As the Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X finally cement their place as ‘current-gen’, we should take a look back at some of the games that defined the eighth generation of consoles.
We’ve seen multiplayer greats like Call of Duty and Battlefield reinvent themselves with both the old and the new (WW1 for Battlefield and CoD with Modern Warfare).
We’ve watched CD Projekt RED go from critical darling with The Witcher III: Wild Hunt to an out-and-out failure with Cyberpunk 2077.
And narrative behemoths have graced our screens like Red Dead Redemption 2 as well as smaller indie hits such as Firewatch and What Remains of Edith Finch.
Today I wanted to talk about one of my favourite games from the last generation and hopefully turn a few players onto the gem that is The Pillars of the Earth.
Based on a 1000+ page historical novel by Ken Follett and set over forty years in 12th century England, The Pillars of the Earth is about three characters, Phillip, a monk, Jack, an outcast, and Aliena, a former noblewoman.
The story sees the three cross paths as they try to grow their town of Kingsbridge, fend off rival noble families and vengeful bishops, and build a cathedral the likes the world has never seen before.
It’s not the first book to be translated to gaming. The most famous examples are the aforementioned The Witcher and the excellent Metro series.
But in comparison to those two franchises, The Pillars of the Earth doesn’t sound like it would be a blood-pumping adventure full of swords and shields. It’s a historical novel, not fantasy, so there are no mages or sorcerers to liven up the mostly downbeat and dark mood.
But it’s the moments where the characters cross paths, the battle of wits and scriptures, and the twists and turns as the lead characters sow the wind and reap the whirlwind that make The Pillars of the Earth one of the best narrative games of its generation, and why I want to talk about today.
By God and the Devil – Why The Pillars of the Earth is Great
The Pillars of the Earth is one of those games where everything perfectly comes together to build something remarkable. The artwork, the music, the 40+ hours of performance, and the story, each one is a singular piece that makes the whole that much more enjoyable.
The game is a point-and-click adventure that uses a large canvas as the background, scrolling left and right when the player character moves. The scaling is incredible, with entire cathedrals, estates, and even towns explorable, but still retaining exquisite details.
Due to the ‘static’ backgrounds, the game camera works almost like a film camera, highlighting points it wants to draw attention to but without taking control away from the player. This allows the player to feel like they are naturally discovering each location and the secrets they hold.
One repeated location, the crypt at the bottom of the cathedral, is one of my favourite spots in the entire game just from its atmosphere. The use of light and darkness in this one small room is played with so well that it can evoke fear or fascination, just with a simple change of lighting.
Part of the excellent atmosphere comes from the music by Tilo Alpermann. Since the game is primarily about religion, the majority of the music is ecclesiastical, mixing male choirs with strings and woodwind instruments with heavy brass approaching in Book 2 and 3. However, it’s in the less traditional aspects where the music shines.
Tracks like ‘Hell’, which incorporates faint chimes and cymbals into its rolling strings, or ‘Bishop Waleran’s Wrath’ which uses an electric guitar for its main beat and what sounds like reversed strings or brass on the second beat give this strange sense of foreboding, of power beyond the characters we control.
While I love the graphics and the soundtrack, the story is the high-point of the game for me, and anyone wanting to experience a deeply engaging and philosophical narrative from the last generation should seek it out.
Set over three ‘books’, each with seven chapters, the story is expansive and slow-build, moving at an almost glacial pace at the start to set the major conflicts, but also the tone of those chapters.
Even the main menu helps establish the feeling of each book. Book One is dark and cold, with many thinking the Devil walks amongst them. Book Two is lighter, showing the characters and their town starting the rebuild. Book Three is shrouded in dust and debris as chaos reigns down once again. It’s a masterclass in simple yet effective narrative design.
The game switches perspectives throughout, from Phillip, to Jack, then to Aliena, and back again, each character adding a tiny piece of the narrative puzzle until it all comes together for the final couple of chapters of each book.
You could in fact play each book as a standalone story as they build, climax, and resolve like a standard plot structure, but the fun is watching characters in Chapter Twenty-one reference decisions you made in Chapter Four.
At the end of every chapter you get a itemised list of what you did, what actions you took and who you spoke with. A lot of nouveau point-and-clicks like Detroit: Become Human,Life Is Strange, and Telltale’s The Walking Dead have these similar lists.
