Side Quest

L.A. Noire: Bringing it Back

Head back twenty years and you can see a genre of game that for a long time almost disappeared from the gaming landscape: the point-and-click adventure. For years almost monopolised by LucasArts, games like The Secret of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, and Day of the Tentacle are just a few examples of the genre that appeared to fall into the background of gaming in the late 90s and 2000s.

Screenshot of The Secret of Monkey Island. Guybrush Threepwood stands outside a house where some dogs are laying. There is a notice that reads: "Important Notice These dogs are not dead, they are only SLEEPING".

The Secret of Monkey Island was one of the more popular point-and-click adventures.

The reason for this is easy to guess. The point-and-click adventure was really a product of the 2D era, with its fixed backgrounds and profile view, and as 3D began to develop at a pace, the point-and-click struggled to keep its games smooth and fun alongside burgeoning franchises like Resident Evil and Zelda. While these games exalted themselves, becoming industry stalwarts, the point-and-click struggled to adapt. Grim Fandango did a great job of using mostly 3D environments, but by this time the point-and-click was being passed over for more exciting titles.

Despite this, in the intervening years, some nostalgic developers tried to keep the genre alive with games like Myst and the offshoot of the genre, hidden object games. But somehow it never really gained widespread interest again. Much like platformers, which for a long time seemed out of fashion to everyone except Nintendo, point-and-click games faced the problem of how to develop in the three-dimensional era. Yet after Myst, few games tried to move the genre forward, preferring to let it lie.

It was not really until 2012, with the release of Telltale’s episodic The Walking Dead, that the point-and-click genre was brought back into the public eye. Using the point-and-click genre as a backdrop for a story heavy game, in which the point-and-click elements are less puzzle-solving than choice-driven interaction to a story already told, Telltale diluted the point-and-click formula to create a string of successful game series.

In 2014, Five Nights at Freddy’s was released, diluting the point-and-click game into a stationary horror game. For a long period, it was deemed necessary to heavily dilute the formula of the traditional point-and-click game in order to develop interesting games. This occurs to such a point that, in Telltale’s offerings and Scott Cawthon’s, the point-and-click status of these games is barely recognisable. They touch on the idealised sense of nostalgia we all hold, by completely bastardising and improving the mechanisms we all think we remember.

A screenshot of Lee and Clementine from The Walking Dead, making an early dialogue choice in-game.

Telltale watered down the point-and-click elements and made a more choice-based game, but the heritage is still there.

In recent times, gamers have sought to revisit these old point-and-click games, which has seen remasters and rereleases of the old LucasArts games like Monkey Island and Grim Fandango. But it was not until this year, with the release of Detention, that we can really claim to have received a traditional and interesting point-and-click game in the modern landscape. Detention still somewhat waters down the traditional formula in favour of a blistering story and horror elements, yet at its heart, a point-and-click is exactly what it is.

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For all this, though, there was indeed a major and popular point-and-click release before Telltale’s forays into the genre, but after the trend had long passed. Rockstar’s L.A. Noire.

That L.A. Noire is little more than a glorified point-and-click experience was hidden by the marketing and reviews that focussed so heavily on the motion-capture presentation, that created allegedly realistic facial features. In reality, this realistic mo-cap failed to truly traverse the uncanny valley, but it did succeed in masking the rather basic gameplay formula that permeated the entire game.

While L.A. Noire’s presentation is identical to that of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto Series, the gameplay mechanics are different. GTA is action oriented – centred on running and gunning and driving – with little or no time given over to puzzles. While L.A. Noire retains these elements, its gameplay really revolves around its detective element. Contained in certain areas (houses, street corners, etc), these core areas make up the bulk of the actual gameplay. One might need to chase a subject on foot or by car, but otherwise, will be travelling from crime scene to crime scene.

Your job in these areas is to wander around, interacting with the environment, in order to find clues. The controls here are fairly fluid, unlike their pure point-and-click counterparts which are more stop-start. But the principle is the same. Rather than being presented with a backdrop on which to click, you are given three-dimensional environments to wander around and interact with. One of the closest links L.A. Noire and a game like the Curse of Monkey Island has is the main characters and their habit of commenting on everything. Rather than remaining silent on useless interactions, characters will comment on how the item is worthless to them. L.A. Noire’s Cole will comment that something isn’t pertinent to the case and Guybrush Threepwood will say something along the lines of “Neat, a magnetic nail, completely worthless, but neat.” All until you find what you’re looking for and can take that back to the interesting – if something with a short shelf-life – interview/interrogation system.

These seem like minor points, but in fact, they are subtle links to the genre that L.A. Noire owes its mechanics. One could point out that there are few games in which the player does not interact in some way with their environment, but few if any make this the core gameplay mechanic. Looking at the Arkham series of Batman games, we see a similar process in Detective Mode, which is a minor mechanic for discovering expositional elements in all three core games. But can this be called a developed point-and-click too? Well no, because the mechanic here, while adhering in part to the rules of the point-and-click, is secondary to the main game. Yet, with L.A. Noire, the running and gunning of its compatriots really feels secondary to these investigative scenes.

Detective Cole, of L.A. Noire, holding a bloodied metal pipe. Demonstrating the point-and-click elements of the game.

The core gameplay of L.A. Noire is really wandering around crime scenes and clicking on objects to ascertain their relevance.

L.A. Noire was lauded for its graphics and for being somewhat different to modern games, but where it really deserves to be praised is in bringing the point-and-click genre back into the public eye. While L.A. Noire is not an especially interesting game – and if it is, it is only in the first act – nor a game that invokes any sense of longevity or replayability, it does stand as perhaps the best example of the advancement of the point-and-click genre.

Whether games like Detention will bring the pure point-and-click back is uncertain – and perhaps unlikely – but L.A. Noire has provided a glimpse of how this style of game could be brought into the 21st Century, much as Mirror’s Edge did for platformers. It is not especially revolutionary – nor, indeed, that good a game – but L.A. Noire tried doing something new with the point-and-click formula, and whether it worked or not, that is to be admired.

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