"What makes LA Noire so good as a filmic experience holds it back as a game"

Trying to copy the movie business has its pitfalls.

Arthur C Clarke once wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology was indistinguishable from magic. I imagine that's how anyone who hasn't played a computer game since, say, Doom or Sonic the Hedgehog might feel about LA Noire. The game, set in the police force of Los Angeles in the 1940s, is both very new and very traditional.

The novelty comes from its unique motion-capture system. Instead of blank-eyed heads parrotting clunky lines at you, LA Noire's characters deliver the sharp script with a mixture of grimaces, shifty eyes, nervous tics and eerily recognisable mannerisms. (The likenesses are so good that you can play a rewarding meta-game of "spot the American character actor": veterans of Heroes, Dexter and Buffy appear.)

The story follows an LAPD officer, Cole Phelps (played by Aaron Staton, Mad Men's Ken Cosgrove), who is not long back from fighting the Japanese at Okinawa. He's a by-the-book cop in a motley police department, trying to bring justice to a Los Angeles that's just as corrupt as that of the films LA Confidential or Chinatown.

The movie references are particularly apt here, because this is a game that aspires, above all, to be cinematic. There's the budget, for a start -- reportedly upwards of $50m -- which has enabled Rockstar to create an exquisitely detailed game world, complete with period cars and clothes (not to mention some very period attitudes to race and gender). The music, too, is subtly excellent, with Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong to drive to and wailing jazz stings to indicate the presence of clues at crime scenes.

For me, however, the most innovative aspect of LA Noire is the maturity of its storyline: there's none of the sniggering puerility of Rockstar's major franchise, Grand Theft Auto. Even better, Cole Phelps's character develops over the course of the story; something that is all too rare with video game protagonists and has inhibited their ability to provoke empathy.

The irony is that what makes LA Noire so good as a filmic experience sometimes holds it back as a game. Despite its huge map and cast of characters, the game is tightly linear. In this, it's more like a traditional point-and-click adventure, such as Monkey Island, than the more recent -- and similarly cinematic -- Heavy Rain, where your choices have more far-reaching consequences. Also, the game is sometimes so keen to help you get things right, with sounds and vibrations aiding you to find clues, and your partner chipping in if you're making a real hash of things, that you can feel like a passenger rather than a protagonist.

Nonetheless, LA Noire is an ambitious and successful game, extraordinary both in what it is and in what it represents for the industry. And there is one key respect in which it differs from a film: in the age of the 90-minute megaplex blockbuster, it demands more than 20 hours of your time to tell a sprawling, dark, mature and intricately connected story.

Helen Lewis-Hasteley is an assistant editor of the New Statesman. She tweets: @helenlewis

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 06 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Are we all doomed?

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The Wood Wide Web: the world of trees underneath the surface

Mycorrhizal networks, better known as the Wood Wide Web, have allowed scientists to understand the social networks formed by trees underground.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden, an extensive rumination on his two years, two months and two days spent in a cabin in the woodlands near Walden Pond. It was situated on a plot of land owned by his friend, mentor and noted transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau’s escape from the city was a self-imposed experiment - one which sought to find peace and harmony through a minimalistic, simple way of living amongst nature. Voicing his reasons for embarking on the rural getaway, Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”

Walden cemented Thoreau’s reputation as a key figure in naturalism; his reflections have since been studied, his practices meticulously replicated. But in the knowledge that Thoreau’s excursion into the woods was a means to better understand how to integrate into society, curious minds are left to wonder what essays and aphorisms Thoreau would have produced had he known what the botanists of today know of nature’s very own societal networks.

As scientists have now discovered, what lies beneath the ground Thoreau walked upon, and indeed beneath the ground anyone walks upon when near trees, is perhaps the most storied history and study of collaborative society in something which is now known as the mycorrhizal network or the “Wood Wide Web”.

Coined by the journal Nature, the term Wood Wide Web has come to describe the complex mass of interactions between trees and their microbial counterparts underneath the soil. Spend enough time among trees and you may get a sense that they have been around for centuries, standing tall and sturdy, self-sufficient and independent. But anchoring trees and forestry everywhere, and therefore enjoining them into an almost singular superoganism, is a very intimate relationship between their roots and microbes called mycorrhizal fungi.

Understanding the relationship between the roots of trees and mycorrhizal fungi has completely shifted the way we think about the world underneath them. Once thought to be harmful, mycorrhizal fungi are now known to have a bond of mutualism with the roots – a symbiotic connection from which both parties benefit.

Despite the discovery being a recent one, the link between the two goes as far back as 450 million years. A pinch of soil can hold up to seven miles worth of coiled, tubular, thread-like fungi. The fungi release tubes called hyphae which infiltrate the soil and roots in a non-invasive way, creating a tie between tree and fungus at a cellular level. It is this bond which is called mycorrhiza. As a result, plants 20m away from each other can be connected in the same way as plants connected 200 metres away; a hyphal network forms which brings the organisms into connection.

At the heart of the mutualistic relationship is an exchange; the fungi have minerals which the tree needs, and the trees have carbon (which is essentially food) which the fungi need. The trees receive nitrogen for things such as lignin – a component which keep the trees upright, and various other minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, copper and more. In return, fungi get the sugars they need from the trees’ ongoing photosynthesis to energise their activities and build their bodies. The connection runs so deep that 20-80% of a tree’s sugar can be transferred to the fungi, while the transfer of nitrogen to trees is such that without the swap, trees would be toy-sized.

It’s a bond that has resulted in some remarkable phenomena. Suzanne Simard, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia, has researched into these back and forth exchanges and has found that rather than competing against one another as often assumed, there is a sort of teamwork between the trees facilitated by the mycorrhizal fungi.

In one particular example, Simard looked at a Douglas fir tree planted next to a birch tree. Upon taking the birch tree out, there was a completely unexpected result: the fir tree – instead of prospering from the reduced competition for sunlight – began to decay and die. The trees were connected underground via the mycorrhizal system, transferring carbon, nitrogen and water to one another, communicating underground, talking to each other. As Simard says in her TED talk, “it might remind you of a sort of intelligence.”

It has been documented that trees share food not just with trees of the same species, but with trees of all kinds of species, forming a social network which some have come to describe as a socialist system. Growth rates are positively affected while seedlings face greater chances of survival. There is in fact a group of plants – the mycoheterotrophic plants of which there are around 400 species – which wouldn’t survive without the mycorrhizal network. These plants are unable to photosynthesise and are therefore heavily dependent on other plants for carbon and minerals.

Over the years, Thoreau has had his fair share of critics who deemed his trip to the woods nothing more than an exercise in self-indulgence and narcissism. Perhaps if Thoreau had the chance to head back to Walden Pond with the knowledge of the Wood Wide Web at hand, he would fully understand that no one man is an island, as no one tree is a forest.