With The Pillars of the Earth there isn’t always the reference to something that didn’t happen like other games, it’s solely on what did happen, which I feel make it seem more personal, rather than a somewhat A/B approach to narrative.
The main gameplay loop is through dialogue, with your words and tone carving a pathway through the story. While it does have set story beats throughout, there are small paths of deviation that lead to gigantic turns later on, sometimes even in a different ‘book’, so far removed that you might have even forgot what your previous actions were.
While the story is mainly character-based, a major point that dragged me into wanting to see the next chapter are the themes the narrative plays with. Ideas like religion and devotion, sin and violence, even love and sex are explored deeply in The Pillars of the Earth.
Each book features powerful moments that make the story come alive with meaning and emotion. Scenes where characters find or lose their faith while others see the Divine and the Devil amongst them are seared into my mind due to the way they shake the very foundations of the cast, and how there hasn’t been many games that tried to do something similar.
The game also spans the entire development of a romantic relationship, from shy smiles and holding hands to spending passionate nights together (this game actually has my favourite sex scene in all of gaming), and eventually settling down and starting a family, something that up until recently games haven’t tried to depict with any meaningful, long-term effects.
It’s a mature story, not with depictions of violence and nudity but with its ideas and implications, and that’s why I absolutely loved every moment.
I hope that this short post has teased your appetite to experience this incredible game. The Pillars of the Earth was an absolute delight and I can’t wait to dive back in again to one of the best games of the last generation.
I love Splinter Cell and its lead Sam Fisher. I am a Tom Clancy fan and love playing the games bearing his endorsement filled with his pulpy action and ultra-competent badasses.
While Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon have the fun of being a member of an elite squad, Splinter Cell always held more of a draw for me. Perhaps it was because a fan of James Bond, being a lone operative and relying only on your wits and tactics to survive seemed much more thrilling.
While I did enjoy the first four games in thefranchise, with Chaos Theory being the best of that set, I am only truly a mega-fan due to the fifth entry, Conviction. This may raise some eyebrows among other SC fans as Conviction is seen as a lesser game for its shift towards action and linearity, but I love Conviction for its story and presentation.
While the narrative is the usual Clancy stuff about secret government conspiracies, industrial espionage, and spy vs. spy standoffs, the story of Conviction is a good deconstruction of the entire series to that point. However, the deconstruction only works if you pick the non-canon ending.
Everybody Walks – How Splinter Cell: Conviction’s Ending Deconstructs the Entire Series
All games have messages. There has been debate recently with games like Modern Warfare (2019) and The Division 2(another Clancy game), over messages and political leanings in games. Splinter Cell, along with other games in the same stealth genre, are not immune to adding messages and themes in their games.
The Metal Gear Solid series was famously anti-war and dealt with themes of marginalised servicemen and women, the military-industrial complex, and the repercussions of Mutually Assured Destruction.
The earlier Hitman games had subtle hints on the dogmas and doctrines of Catholicism such as original sin, the capacity for God, and absolution (so much that they subtitled the fifth Hitman game Absolution).
Splinter Cell’s overarching theme is family and friendship. From the beginning of the series there has always been a sense of camaraderie, of not just co-workers, but of intimate connections. These can be seen both in the larger frame of the story as well as in individual scenes.
During the first three games Sam has a tendency to crack some jokes and have some light-hearted banter with his handlers over the radio. He argues with Grim over whether lasers or a 90s spy thing or 70s spy thing in Chaos Theory, discusses relationships and religion with Frances in Pandora Tomorrow, or asks a guard he has taken hostage if the coffee machine in the room uses ground or dried beans, again in Chaos Theory.
In terms of the story as a whole, friends and connections to Sam appear in every game. His daughter, Sarah, has been a major figure from the start. Her inclusion gives Sam something to focus on outside of work. In the ending cutscene of the first game when Sam laughs at the news covering up all the spy intrigue, Sarah says she hasn’t heard him laugh like that, “…since the Reagan administration!”
Sarah is also the focal point of the Conviction storyline. Sarah is supposedly killed by a drunk driver at the start of the previous game, Double Agent, but it is revealed her death was faked so an enemy agent couldn’t use her as leverage over Sam. Upon hearing his daughter’s voice for the first time in three years, Sam audibly clams up, stuttering over his words. His reunion with her later in the game has no dialogue, just a look between the two before they embrace.
