Digital Life

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A new video game offers up another way to experience life in the LAPD circa 1947.

(Soundbite of video game, "L.A. Noire")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (as character) We'll get a commendation if we crack this murder, Cole.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (as character) Are you sure the homicide squad won't step in and take the collar?

Unidentified Man #1: (as character) Even if they do, we play along(ph), and who knows, we might get bumped up a desk(ph).

Unidentified Man #2: (as character) That's him.

Unidentified Man #1: (as character) Get him.

MONTAGNE: That's Cole Phelps, a returning World War II vet who's solving crimes and working his way up from beat cop to detective. In the much-anticipated "L.A. Noire," out this week, a player can step into the gumshoes of Cole Phelps as he pursues a host of suspects, from a dicey Hollywood movie producer to crooked cops.

"L.A. Noire" is from Rockstar Games, the company behind the fabulously successful "Grand Theft Auto" video game franchise. For this latest game, the makers meticulously recreated Los Angeles of the late 1940s using old maps and photos from the time.

Harold Goldberg is a video game scholar and critic who's spent many hours already playing "L.A. Noire."

Mr. HAROLD GOLDBERG (Video Game Critic): It's a game that is very film-like. And it just feels, you know, like anything from Hitchcock to Scorsese. It feels like being in a film sometimes.

MONTAGNE: Walk us through a scenario of being the cop, Cole Phelps. What might he be doing?

Mr. GOLDBERG: So what you may be doing is being called to a murder scene, and you'll check out a body, trying to see if there are any clues on the body or nearby.

(Soundbite of video game, "L.A. Noire")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. AARON STATON (Actor): (as Cole Phelps) The other shooting took place down this alleyway. I need two guys to try and recover the gat. Happy hunting.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GOLDBERG: You'll perhaps walk into the bar that's nearby and ask people, you know, did you see this murder? What happened outside?

MONTAGNE: But again, these are like - as in a movie - scenes, but you're in them.

Mr. GOLDBERG: You're deeply in it and, you know, sometimes you don't want to leave. I ended up in a diner on one of the cases. And I kind of wanted to sit there an order pancakes and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOLDBERG: ...not continue on my quest to find out why this devious Hollywood producer did what he did.

MONTAGNE: The gameplay itself, I gather, is a bit different from most games. Explain that.

Mr. GOLDBERG: The gameplay is a bit slower and more deliberate than in other games. So much of the game is interrogating suspects. And they have a new technology which captures faces so well that you're able to look at a face and decide whether the person is telling the truth or not. And the writing is often so nice, that you feel like you're inside "Dragnet" or "Law and Order," or something like that. And there's a really nice, dramatic arc with all of these, as well, that keeps it from being boring.

MONTAGNE: That would be because the writing is more important here than in previous games?

Mr. GOLDBERG: Yeah. Well, Rockstar - the people at Rockstar have always been considered pretty good writers. And, you know, I think that this game is as good as some of our better Hollywood scripts.

MONTAGNE: Really? Do you think so? That good?

Mr. GOLDBERG: Yeah. I think it's that good. I mean, there's been this - for, you know, for almost 20 years, you know, Hollywood and game makers have had this kind of uneasy relationship, but I think with "L.A. Noire" and a few games before this, game makers beat filmmakers at their own game, so that the writing becomes taut and witty, and it's really quite nice all around.

MONTAGNE: Well, then are they hoping that they'll bring in new people? That is to say, people who don't play games generally will find this one compelling enough, because it's just that different or that literary?

Mr. GOLDBERG: Yeah, I do think so. And it's one of these - a games that's called an open-world game, so you can kind of leave your current case and drive around. I mean, I checked out Pershing Square in L.A. from 1947, because it's an area that - I know downtown L.A. fairly well. So it's just - it's really kind of fun, and there, you know, you have these eight square miles of Los Angeles to check out.

MONTAGNE: How much of a gamble is it for the company, though, to go for maybe a non-gamer community? Would it maybe not have enough action for traditional gamers, and that could be a problem?

Mr. GOLDBERG: It treads this interesting line of being a very accessible to a non-gamer, and yet appealing to people who play games a lot. It's a big, big gamble. It's tens of millions of dollars, but I think they've done it right. And I think Rockstar also is kind of like the Beatles of video game companies right now. They seem not to be able to do anything wrong, so people will flock to something they put out.

(Soundbite of music, "L.A. Confidential")

MONTAGNE: That's Harold Goldberg whose new book is "All Your Base Are Belong to Us, How 50 Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture."

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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