Late the other night I drove a Nash coupe about five miles to my old Hollywood apartment, to see if the 1947 version of me was home. Sadly, Sunset Boulevard ended at a roadblock, because Formosa Avenue wasn't mapped out by the game developers who created L.A. Noire.
No matter. I made a U-turn, waited patiently for a Red Car line to roll by, and hot-pedaled it all the way back to Union Station on Almeda, Big Joe Turner crooning away on the Nash's radio. Once there, I parked in the lot, strolled into the gorgeous Spanish-style depot, my Florsheims making footstep echoes on the waxed floor, headed down a tunnel and up a flight of stairs to one of the dozen or so train platforms, and watched Union Pacific liners cruise through, standing beside a host of other stylishly-dressed passengers.
I'm glad I'm not making this up.
Video games have become so sophisticated, so ingeniously designed, that they are now the escapist medium of choice for me. I still love movies, and watch many of them on my big screen TV at home, but the idea of spending two minutes in a theatre having my senses jackhammered by Michael Bay, when I can be on a horse, riding for a half hour from sun-baked Escalera into the snowy mountains of Tall Trees in Red Dead Redemption, seems like a no-brainer to me. Video games have not only come light years from Pong, their entertainment value has surpassed much of their competition's.
It's no accident that Noire and Red Dead receive opening mentions here. They are both products of Rockstar Games, the worldwide company that has taken the "open-world" concept of gaming and made it sing. I first heard of Rockstar in 2003, when I was attending a GDIC development conference up in San Jose to try and sell a game idea I wrote. Rockstar had one of the bigger recruiting booths, and at that time had only hit paydirt with their controversial Grand Theft Auto series. GTA IV, with its sprawling "Liberty City" providing a virtual stand-in for the Big Apple -- complete with bridges, subways, cell phones and rap music available in any car you steal -- became a critical and commercial sensation. At the time I wasn't too enamored with that arena, so passed it up for my usual Nazi, zombie, or zombie-Nazi shooter games. Three gallops into Red Dead Redemption, though, I was on board with Rockstar for good.
People play video games for all sorts of reasons. Some like the stories, others the carnage and mayhem, some just want to come home after a tough day and catch a 40-yard floater in the end zone from digital Tom Brady. Stories are not a selling point for me, because I only get an hour on the PS3 each day when my kid isn't to play anything, and it's too hard to get into the rhythm of a game story when it's so fractured.
So what I'm looking for is straight immersion, into whatever appealing world a game company can envision. If the story works as well, then fine. Last year I found Uncharted 2: Among Thieves an absolute marvel, because I'd played the first five original Tomb Raiders on my old Mac, and here was a male version of the same genre, with controls that were 10 times more fluid and Himalayan level designs as gorgeous as anything you could paint. My only problem with Uncharted was that there was so much constant action you could rarely stop, look around, and just appreciate the beauty of the jagged peak you were rope-swinging past.
No such problem exists in Red Dead or L.A. Noire. There are story missions to accomplish, but the clock is almost never ticking, and you are free to roam or drive anywhere on their massive maps, get off your mare or out of your car and just take in the environment. A section of Perdido, Red Dead's Mexican landscape, features a long rock arch obviously inspired by one of our well-known national parks in Utah, that turns a bright orange-red with the setting sun if you linger long enough. You can get hit by sudden rain squalls and find yourself galloping through puddles, drops even hitting the camera lens if you look up.
The detail in Noire, while entirely different, is even more astonishing. Old traffic lights with clicking stop and go signs adorn nearly every intersection. No storefronts, mailboxes, vacant lots, gum wrappers or people's clotheslines in backyards have escaped rendering. You could literally ditch your wheels and spend the entire game (and a good year of your life) walking the city.
Since L.A. Noire's release there have been many reviews and essays discussing its place in video game history, particularly the pros and cons of its interactive investigation and interrogation features. I find these the dullest part of the game, and usually just want to get any answers possible out of the suspects so I can start driving to the next location. Also, while Red Dead's John Marston was a charming hero, Cole Phelps, Noire's leading homicide man "played" by Mad Men actor Aaron Staton, is kind of a colorless, unlikeable heel, making it hard to care much about the avatar you're controlling.
This means little to me whenever I fire up the contraption and go back in time, though. You see, I'm not here for the intrigue, ma'm. Just the escape.
Jeff Polman's latest historical replay baseball blog is The Bragging Rights League.