During the events of Pandora Tomorrow, the second game, Sam saves an old army buddy, Douglas Shetland, from a guerrilla camp. In the sequel, Chaos Theory, Shetland is a valuable asset to Sam, helping with logistics and even offering him a job at his mercenary company if Sam wanted to leave the spy work behind. However, Shetland had been using his contacts to fuel a war between the United States, Japan, Korea, and China, and Sam confronts him at the end of the game. Sam and Shetland level their weapons at each other as Shetland starts to monologue about his reasoning. He ends with, “You wouldn’t shoot an old friend…” Sam can either shoot him, or if Shetland goes to shoot, Sam ducks and stabs Shetland with his knife, before pushing him off the roof they were on. Sam replies, “You’re right Doug, I wouldn’t shoot an old friend.”
During Double Agent, Sam has conflicting allegiances between the NSA and the terrorist group John Brown’s Army (JBA). He obviously doesn’t align with the JBA, but does emotionally connect with Enrica, the weapons expert of the JBA. The two become romantically involved and plan to run away together by the end of the game. Enrica is killed by another Splinter Cell just before the finale. Sam murders the Splinter Cell in a fit of rage before fleeing.
Another major event that happens in Double Agent is the death of Irving Lambert, Sam’s boss and friend. Lambert is taken hostage by the JBA, and Sam is forced to either shoot him or blow his cover. It is confirmed in Conviction that Sam did in fact shoot Lambert. When the scene is referenced in Conviction, the narrator, Victor Coste, says, “Lambert died that day by Sam’s hand. And so did Sam.”
Victor Coste is another of Sam’s army buddies and tells the story of Conviction via flashbacks. During the Gulf War Coste saved Sam after enemy forces captured the latter. Upon saving Sam, Coste chuckles, “You don’t leave a brother behind Sam. You don’t leave family.” Another theme present in Conviction is paranoia, with the voice of Sam, Michael Ironside stating in an interview, “Sam doesn’t trust anyone…” (1:31). His former handler, Grim, has seemingly become a turncoat, both helping and hindering Sam. It is seen through flash-forwards that she shoots Sam and captures him for the bad guy, Tom Reed.
Grim holds Sarah hostage and forces Sam back into duty if he wants to see her again. During the climax of the game Grim reveals that it was Lambert who faked Sarah’s death to make sure Sam couldn’t be compromised. She plays Sam a recording Lambert made before he died, explaining his motives and saying how he, “…lied to his [my] best friend.” Grim follows up by saying that she never held Sarah hostage, “That was just a bluff to get you in the game and for whatever it’s worth…I’m sorry.”
And we finally get to the ending of Conviction. After killing all the remaining Splinter Cells and saving the President, Sam has the traitorous head of the NSA, Tom Reed, at gunpoint. There are two options; kill him dead or spare him. Killing him is the canonical ending. Sam has been ‘activated’ again by the events of the game and is back to being a spy. In the final custscene of the game he breaks Coste out of the prison cell that he has been telling his story from (with Coste repeating his line about being ‘brothers’).
In the non-canon ending, Grim shoots Reed. The game ends with the following conversation.
Sam: You didn’t have to do that.
Grim: I disagree.
Sam: There was a time where you wouldn’t have said that.
Grim: Things change Sam.
Sam: Yeah, things change. Remember what you told me Anna, when this was over? Everybody walks. I’m walking.
Grim: You can’t. There is too much left to do.
Sam: Ask Lambert. I’ve done too much already.
Grim: Sam, please. I don’t know who else I can trust.
Sam: Trust? Funny you should say that. Goodbye Grim.
Throughout the entire series of Splinter Cell, Sam has always had his morals. Even when friends have become enemies, such as Shetland, he has always rationalised killing them, seeing them as bad guys.
After all that he has seen over the narrative of Conviction and the revelations of Grim and Lambert, he is an old and broken man. He may have got his daughter back, but he has lost everything else. And when Grim tries to reconcile and make it just like the ‘good old days’ Sam snubs her. It makes total sense that he would walk just like he did after Lambert’s death.
While I enjoy the sequel, Blacklist, I feel that the original run of Splinter Cell should have ended here with Sam coming to terms with his former allies and retiring into the sunset. Blacklist could have been a reboot as they changed the entire principal cast, with a new voice for Sam and Grim (as well as not having Sam Fisher, who is pushing fifty-four in Conviction, still be a spy).
