L.A Noire: Rockstar's bloody battering ram into the mainstream
14th Feb 2011 | 17:56
Back when I was a tween, I was never allowed to roam around the top-down, crime-ridden, 18-rated world of Grand Theft Auto. (It was so long ago, no-one had even coined the word "tween" for others to casually drop into the start of a column. Which was undoubtedly a good thing.)
Apparently, my parents didn't like the idea of me stealing police cars, committing localised Hare Krishna genocide or sexing hookers in the back of my car. The squares!
I did, however,have enough deviant friends - the sherbet snorters, the M&M poppers - to expose me to Rockstar's original GTA trilogy in my more tender years. That's right: stand-up parenting or not, T-Pizzle was no stranger to the middle-class, suburban ghetto. Ya feel?
Rockstar was one of the first industry names I became familiar with, not only because of the way GTA's taboo content made the iconic [R*] logo all the more memorable - particularly that of the no holds barred, 3D GTA III - but because of the media hoo-haa the company attracted then and ever since.
They never subscribed to the Daily Mail's "evil games!" shrieking - my career would have no doubt been somewhat different if they had - but my parents were by no means alone in their apprehension.
And who could blame them? Not only did Grand Theft Auto of the late '90s and the turn of the Millenium centre around ruthless gangland violence, it rewarded efficient mass-murder by singing "Kill Frenzy!" like a gameshow host and packing your pockets with extra cash.
Rockstar's blackened reputation amongst Middle England got worse before it got better. Have a flick through the publisher's back-catalogue and you'd think it was antagonising parents on purpose; Manhunt was graphic enough to be denied a sequel by the BBFC - plastic bag suffocations and all - and Bully, while nowhere near as horrific in tone, wore its colours on its sleeve and its mantra on its box.
(It might have been one of gaming's great in-jokes - that Bully actually placed you in the role of taking on the school agitators. But that didn't stop Rockstar changing its name to Canis Canem Edit in the UK to appease those who can't read a back of a box.)
Then, of course, there was anti-GTA lawyer Jack Thompson, who wrote a letter to the mum of Rockstar boss Strauss Zelnick pouring shame on her for spawning a violence and pornography-pushing son. Justified? Not at all - but perhaps an extreme illustration of a wider public feeling.
Sooner rather than later, this hectoring of Rockstar even began to affect municipal bodies - like when it was silenced by the Chicago Transit Authorityin 2008. The CTA pulled GTA IV adverts from buses just days after they went up.
Tell all this to someone out of the loop and they'd be forgiven for thinking you were describing some renegade rebel movement. With its latest blockbuster, however, Rockstar gave itself a chance to force a change in the public perception.
We can argue all day about whether or not Red Dead Redemption was just Grand Theft Auto in the wild west but, by placing it's brand of gameplay in such a setting, the craftsmanship of Rockstar San Diego shone through - with comparatively fewer black media clouds to get in the way.
Maybe it was because the cowboy setting sat more comfortably with an older generation; maybe it was because there was simply less skulduggery to be done on the dusty plains; or maybe it was because Red Dead's artistic qualities really did outweigh any amount of bloodshed, but Rockstar somehow managed to woo the broadsheets, earn the public's respect and even bag a bit of BAFTA recognition as it dodged the pitchforks.
(Apart from the old Irish backlash, that is. Can't please 'em all.)
Now L.A Noire looks set to push Rockstar even further beyond the preconceived ideas surrounding it - and drag the games industry kicking and screaming with it. The publisher has already told CVG that it believes Noire can attract lapsed and non-gamers to the medium, and it's not hard to see why.
First of all, like Red Dead's setting, Noire's detective thriller context will justify any violence that would usually have lights flashing on the complain-o-matic for a game based on drug-pushing or serial killing. You can't have a murder mystery without murder - and any rough and tumble interrogation techniques, well, that's just history, my friend.
More important, though, is L.A Noire incredible motion capture technique. You only need to watch last week's L.A Noire gameplay trailer to see just how accurately every subtle smirk, grimace and gulp registers. Yes it's an integral part of the investigation gameplay mechanic, but it also allows for the acting talents of the L.A Noire cast to be appreciated.
Last year, possibly pre-empting criticism for Read Dead, Rockstar's Lazlo pointed out that a gritty, violent, crime drama like The Sopranos is hailed with awards whereas a game of similar content is roundly abused.
He's completely right, and it happens because games are still seen as child's play, without the artistic nuances of film and television. And because they're still seen as child's play, that also gives uneducated parents - and the press they read - reason to fear them. L.A Noire will be the next title with a real chance to change that perception.
In 1997 there was little to hide the fact that Grand Theft Auto was little more than an unapologetic, light-hearted crime-sim. It's irony was not easy to explain to the two-up-two-down brigade, who still saw gaming as an extension of playground japes.
Rockstar has steadily improved this image, by slowly developing narrative aspects - portraying GTA IV's Niko Bellic as a slightly more reluctant face-beater, for example - but not enough given the gangland context and the heavy Grand Theft Auto name.
It's not intentional pandering to the public on Rockstar's part; it's absolutely just a matter of circumstance. But L.A Noire is looking likely to be the publisher's most intelligent, performance-based offering yet.
Back that up with a killer narrative and this could be Rockstar's chance to finally put out a blockbuster title that isn't hampered by the weight of controversy. So long as they don't give us some Hare Krishna DLC.