I am a member of an all-girl band called The Sweater Set. My name is Summer Barlowe. My sister, who is also in the band, is called Winter Barlowe. She plays lead guitar and I sing. We started the band, along with Autumn Jones and Harper Blair. Although none of us really like Harper, and secretly suspect she is just in the band to create enough of a name to start a solo career, she plays a mean bass. We changed our names once we started the band. We fancy ourselves as the modern equivalents of The Ronettes…maybe with a bit of Karen O thrown in. We only play covers, sometimes of songs we don’t even like. In fact, we play a lot of songs we don’t like. All of this is true…in so far that all this exists only in the videogame Rock Band (Rock Band 2 to be more precise).
Part of the appeal, maybe even the only appeal, of playing videogames is being someone else. And not just anyone someone else. I don’t want to be Cathy from HR—I want to be Batman. Why be the guy who works in the phone kiosk when you can be Ripley?[i] I have heard it said that when people make roleplaying characters (yes, I am referring to, for instance, Dungeons and Dragons) they make one of two characters: someone they want to be or someone they want to sleep with. When we inhabit an alternate version of ourselves we want that version to be better than our real selves (at least I do). Further, I want control of who I am pretending to be. This is why, despite my excitement over the prospect of Beatles: Rock Band, I much prefer Rock Band proper. The reason is simple—I want to wear the clothes I want to wear and I want the hairstyle I want to have. In Rock Band you name your band, pick your clothes, instruments, tattoo, etc. You decide who you are. And I would rather be Summer Barlowe than John Lennon. I want to be the alter-ego of myself, not the real ego of someone I admire. In fact, although I stated that I want to be Batman, the experience of being Batman in, say, Batman: Arkham Asylum does not live up to my fantasy of being Batman. Again, the reason is simple—when I become Batman, Batman often loses. In the comics Batman may not be perfect,[ii] but he doesn’t die all the time. He is never unable to make a jump or beat up a minor thug. However, when I am Batman, Batman gets lost. He can’t remember what he was last doing. He gets surprised by squishies. He walks hesitantly because he is worried about someone jumping out and scaring him. In short, my Batman is as lousy at being Batman as I would be in real life. As I play Arkham I become frustrated not because I keep failing but because Batman keeps failing. For me, the fourth wall of the game was continually challenged by the fact that I am not very good at videogames. My Batman challenges my ideas of who Batman is. If I am Batman, then Batman is no longer who I want him to be. Ultimately, I don’t want to be Batman because that means that Batman is kinda crappy.
Which brings me to Rock Star’s L.A. Noire. L.A. Noire, a videogame, is a cross between Grand Theft Auto and L.A. Confidential. It is really indebted more to the nostalgia and homages of 50s noir and procedurals than to the original films and shows of the time period it is set in. The game, heralded as one of the next giant moves forward in videogames is, somehow, a letdown. People have asked me if I like the game and I have been telling them yes. I haven’t been lying[iii]—I think it took some time to realize that I don’t really like the game that much. I won’t say I hate it. It really does have some remarkable moments.[iv] In some ways, it quite obviously represents a move forward in videogames. The acting in it is superb and the facial recognition is unbelievable (“Hey, isn’t that Matt Parkman.”). The critical consensus is nearly universal that this is a great game. This is a game you are supposed to like. But if you actually read the reviews they are strange. Despite the praise for the game, nearly every review I have read seemed cautious, hesitant, as if there was something about the game they found amiss but couldn’t identify what it was so the reviewer tried to ignore it. L.A. Noire is one of the most realistic games I have ever played and I think that is the problem.
In the game you play Cole Phelps (Ken Cosgrove), a war hero and LA police officer working his way through different “desks”, solving crimes and sometimes shooting bad guys. But do I really want to be Cole? He seems a decent enough fellow and he certainly does things I am not capable of.[v] Yet, at the same time my Cole is sometimes unable to find a telephone. He can’t make a three-point turn let alone parallel park. In fact, he often prefers riding shotgun because it just makes his life easier. He has a hard time reading people. He walks into walls.[vi] Just as I make a crappy Batman, I make a crappy Cole.
I think you can write a good story around this character and the makers of L.A. Noire certainly have. But just because I think that Atticus Finch is a compelling character does not mean I want to be him. I don’t want to play the Mockingbird RPG. Nor do I think Cannery Row would make a good videogame. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie MMORPG? A great story, it seems, does not make a good videogame. In fact, as I play the game I wonder if a better experience may be to watch someone else play the game like back when the first kid on your block got the latest Nintendo and invited you over to watch them play. This is a compelling story to watch, it’s just not one I want to live. But alas, c’est la noire.
[i] Except for the whole “thing in my stomach” thing.
[ii] For a great example of this check out the underrated Ten Nights of the Beast.
[iii] I may be lying now about not lying.
[iv] For instance, a chase scene on the set of Griffith’s Intolerance.
[v] Shooting a gun or extracting a confession, for instance.
[vi] People also seem to yell at him a lot.