By the time of Conviction we see those friends and relationships finally break down and rot, held together by only lies and deceit. It is a beautiful melancholic arc that punctuates the end of not just Michael Ironside’s last performance as Sam Fisher, but the last performances of the original voices of Grim and Lambert, Claudia Besso and Don Jordan respectively.
So while it was good to see Sam back in action both in Blacklist and more recently in Ghost Recon: Wildlands, it is here where Sam’s story came to a fitting end. When Sam leaves the Oval Office, he has nothing but Sarah. After years of field work where he would never get the recognition for his sacrifices, losing friends and lovers, until he can longer trust those he never thought would betray him, he still has a reason to go on.
It is the best ending the man could hope for despite the circumstances and one of my favourite narrative conclusions.
He is one of the most beloved characters of the seventh generation and possibly the face of an entire franchise. Even now, almost a decade on from his role in the spotlight, you can find a myriad of blog posts and forum messages detailing why Vito Scaletta is one of the greatest characters to ever grace a computer screen.
Vito Scaletta is a central character in the Mafia series. An Italian-American immigrant brought into the fold of the Cosa Nostra, we play as Vito in Mafia II through the 1940s and 50s as he rises through the ranks of organised crime. Despite only being a playable character in the second game, he has featured in the series from the start.
While not named in the original Mafia, a mission near the end of Mafia II retroactively inserts Vito into the story, being the hitman that kills previous main character Tommy Angelo. After playing through his story in Mafia II, he is brought back in Mafia III as an underboss.
It is cool having this unique connecting thread through the series, rather than a more standard sequel with a returning cast. Other series such as Assassin’s Creed and Timesplitters have had similar through-lines, but not as clear as Mafia’s (AC’s are usually just cameo appearances such as Charles Dorian in AC: Rogue, and TS had the Jones family featuring in the years 1853, 1965, and 2243).
So what made Vito such a compelling character? Well, I thought about doing a little character study. Let’s jump in.
Made Man – A Look Back at Vito Scalleta
The first thing we have to address in looking back at a character, any character, is how the story or text is framed. Context is important, how the creator presents it can affect how it is received. The entire Mafia series is presented by flashback format; Tommy tells his story to Det. Norman, Vito looks over his family album, and Lincoln’s story is told through interviews of other characters in a documentary format.
Characters retelling a story can lead to embellishment, skipping over points that may seem inconsequential to them, but would aid a greater understanding of their life. This is nothing new; games ranging from Battlefield to Silent Hill, Dragon Age to Monkey Island have used unreliable narrators for action set-pieces, antagonist reveals, or even just for a laugh.
It seems that the team at 2k Czech were aware of this aspect. Games Radar mentioned that the original Mafia,
“…centered on the most significant events in [Tommy Angelo’s] life while largely ignoring his day-to-day life as a mobster.” (Reparaz, M. 2008)
In response, writer/director of both games, Daniel Vavra said,
“The player is going to experience more of everything…those action sequences will always be in context to the story and the mafia theme…[but aren’t] mutually exclusive to the ‘nitty-gritty life of a mobster’”. (Reparaz, M. 2008).
We also have to keep in mind the aspect of the nature of the avatar. Depending on who is playing Vito, he could be a bloodthirsty psychopath or a pacifist, a road rageaholic or someone who never passes 30mph. It is both one of the great foibles and assets when trying to dissect a videogame, as there is never a “concrete” personality to a character when in gameplay.
Personally, I will be working off the idea of the only characters that the player is under obligation to kill die during the narrative, as it is a good medium.
So with those addendums given, let us start on the game proper.
The first aspect ties in with the nature of the avatar, but from a designer point of view rather than a player. Jack Scalici, Director of Creative Production on Mafia II listed Vito’s character traits,
Scalici: “…he’s a nice guy. He has strong morals. He doesn’t kill people because he wants to, he kills because he has to.” (FAIR/PLAY, 2017).
I’ll add a few more; he is quiet, unassuming, and rational. He is the complete opposite of “shoot-first-ask-questions-later” Joe, that’s why they make a great pair. But all of these terms to describe Vito are rather nebulous. There is nothing standout about him, he is tabula rasa, a blank slate.
The technique of tabula rasa is used a lot in games, as it helps develop quick player identification. If there is no set personality, we can project whatever we want onto a character. Some of the most iconic and beloved characters are like this; Gordon Freeman, Link, Crash Bandicoot, Doom Guy, none of them have any notable character traits besides vague concepts like “brave’ or “wacky”, but they are often found at the top of ‘Favourite Game Character Lists’.
