When I heard that the 2011 detective game L.A. Noire was getting remastered for current consoles, my first thought was, “Oh, cool! That was an interesting game.” Then I remembered that L.A. Noire was a very weird game, and one I didn’t even like back when I first played it.
A thousand years ago in 2011, I reviewed L.A. Noire for the outlet Kill Screen. I found the game profoundly odd. It felt like I was starring in a Twilight Zone episode, where the twist at the end reveals that the protagonist was trapped in purgatory the whole time. (Note: that does not actually happen in L.A. Noire.)
Here’s what I wrote at the time:
As I ambled exhaustedly along, I decided that L.A. Noire is not a detective story at all. It is a parable about death and purgatory, a story of forgiveness. A man named Phelps went to war. He had his share of flaws, and in the midst of battle he made some bad decisions. Those decisions had repercussions that no one could have anticipated. Some of them were terrible, but then, war is terrible.
Phelps died at Okinawa, and his soul became lost. He couldn’t move on until he found his own justice, acted out his part in a morality play born of his own cowardice and insecurity. So now he wanders a half-remembered vision of his home city, playing detective, solving cases over which he has no real control.
Cole Phelps is not looking for criminals; he is looking for absolution. He must make peace with his failings before he can finally let them go, and this gauzy straitjacket of a city will not let him rest until he has done so. L.A. Noire asks not for players’ help or guidance in this matter; it asks only if they would like to tag along.
Nowadays when I think about L.A. Noire, I think about that killer soundtrack. I think about those men in their fedoras, out solving crimes. My memory probably mixes in some scenes from L.A. Confidential. Then I stop myself and really think about it, and I remember the strangely empty…