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03 Dec

Chapter on Hyperreal Urban Spaces in L.A. Noire in the Making

Written by Michael Fuchs
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Exploring the Past? Hyperreal Urban Spaces in L.A. Noire

When the video game L.A. Noire was released in the spring of 2011, the popular press primarily highlighted two features: First, its MotionScan technology, which is central to the game's interrogation mechanic and (so the promotional campaign suggested) realistically simulates human facial expressions. Second, the great efforts the developers undertook in order to faithfully re-create 1940s' Los Angeles, as they spent weeks at various libraries in California, consulting maps and numerous photographs of the era.

However, the city players can explore in the game is not an accurate representation of the Los Angeles of a bygone era. Steeped in nostalgia and burdened by the weight of past L.A. fictions, L.A. Noire presents players with a truly hyperreal space that they can walk and drive around in. It is a dark place taken straight out of a noir fiction, characterized by corruption, prostitution, and murder. Yet as much as L.A. Noire is a fiction based on other fictions, pieces of historical reality creep into the narrative at times, as characters, for example, condemn the mushrooming of freeways and express their confusion about the first glimpses of suburbanization. This mixing of historical reality and popular imaginations of the 1940s is further complicated by the facts that the player's avatar is haunted by his memories of WWII and that the game text features a sub-plot on a psychiatrist helping war veterans work through their traumatic experiences. Thus, the narrative, which tries to re-create and remember a specific period in American history, becomes a meta-commentary on memory work.

As I will demonstrate in my proposed chapter, despite its hyperreal character, which would suggest abandoning any notions of 'truth' and 'original', L.A. Noire seeks to re-create the experience of inhabiting 1940s' Los Angeles in an authentic way. Since this authenticity, however, is not necessarily based on historical reality, the game text creates a reality of a different order. In the process, any idea of historical reality becomes assimilated by the myth of Los Angeles (which depicts the city as both a beacon of progress and hope and an emblem of decay). That the player inhabits a twilight zone between physical and diegetic reality while exploring the virtual city only supports the superimposition of various (hyper)realities in the context of L.A. Noire, allowing both the gameworld and the past to leak into the 'real' world of the present moment.