Tabula rasa can also lead to great narrative twists. Characters like James Sunderland in Silent Hill 2, Nilin in Remember Me, and Walker in Spec Ops, these characters are kept vague in the beginning, before their personality is revealed later into the narrative, leading to shame, shock, or abhorrence at their true colours.
Vito doesn’t have these quirks. He is kept elusive and quiet, possibly for player connection, but that unfortunately bleeds over into the game. It makes Vito look like someone who only takes orders and has no initiative. He’s constantly the fall guy, from start to finish, always kowtowing to his higher-ups. When Luca Gurino asks whether Vito is willing to “take the next step” by,
Luca: “…taking somebody out, just ‘cause someone points his finger at him and tells you to do it.”
Vito: “I was in the war, Mr. Gurino. All I did was kill people I was told to kill…”
Luca laughs and responds,
Luca: “We need guys like you. Guys who can follow orders without asking questions.”
Throughout the two games that he prominently features in, Vito has this veneration for authority. When Cassandra and Vito square off, Vito falls back on his seniors,
Cassandra: “You can blame Marcano all you want, but it was your men who ambushed us.”
Vito: “My men were following orders. We got rules.”
When Lincoln breaks up the argument, Cassandra follows up,
Cassandra: “…do you know how many of my men this connard killed ‘cause Marcano ‘told him to’?”
It could be that Vito appeals to authority due to his absent father. Throughout Mafia II, Vito doesn’t look too kindly on his father’s memory. When Joe mentions him near the beginning, Vito quickly shoots in and calls him a “deadbeat”. And when Mama Scalletta says she wished Vito’s father could have seen him return from the war, Vito sarcastically replies, “Yeah, sure.”
This could be a reason why Vito jumps in with the mafia, to have a surrogate family. He obviously looks up to Leo Galante as a father figure (although Leo does not see Vito as a son). This could be why Vito goes along with things that are a detriment to him because he’s wanted a security of family.
There are only two times that Vito pushes back against other’s actions, both times weakly. When Vito returns from the war, Joe get him out of the service. Vito objects, saying that he will go to prison if caught. After Joe placates him, Vito never brings up the subject again, even after going to prison partly because he went AWOL.
The second is when he and Joe team up with Henry Tomasino after killing Alberto Clemente. Henry proposes the three go into the drugs business. Vito objects, saying,
Vito: “Drugs are bad. They kill people.”
On top of this, when swearing allegiance to the Cosa Nostra, Frank Vinci, one of the other bosses in the city, says,
Vinci: “Whatever you do gentlemen, stay away from the dope! No dope! That’s our policy.”
Yet, Vito goes along, swayed by the money Henry promises. He is greedy. When his house is burnt down by the Irish mob, Joe tries to console him with the fact that,
Joe: “…all that stuff that got burnt up, it’s just things Vito.”
However, Vito does not see it like that. He replies angrily,
Vito: “Just things? Hey, those were my things Joe. Why do you think I do the shit we do anyways? It’s to buy things, ya know, suits, cars, broads, houses.”
This thin motivation of material possessions is brought up again in Mafia III,
Lincoln: “Nobody forced you to get greedy. You could’ve sat back, been content, watched the money roll in. But no, that wasn’t enough.”
So, other than a substitute family, it is a drive for the American Dream that pushes Vito forward. When thinking back on his arrival in Empire Bay, Vito remarks,
Vito: “Never in my life had I seen anything as fantastic as Empire Bay. It was beautiful…on the other hand, I’d never seen anything filthier or more disgusting than our new shithole of an apartment.”
He is always trying to better himself, motivated by an almost loathing of his parents for raising him in poverty. Maybe this is why Vito is notoriously work shy, throwing in the manual labour job at the port he gets at the beginning of the game, as it reminds him of his father. This aversion to the lower class is seen in dialogue with Joe near the beginning of the game.
Joe: “The working man is a sucker, that’s for damn sure.”
Vito: “You said it.”
And when talking to Joe after they exact revenge on the Irish mob for torching Vito’s house (therefore losing all of his accumulated wealth), Vito explains,
Vito: “I promised myself I’d never be poor again, end up a fucking wharf rat like my old man.”
