In the month or so since L.A. Noire has come out, I have read review after review proclaiming it to be a revolutionary game. I have heard this before. Reviewers call games genre-changers or “like nothing I’ve ever seen before” or innovative or even, if you’ll excuse the terrible pun, “game-changers”. I hear this yet again and I am once again disappointed in its usage and game reviewing as a whole. Let me be clear, L.A. Noire is not a bad game. They accomplished what they set out to do, but having completed the game (+/- a few somewhat repetitive side missions) I have seen very little to justify such accolades as mentioned above.
L.A. Noire is a detective game. The game is set in 1947 Los Angeles. The player starts as a patrol officer and progresses through several different crime desks and police stations. The 40s have become an overused setting of late, but I find this forgivable because of their lesser used character choice.
The gameplay is befitting of the game though again not necessarily revolutionary. The game employs an evidence system somewhat reminiscent of The Curse of Monkey Island in its simplicity. Basically, music cues the player that he is near evidence. Once selected, the player “examines” (rotates…) the evidence until the game informs him that this is relevant in some way. The player then questions people of interest at the given location. These interrogations are new for Rockstar because, while this studio has been one of the principle proponents of open-world gameplay, they have a tendency to not have a karmic aspect and/or not allow speech decisions. The player watches short cutscene introductions and must listen closely. At the end of the cutscene, the player must decide whether he believes the last statement to be truth, doubtful, or a lie which the player must support with evidence collected throughout the case. What results is a combination of Rockstar’s typical cinematic narrative style with a clue-based lie-detector minigame. If anything, this is revolutionary for Rockstar. I also do not consider a lie detector system to constitute real speech by itself.
I have heard one realistic claim to innovation that Rockstar could boast in this game. I read a review explain Rockstar’s new methods of voice and facial expression capturing. I will admit that the detail in faces and facial expressions was very skillful and with such a star-studded cast including John Noble of Lord of the Rings and more recently Fringe, it was nice to look at in-game characters and see detailed representations of their real-life counterparts. Character detail is nice. It adds to immersion, but detail alone does not make a game. I enjoyed L.A. Noire and I recommend trying it, but I ask that we all just take a moment to think about the real meanings of some of the words we use to describe games.
Game reviewing doesn’t really understand what it is or what it is supposed to be yet. Reviews have a tendency to focus on consumer advice. Pressure is added to this whenever the game is particularly hyped or coming out of certain studios. The problem with throwing around words like “revolutionary” and “innovative” is that they spread like wildfire. If one review uses them, all the others have to or their reviews will be buried under the oncoming tidal wave of hype. It is what it is, but, at the same time, it is bad policy especially for gamers that are on the fence looking for a real idea of what they would be buying into. In any case, this has been a refreshing comeback from a long absence of game-related writing and I invite any and all to comment as you will. I could use a good game discussion.
You are highlighting a couple of very interesting reviewing trends here. One is the tendency to automatically associated the “revolutionary” tag with the product of certain studios. For example, because Rockstar has produced a revolutionary game (no one would disagree with that, I think) in the past, everything it does now has the potential to be labeled “revolutionary.” Sometimes, however, this label gets applied to studios who have a track record of simply producing great games (of course, there is nothing “simple” about achieving that. Bioware springs to mind here.
But what you are pointing to here is a symptom of something more telling, I think: a general loss of perspective (if that perspective was ever really present) on the part of reviewers and many players alike. “Revolutionary” should be a label that is applied once in a gaming generation (i.e. every 18 months!) if at all. The fact that it is tossed around like. . .well, like the word “like”. . .in casual conversation indicates that something is seriously wrong with people’s assessment faculties.
This may be dues to a couple of different factors. First, there are so many games that are released that are simply not great. They are barely even adequate. In other words, the bar for tagging something “revolutionary” is already set pretty low (“Wow, there isn’t a five minute loading screen between levels. Revolutionary!”). Second, there are a lot of games out there that are very good but are not in any sense revolutionary. Yet players and reviewers seem unable to accept that that very good is good enough. I read a lot of books. Many of them are very good. Very few would be described as “revolutionary, ground-breaking, or game-changing.” And I’m OK with that. The fact that so many people are not OK with that in terms of games raises some troubling questions about the expectations baggage we are loading up on the industry as a whole and individual games in particular. Where did we get this expectation that every single experience needs to be life-transforming?
In the case of LA Noire, however, there may be something else going on. More than many recent games, I have heard and seen this one mentioned repeatedly in the mainstream media. In part this is due to the notoriety of the studio, in part it is due to the fact that it doesn’t seem to be a game calculated to achieve the the levels of infamy of the GTA series, in part it is due to the fact that the kind of graphical innovation that you highlight seems plays into the fixation on the part of gamers and non-gamers alike that good graphics equals good gameplay. So I see a lot of this talk of “revolution” as kind of a backhanded way of saying, “At last! Here is a game that everyone will finally take seriously! Mommy and Daddy will finally love and understand us!” They won’t of course. And the odds of them taking games and game reviews seriously are considerably lessened by tossing out the R word every five minutes.
IMVHO the problem is not one of game reviewing but of the overall deterioration in spoken and written English, where superlatives have lost all meaning. The common use of the F and C words is another example. If you use these words routinely, how do you express yourself when you are REALLY angry? A game reviewer dare not use the term ‘very good’ because the modern generation will automatically translate that to ‘poor’. Sad.