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The Year In Game

Down these mean streets you yourself must go …

First, allow me to wish you a belated happy new year on behalf of the entire Chromed team. We’ll have regular updates in this space as production commences on March 32nd.

2011 will go down as a critical year in my personal evolution as a video game player, in that I finally bought a console and played a video game. The title that compelled me to make the leap was L.A. Noire. I was squarely in the demographic sweet spot for this hugely ambitious project, spent dozens of hours lost in its textured recreation of mid-20th century Los Angeles, and ended up writing multiple articles on it, including a game review for the Film Noir Foundation’s magazine and a noir review for Continue, a brand new gaming magazine. (The latter piece is now available in preview form.) In short, I liked it a lot.

The game couldn’t possibly live up to the fanfare trumpeting its fidelity to historical detail and its advances in motion capture technology. Still, I was surprised by how quickly L.A. Noire seemed to fall off the radar. It merited only a passing, somewhat negative (if accurate) mention on The AV Club’s list of 2011’s best games, and didn’t factor into Slant’s roster of the 25 best at all. (Seriously, Slant? There were 25 games better than L.A. Noire this year? Would it have placed in the top three dozen, at least?)

My gaming education didn’t stop there. After consulting with friends I dove headlong into the rest of Rockstar’s repertoire, buying Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption as well as the original Portal.

Number of these games I’ve played to completion: zero.

It’s not for lack of trying. I began with Portal and marveled at the game’s wit and the ingenuity of its puzzle design. Then I reached one level where I quickly sussed out what I needed to do to advance. The only problem: I couldn’t actually do it. I consulted playthroughs, confirmed that I was right, took copious notes and still couldn’t get the job done. I haven’t gone back to it in months. No doubt my Weighted Companion Cube wonders whatever became of me.

RDR was the one game I was told that I, as a huge fan of westerns, would adore. Herewith, my inner monologue as I played the game.

“Why did I ride out here again? What mission is this? Oh, right. I think I’m supposed to — COUGAR!”

End scene.

GTA IV was worse. I tossed my controller aside very early on when I realized that my mission was to take a deeply uninteresting NPC on a date — and that I had to learn to bowling in the process. I can now conclusively say that of all the activities that can be replicated on an Xbox controller, bowling should be fairly far down that list. Along with RDR’s horseshoes.

The problem that many players had with L.A. Noire — the tightly controlled storyline that kept pushing you relentlessly forward — was what I valued about the game. I liked knowing where I was supposed to go next, what case I was investigating. The sideline street crime quests provided welcome respite, but were just that: sidelines. Put me in a true open world where I could do whatever I wanted and I became impatient and then bored. If I’m going to drive around with the radio on or hang out in a bar, I’d rather do those things in real life with friends. In a game world, I’d prefer to spend my time hunting down the Black Dahlia’s killer.

Perils of being a late starter, I assumed. Then I read this Overthinking It piece following the release of the PC version of L.A. Noire and had my eyes opened. Aside from the author sharing my appreciation of the game’s vivid recreation of the methodical and occasionally plodding nature of police work, he also points out how L.A. Noire forced him to unlearn behaviors learned through years of game play.

One discovery I made playing L.A. Noire was this way of thinking had entrenched itself in my mind to a much greater degree than I ever thought possible — being forced to pick a right answer without trying all the options in a video game has become physically uncomfortable. I want to click on everything. I want to try every option.

Turns out I was looking at it backwards. I began with L.A. Noire, a game in many respects tailored to me in terms of setting, mechanics and tempo, and assumed that was how games were supposed to be. But if veteran gamers can appreciate what L.A. Noire does well and make adjustments, I can do likewise. After all, it should be easier for me. So at some point I’ll return to Red Dead Redemption, saddle up again and send John Marston back out into the badlands. It’ll give me something to do while waiting for “The Consul’s Car,” the one L.A. Noirecase I’ve never played, to come out on Xbox. Assuming that ever happens.

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