Senior producer Denby Grace shed some light on Vito’s motivations during pre-release promotion of the game,
Grace: “He [Vito] just wants to get a bit of money, a bit of respect and a bit of power. Vito doesn’t aspire to be the Don.” (FAIR/PLAY, 2017).
Unlike Tommy who joined up for safety in the original Mafia, or Lincoln who was raised by the Black Mob in Mafia III, Vito just starts off as a delinquent and never wavers, even after a stint in prison.
The only acknowledgement that Vito wanted to be a gangster is an internal monologue during the scene where he becomes a made man.
Vito: “You might wonder why I’d take this risk again after spending almost seven years in the can. You see, where I grew up, the only guys who mattered were the ones who had the balls to take what they wanted…
…and after years of doing everybody else’s dirty work, I was willing to risk anything to finally be somebody.”
There is obviously a feeling that he always wanted to follow this path. In Mafia III, Vito’s death mission is literally called “I Deserved Better”. When he is beaten, Vito says,
Vito: “I gave up everything for this life. Everything! And look where I ended up!”
But Vito is wrong. He did not ‘give up’ everything. He lost everything. He lost his family, with his sister Frankie breaking ties with him. He lost his freedom when he went to jail. He lost his friend Joe and lost his way within the Cosa Nostra when he killed Carlo Falcone. As Tommy says in the epilogue of the original Mafia,
“…the guy who wants too much risks losing absolutely everything. Of course, the guy who wants too little from life might not get anything at all.”
Vito’s ‘death’ in Mafia III also sheds light on his character. If Lincoln kills the other two bosses, Cassandra and Burke, he is restrained and gentle in their final moments together. He sits with Burke while he drifts away, and returns Cassandra’s pendant with a picture of her dead daughter to her.
Vito is the only one that is holding a gun in his final cutscene, dropping it to the ground after realising it is empty. However, he pulls a switchblade out and rushes Lincoln, forcing the latter to shoot him dead. This can be seen as a continuation of his traits in Mafia II. As Vito says in his confrontation with Lincoln,
Vito: “There’s always been someone waitin’ to fuck me.”
The switchblade makes sense; he’s been around for too long and will take any chance he gets to bring some semblance of balance to his world. He’s turned grey with age and anger, only having dominion over a scrap of land given to him more out of loyalty than being an earner.
And once he is dead, his underboss Alma sadly refers to him as “a good little solider.” That is seemingly all he was, even after all this time.
Yet if he takes over when Lincoln leaves, Vito seemingly drags New Bordeaux out of dirt. Unlike Burke or Cassandra, Vito revitalises the city and lives into old age. He builds casinos, arenas, convention centres, turning the city into “the Las Vegas of the South” according to Jonathan Macguire. He finally ‘wins’. It is all material, nothing but bricks and mortar, but as mentioned previously, that is all Vito wants for.
As I said in the introduction, it is rare to find a character like Vito that develops with subsequent games. Even the other famous Italian gaming icon, (no, the OTHER one), Ezio Auditore, doesn’t change much over the thirty-five years we spend playing as him, only really changing in the first act of AC2 when his father and brothers are murdered. And that’s the main difference; Ezio starts with tragedy, Vito ends with it.
I think it is this beautifully melancholic arc, which is why Vito is so loved. Tommy in the original Mafia doesn’t get as much time to grow, and Lincoln is seemingly indifferent by the end of Mafia III. We see Vito through both the major moments and his everyday life, and it endears us to him.
His nature as a protagonist also makes us look favorably on him. As an avatar, we have a slight bias towards him. I think a character, especially one in a story-driven game like this, digs into a psyche deeper than a general protagonist in an open-world crime sim.
Following on from that, the setting also helps aid our connection to Vito. For all the open-world games we have nowadays, there are very little that have a period setting. And while the original Mafia is a fun game, it is brutally unforgiving. There is an idolisation of the gangster trope, seen in Hollywood since the 30s. This was the intended goal by 2k Czech, as Cinematic Director Tomás Hrebícek said in an interview,
“We want to present the whole game in a Hollywood film like style…” (FAIR/PLAY, 2017).
Sat next to your best friend, both dressed in snazzy suits, wielding a classic Tommy gun, driving a sleek convertible, listening to classic rock-n-roll blaring out of the radio, it is hard not to see the draw. And being the guy we get to experience that with would make him stick in your mind.
