I spotted him on the street, his eyes glittering with energy. He said he thought we were going the same place, and we were.
A man met us in the lobby. You won’t be able to talk about what you see, he said, Not until we say so.
The floor numbers flickered as we rode up the soundless elevator in the sleek, buffered building in Soho, a few steps from one of the noisiest stretches of Broadway but a world away.
It all felt big-ticket, plush. My shoes looked pretty scuffed. But I wasn’t there to admire the creamy white walls, the sun-struck lobby, the chrome and leather offices filled with dark-haired men with sharp eyewear and complicated wristwatches.
I was there for a job.
But it wasn’t what it seemed, not by a mile, and I had no idea what I was getting into until it was too late. Until I was peering over the edge into something dark, strange, irresistible. Who was I to say no?
About six weeks ago, I got a dream assignment—to write a story set in my favorite time and place: Los Angeles, 1947. The epicenter of my imaginative life. And it was to be for an anthology titled L.A. Noire, to be published on June 6 by Mulholland Books.
The building in question was the headquarters of Rockstar Games, the developer/publisher behind such phenomena as Grand Theft Auto and Max Payne. I’d been invited by the editor of the anthology, the wonderful (and dashing) novelist/artist Jonathan Santlofer. Then, for an hour or more, I sat with fellow contributors Hard Case Crime wunderkind Charles Ardai and crime novelist Duane Swierczynski in a conference room and watched embargoed goods, a preview of a new videogame, L.A. Noire, developed with Team Bondi, which will be released on May 17.
Set in a hauntingly rendered Los Angeles of 1947, L.A. Noire requires its players to solve a series of crimes, most of which interweave fact (the Jeanne French-Red Lipstick Murder) and fiction. Aaron Staton of TV’s Mad Men (Ken Cosgrove, the blonde prepster and author of “Tapping A Maple On A Cold Vermont Morning”) portrays the lead police detective.
The accompanying short-story anthology is meant to compliment the game, a series of tales by authors including Lawrence Block, Joe Lansdale, Francine Prose, Joyce Carol Oates and Andrew Vachss, all set in this phantasmagoric world of 1947 Los Angeles.
I admit I am no gamer (lacking even the most fundamental skills). More to the point, though, I have an inherent suspicion of attempts to recreate 1940s Los Angeles, which, to me, must meet the exacting, sleazy, riotously violent and startlingly romantic standards of the Bible of my 1940s Los Angeles: Ellroy’s Los Angeles Quartet.
But watching the game that day, and the young man playing it for us, was quite an transporting experience. Burrowing past the venetian blinds-sheets-of-rain-bourbon-in-desk-drawer kitsch noir we all know so well, this Los Angeles is qualitatively different.
First, it’s in color. It’s a sunny, sprawling yet infinitely sleazy realm, radiating so much of the haunted LA-ness I could ever have wanted: the pastel-drenched buildings, the low, dry courtyard apartments with their brooding eucalyptus, their flat sorrows and the off-screen sounds of bottles rolling and someone crying softly, somewhere.
It was uncanny, watching the game, engaging with it. It was different from seeing 1940s L.A. in a movie, its inherent “movie-ness,” and different too from the way an Ellroy novel can pitch its inky darkness through the front-most reaches of my head. It was different because it was happening and we were part of it. We were in the game, all of us. Questioning suspects, driving along Sunset, walking in the LAPD’s Old Central, passing Clifton’s Cafeteria, gazing up at the luminous white of City Hall at night. Of course, we were “in it”—that’s the special beauty of videogames. But the “it” this time was the luminous simulacrum.
But there was a different kind of uncanny too. Apparently, L.A. Noire makes use of a new MotionScan facial recognition technology. The idea is to capture more of the characters’ (actors’) nuances. To look, essentially, more natural. More as we experience one another in life.
In the case of L.A. Noire, the game depends on it, on how well we can read faces, detect lies. As we guide the police detective-hero, we need to be able to penetrate suspects and witnesses, to consider their body language to try uncover what they may have to hide. And when they are lying.
But watching it, and sometimes guessing correctly and other times not, I was struck by the most uncomfortable feeling. It was something in the way the suspects’ eyes moved, darted, vibrated, blinked, averted … mine. They seemed to be looking at me, and not looking at me, at once.
It reminded me of the term “uncanny valley,” which is a term coined by roboticist Masahiro Mori (and relies heavily on Freud’s “The Uncanny“). It refers to, as I understand it, the point at which an almost-human object causes humans to be instinctively unnerved. The closer a robot (or prosthetic limb, or puppet, cyborg, etc.) becomes to being lifelike, the more the tiny elements that don’t seem lifelike—a slight stiffness in the gait, eyes that don’t quite focus on your eyes—we become unnerved. Mori called this plunge “the Uncanny Valley,” the precise point at which a simulation of life becomes so perfect it’s terrifying.
Frequently quoted in discussions of the uncanny valley is this line from C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:
when you meet anything that’s going to be human and isn’t yet, or used to be human once and isn’t now, or ought to be human and isn’t, you keep your eyes on it and feel for your hatchet.
In the case of L.A. Noire, the feeling for me was magnified. Not only did these characters (many assayed by actors I was sure I recognized even when I couldn’t name them—because they looked like themselves, and yet not precisely) enact stories (famous 1947 crimes) I knew so well, but that had been, just slightly, fictionalized. The same but different. Real but not real.
But there was this: I know this world through books, through movies, through driving through Los Angeles and finding the remaining haunts—battered tiki bars, peeling-leather-boothed bars, the sleek deco lines of the Pacific Dining Car.
Except this time, the police detectives, the victims, the criminals, the killers—were looking back at me. Were telling me things to see if I believed them. Were lying to me and seeing if I could tell.
The experience was powerful and made me understand something about the allure of games I hadn’t before. As much as one might believe technology distances us from ourselves, from each other, it might in fact do the opposite. Facing a game that plugged into my deepest imaginative life, any distance I had left from that time and place felt very nearly effaced.
Sitting there that afternoon, I came to recognize—those uncanny eyes flashing on me, looking straight into my own eyes—how intimate and personal games can be. How they can seep into your head, tug at things, make you feel. How there are times in all our lives when everything we thought we knew was not exactly what we thought at all. And how we may not be either. (And, within that gap, that particular valley, lies all kinds of unwanted revelation.) How we make our own worlds and invest them with ideas of truth, permanence. But that’s a fiction too.
(My story, “The Girl,” is excerpted here.)