bolder steps and the pay-off was a game and narrative that was infinitely more engaging and surprising.

It’s possible for games to tell more mature and engaging stories without the need to slavishly follow a template established by other media. Red Dead Redemption is a pretty good example: it told an engaging tale while embracing the fact it was a videogame and did so without hampering the players’ ability to plough their own furrow. Perhaps if LA NOIRE didn’t run away from its true nature – like a TV actor sprinting down a back alley – we would have seen something truly special. It’s a surprising step backwards from Rockstar games, so let’s hope the recently announced GTA V take two-steps forward. Their track record should be more than enough to keep virtual notebooks in pockets.

super-8

But there are only 4 of them!

The following contains minor spoilers for Super 8.

Aliens are the new zombies. That’s not to suggest that there’s necessarily anything new about them (doubly so when it comes to Super 8, but we’ll get to that). But they seem to be the latest genre staple to get a shot in the arm since everyman and his dog, and Brad Pitt appear to be making films about the un-dead. And as with zombies, we’re seeing the charge from innovative filmmakers making the most of reduced budgets and summer blockbusters following behind with less offensive fare.

Super 8 slavishly follows the Spielberg template to such an extent that you can’t help but wonder if the Berg received the script and thought that someone was taking the piss. Then again, maybe he moved offices and forgot to tell anyone? Although he put his name to Transformers, so maybe he really doesn’t care. Either way, the film’s Spielberg-ness, which is undoubtedly the film’s strength – at least from a marketing perspective, and probably the reason it was made in the first place, is also its major weakness.

The basic premise of Super 8 – beyond the fairly innocuous storyline about a bunch of kids making a film – that a giant alien is going around a small town robbing cars and eating people doesn’t really gel with the formula established in Close Encounters and ET. Sure, each of those films had its darker aspects, with Richard Dreyfuss undergoing a mental breakdown and Elliott’s broken family, respectively, but as dark as they got, neither film featured the aliens abducting and eating their family members. This wouldn’t be a problem in itself but the fact the lead character is supposed to develop a sympathetic bond with the creature, which causes his eventual emotional catharsis, seems illogical at best, and pretty silly at worst.

In fact, with these conflicting aspects you can’t help but wonder who the film is made for. If the aim was the make it for today’s kids then why didn’t they set it in the present? The fact they’d probably end up making an alien happy-slapping film on their smart-phones notwithstanding. The real clue is in the title; if it were made for kids it wouldn’t it be called something else? Something that doesn’t raise questions like ‘when did the other 7 come out?’ or ‘where were all the superheroes?’

It’s telling that JJ Abrams decided to call the film Super 8. As mentioned, the story of children making their own zombie film on a super 8 camera really doesn’t have much relevance to the film’s plot. In fact it’s clearly more important to JJ Abrams on a personal level than it is in service to the script he wrote. In many ways this makes Super 8 is a really expensive fan film, with Abrams attempting an Amblin-era Spielberg film that features his own hallmarks: lens-flare, an alien that looks like a giant crab monster sucking lemons and a now-tokenistic marketing campaign that drip-feeds information to create mystery.

The recent Attack the Block seems like the next logical step from the Amblin films of yesteryear, and I argue is far more worthy of picking up the mantle. Sure, on surface level, the tale of a bunch of chavs fighting some hairy wolf-gorilla aliens bears little relation to most things, especially ET and its ilk. But, like ET, it’s also an examination of contemporary family dynamics and how they are impacted by the arrival of visitors from space. It just so happens that for many the modern family is so broken that kids are raising themselves.

Despite a fairly unique premise, Attack the Block is definitely beholden to the films of yesterday; it just knows how to tip its baseball cap without drowning in a pool of nostalgia. It looks backward but moves things forward. And is all the better for it.