And speaking of friends, what of Joe? Even when he kills innocent bystanders and causes havoc for Vito to clear up, it is never questioned, because of that bond. Joe is Vito’s friend, therefore by extension is ‘ours’. The company we keep can be just as enticing as the lead.
In the end I think I like Vito more in Mafia III. There is a history there that is interesting to ruminate on and more to play off. But the simple layers of Mafia II worked their magic, seeing this once promising young lad reach for the dream of something better, but lose everything in the process.
He may not have much to say, but he has a damn good story to tell. And a good story will be remembered and treasured.
It is weird to think that L.A. Noire came out eight years ago, back in the good old days of 2011. And being in development of some kind for nearly six years, we are fast coming up on fifteen years of L.A. Noire being a “thing”.
And in the past few years the game got somewhat of a new lease on life, being released for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch in November 2017, with enhancements to accommodate for new features such as the touch screen on the Switch and VR abilities for the PlayStation.
With these new enhancements came the “complete” story, compiling all of the cases that had previously been DLC (short for downloadable content) into the experience. For me however, these “new” cases being placed into the story has made the game feel a little disjointed.
Let’s have a look at the cases, because while I love nearly all of them, the fact that they are DLC makes me view them differently. And part of it is to do with pacing.
This isn’t me railing against the fact that these are cases that should have been in the original retail experience. The game is already 20+ hours long, five cases of varying length is hardly going to up the playtime.
I can also understand why DLC cases work for something like L.A. Noire. L.A. Noire is designed almost like a TV serial, with each new case being a new episode. It will have scenarios that link between cases such as the Black Dahlia in Homicide and morphine in Vice, but each case is mainly self-contained. And yet these new cases seem to alter the balance of the pacing of the game.
From Snails to Speeding Bullets – A Quick Look at Pacing
Pacing is something that never gets much attention when it comes to games. Similar to editing in film, it is a phenomenon that you don’t know is there until it is not there. For example, pacing is only really brought up when it is a detriment to the game, with many walking simulators or opening hours in open-world games being criticised for their slower pace.
Open-world games are probably the hardest to do; how can you have a character-driven story if the player can decide to head off and not focus on the narrative (see Bethesda’s games). Pacing can also affect a sense of time, feeling like scenes are shunted together. I felt this in AC: Unity, where a moody European white boy became an Assassin and then due to the breakneck presentation felt like he attained the rank of Grand Master within a week.
Talking of assassins, AC: Syndicate’s pacing is better than many of the previous games by virtue of one screen; the shot of Big Ben ticking by. Any time the game wanted to move forward in time the screen cut to sped-up footage of Big Ben cycling through the hours. That at least gives us a sense of progression rather than the Frye Twins seemingly dissolving the criminal underbelly of London over a weekend.
I’ll hold up Spec Ops: The Line as a game with excellent pace and flow. While the twist doesn’t fully work as it shows new material, the pacing goes a long way to help play up the insanity that fuels the twist. Each new chapter from the very start to the very end, starts slow before methodically upping the action, drawing you into the experience and mimicking Walker’s slow descent into brutality and madness. You have your peaks and troughs, intense action with stealth.
That’s why CoD4: Modern Warfare works well too. The game starts slow with the SAS in Russia before becoming an all out action game with the Americans in the Middle East. Once the nuke has gone off, the SAS take over the main action, but the game starts with a distinct “medium” in between stealth and OTT action in the level “Safehouse”.
This works wonders because after the two stealth levels of “All Ghillied Up” and “One Shot, One Kill”, we have the level “Heat”, which uses the same map as “Safehouse”, but has the action on full. CoD4 gives us the stealth to get to grips with the level before ramping up the action. This is seen in the micro in levels such as “Crew Expendable” and “Sins Of The Father”, as well as the macro in how the acts are structured and levels follow on from each other.
Call Of Duty: World at War has some interesting pacing issues. Since the campaign of WaW can be played co-op, certain levels had to be left out. This means that the excellent stealth level “Vendetta” is cut. The following level, “Their Land, Their Blood” works because of the juxtaposition and slower pace of the preceding level, going from being on the back foot to charging at the enemy.
Going straight from “Hard Landing” to “Their Land, Their Blood” feels exhausting. It could be argued that the change of character may add to this jarring tone, however we hardly get any character introduction in “Vendetta” or even at the start of the game, so it feels more to do with the unrelenting gameplay.
