Touching Death in L.A. Noire

By Gus Mastrapa in Pretension +1
Friday, June 3, 2011 at 9:00 am
I'm terrified of death. Maybe "terrified" isn't the best word. I try not to live in fear, but my mortality hangs over me, just in the periphery of my vision. The funny thing is that video games -- as violent and filled with destruction as they are -- never seem to remind me of my impending doom. They're one of the distractions. They're one of the things that makes me forget for a moment that everything eventually ends. 

I'm not entirely sure that's a good thing. Other forms of art frequently force me to pause and consider my inevitable fate. But games so often gloss over death. Corpses fade into nothingness. Lives end without so much as a tear. Even the demise of Aeris in Final Fantasy VII left me cold. I just didn't feel the connection.

L.A. Noire is the first game I've played in ages that has made me truly feel the gut-punch of death. And I wonder if I'll ever be able to look at games the same way.

At first I played L.A. Noire with the arms-length distance of Cole Phelps. I treated cases with the cool professionalism of a detective in a police procedural. I examined corpses, scoured crime scenes for clues and worked over suspects until they spilled the beans.

But when I first encountered the potential handiwork of the Black Dahlia all that changed. Like others have observed the crime scenes you encounter during these cases are quite disturbing. The bodies of the female victims are naked and bloody, resting in the grass or under the shade of a pepper tree. When Phelps examines the corpse he doesn't just squat over the body -- he straddles them. They're intimate moments the like of which you never see in games. Games have done sex for better or for worse. But this is something entirely different.

There's something profoundly sad about the way the women's faces look when Phelps tenderly grabs them by the face and angles their heads for a better look at their injuries. Phelps may be a hard-ass and a stickler for the rule of law. But I read a kind of tenderness in these examinations. A kind of respect.


Games like Gears of War 3, for example, represent the other end of the spectrum. When playing the beta this spring I remember being amazed by the game's over-the-top executions. There's one where your character straddles the enemy and punches him in the face over and over and over again. I imagine one game designer at Epic asking another, "Do you think this goes on too long?" To which the other replies, "Add one more punch and you're good to go."

I'm so used to seeing rag-doll bodies tossed around like toys. And seeing them broken into bloody gibs and kicked around the floor like so much litter. L.A. Noire more than dabbles in that kind of death. When I play Cole never turns down a call. And all of those patrol cases usually end with a gunfight and a call to Central for an ambulance. 

Midway through the case of The Golden Butterfly I meet the daughter of a victim. Michelle Moller is a clean-cut young girl with good posture and a serious face. It is Cole Phelps' job to tell her that her mother has died. Not surprisingly the girl bursts into tears upon hearing the news. It's a heavy moment -- one that feels genuine. The scene feels a million miles away from the triple-dotted ellipsis that once passed for introspective moments in the role-playing games of yore. Actress Abigail Mavity's performance is heartbreaking. I can read the pain on her face and I can hear it in her voice.

I'm not sure if I can go back now. I was one of the few who was able to suspend disbelief and feel a little bit of the agony that Dominic Santiago felt in Gears of War 2 when he was finally reunited with his wife. But that kind of limp puppetry doesn't feel like it will work any more. 

After the intimate, dare I say, mature treatment of death and its aftermath that I encountered in L.A. Noire games are going to have to do better from here out. I'm still going to be okay with the grand guignol gore of your average shooter. But if you want me to feel something you're going to have to live up to what Rockstar has accomplished here. And please, game-makers, make me feel something.

Pretension +1 is a weekly column by Gus Mastrapa that explores the cultural impact of video games, pausing only occasionally to kick hornets nests.

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