There are movies and television shows that I very much enjoy, but find very, very intense and this means that I have to take a break in the middle of them to engage with a purring cat or pace for 10 minutes or so before I can sit back down and get back into the (very engaging!) storyline.
Video games have this be somewhat less problematic for me. If the main villain gives a monologue in a movie before harming someone close to the protagonist, I have to go upstairs and get some ice cream. If it happens in a video game, I press X and get myself in position to kick some bee-you-tee-tee… that is, until I started playing LA Noire.
It’s a very different experience than other Rockstar games. In Red Dead Redemption, for example, you play The Outlaw John Marston. It’s fun to rob trains, get involved with the Mexican Revolution, herd cattle, and otherwise archetype it up. It’s a game about Manifest Destiny. It’s a game about the limitations of freedom. It’s a game about the caprice of frontier government. It’s a game about trying to make wrong things right.
Hell, in Grand Theft Auto IV, you play Nico Bellic. Eastern European (Croatian? Serb?) and looking to find the one who done him wrong… and, along the way, rob banks, spar with police, go out to dinner with your cousin Roman (maybe bowling!), and steal the occasional car. It’s a game about the futility of revenge. It’s a game about finding ecstacy in a world overflowing with existential dread. It’s a game about the importance of spending time with your family. It’s a game about how you don’t have to wait for the red light to change to go through the intersection.
LA Noire is different. For one thing, you’re Cole Phelps — a cop. Libertarian horror stories notwithstanding, the archetype does not really allow for the chaotic (even nihilistic) destruction of property the way that GTA IV and Red Dead practically demand. Sure, you *CAN* grab someone out of their car from the middle of the street and then crash it into a busy intersection… but it seems empty. The “real” story behind LA Noire does not involve a cop who does things like steal cars and then creates multi-car pileups. That’s something that you, the (a little bit jerky, to be honest) player is doing in opposition to the story the computer GM is trying to engage you with.
You know, even as you throw passers-by on the ground, that this version of events isn’t the real one. You get the feeling that the “real” Cole Phelps would have a problem with failing to use turn signals, let alone be cool with the idea of cars as missiles. On top of that constraint, you are a detective investigating crimes. So there is a victim (who has already been created) and someone who needs to be “brought to justice”… but justice is little more than a holding cell. You see the evidence (and, more often than not, the body) and go from there to throwing someone in the clink. The victim remains dead. The criminal remains the criminal. Nothing feels like it’s accomplished. As such, it’s a game about the limitations of civilization to maintain itself. A little bit of knowledge of the last 40ish years throws the contrast between “nowish” and “thenish” into stark relief.
Sure, you’re chasing the Black Dahlia killer… but, you know what? Dexter, Season Five, finished recently. The prurient interest in chasing serial killers has evolved into the joys of watching a serial killer have to juggle a job, a family, and his “hobby”. This removes the hope/joy to be found in the fantasy of making the city safer for everybody and Cole becomes little more than a Dutch boy with his finger in a dike. No, wait. That story had a happy ending. He becomes a Cassandra? No, that doesn’t work either. It’s like the Morgan Freeman character from Se7en playing the Brad Pitt character in the Se7en video game.
Which, may I add, ought not be seen as a complaint about the game. It’s not… not at all. I’m just explaining how a Rockstar Game as awesome as LA Noire has me put the controller down and me pacing the stress off rather than, say, blowing stuff up like you can in the other universes. It’s because the story is so good that you have no choice but to play your character so you both can see what is “really” going on.