This is the same reason I had real trouble with the original Black Ops. My favourite level of the game is “U.S.D.D.”, a level without any shooting and is one big cutscene. I love it because it allows a break after the all-out action of “Operation 40” and “Vorkuta”. And while there are stealth sections in Black Ops, they aren’t mandatory or last an entire level (such as WMD and Rebirth). This can get instill a sense of weariness when explosions end each level.
Now you see how pacing can make a good game turn into a great game. So, back to L.A. Noire.
Back on the Beat – L.A. Noire and Pacing
As previously mentioned, while nearly each case in L.A. Noire is its own story, some cases add together to form a larger picture. These mostly happen on the Vice desk. There is a running B story throughout the whole of L.A. Noire about gangster Mickey Cohen staging a heist of army surplus morphine, which the majority of the Vice desk is spent dealing with.
These cases then lead into the Arson desk that has its own mini arc. Another B story is about property land developers in a building scam, pretending to build homes for returning GIs before burning them and then collecting the insurance. But the man they have sent to burn down the houses (a mentally scarred flamethrower from WW2) has started targeting any and all houses rather than the ones they told him to.
The Arson desk follows this plotline all the way to the conclusion, with every case about the arson attacks and the development fund.
The DLC cases slide into each desk and end the steady pace that the game has because of these running B stories.
Traffic seems to get away pretty unscathed. Each case of Traffic features new suspects and scenarios and has no overarching narrative like the other desks. The new case, A Slip Of The Tongue, slots easily into Traffic, following the same one-off pattern as the previous crimes.
In Vice, things start to get a little tricky. In the original edition, there are only three cases (the same as Traffic), compared to six of Homicide and five of Arson.
The new cases add more variety meaning the Vice desk isn’t all about morphine. One of the new cases, The Naked City, also sets up that Det. Bekowsky, the partner on the Traffic Desk, eventually moved up to Homicide and was partnered with Rusty Galloway, the partner from the Homicide desk.
It is strange how this case was cut, especially as it introduces Bekowksy as part of Homicide before he appears in the final Vice case, Manifest Destiny.
Another reason why it is strange that these cases were cut is that they actually foreshadow Cole’s later infidelity. During driving sequences, Roy mentions Cole’s regular visits to the Blue Room and Bekowsky asking what Cole looks for in a woman. But these lines should have been in the original experience to make that character turn actually feel plausible instead of bizarre.
Arson is the “worst” offender when it comes to pacing. I like the Nicholson Electroplating case and I think it is the best of the DLCs, but when looking at the game as a whole it feels out of place.
First, some background.
Elsa Lichtmann, jazz singer and mistress of lead character Cole Phelps, receives the life insurance payment of her friend, Lou Buchwalter.
Lou was working as carpenter on one of the doomed housing projects, but the timbre he was working on gave way and he fell to his death. The house fires that Cole has been investigating are on the land that the property developers want to build on.
After putting two and two together (the house fires are perpetrated by the developers so they can build shoddy houses), Cole gets threatened by his higher-ups and told to close his investigation.
To keep pressure on the situation outside of the police force, Cole enlists comrade-now-turned insurance investigator Jack Kelso to inspect Elsa’s friend’s death, thus exposing the racket. Jack’s cases play one after the other in the original experience (including the final level), but the DLC case Nicholson Electroplating slots in right before the final level.
This completely upends the narrative, with a case that has no bearing on the story while said story is hurtling towards its conclusion.
But that is why they work perfectly as DLC.
Instead of just ANOTHER case in a long line of cases, the DLC is a reminder of that appealing central core of the game. Seeing these old friends again, Bekowsky, Rusty, Roy, and Biggs, and getting to do the old “crack the case” thing one last time (which could get tiring after having several in a row), it feels comfortable, safe even.
So while these new additions can feel out of place, seemingly halting the steady pace of the game, the episodic nature of L.A. Noire allows them to work as individual cases, unmoored to the extravagant length of the base game.
Remasters and definitive editions are becoming a bigger draw in the industry than ever before. Games like Dark Souls and Resident Evil 2 have been remade and changed aspects like bonfire warping and enemy introductions. So that is why we must remember and catalogue the original way that games were played and delivered.
The way L.A. Noire was originally published must be remembered for posterity, a testament to excellent story pacing within the art form, as well as the power in how a narrative can be structured.