L.A. Noire embraces the frustrating trend of shipping with retailer exclusive pre-order bonuses. Depending on where you order the game from, you’ll get one of four exclusive cases. There’s one unique to Best Buy, Wallmart, GameStop, and one for the PS3. The most annoying thing about these “deals” is that the content is digital and could easily be made available to everyone, but business politics dictate that they remain exclusive for a set amount of time. The upside to this situation is that L.A. Noire has also embraced a different kind of pre-order bonus, a physical product that allows us to experience the game in a new setting: the real world. GameStop’s exclusive Badge Pursuit Challenge is more alternate reality game than video game and that makes it far more entertaining than any extra in-game case.
At its core, the Badge Pursuit Challenge is a “collect-a-thon” quest. The DLC hides twenty police badges around L.A. and tasks you with finding them all. But L.A. is big, and the badges are very small, so to help you in your search, you’re given a set of film negatives showing the general location of each badge. The film is a physical product, coming in a separate bag marked “Badge Pursuit Challenge” stuck between the instruction booklet and any DLC voucher. The presence of something physical automatically gives this content a greater perceived value than the case that GameStop also gives you, but value issues aside, the most exciting aspect of this collection quest is that it reverses that typical investigation process of L.A. Noire.
In the game proper, if you pick up a photo that shows something relevant to the investigation, that relevant information is automatically written down, so players don’t actually have to analyze the photo closely. Mechanically it’s a great compromise; the game forces us to find the clue, but then tells us specifically why that clue is important. For example, if we pick up a photo and the game tells us the location where the photo was taken, we know that the location is more important than the people in the picture. We don’t have to pour over every little detail of the picture; the game does that kind of in depth analysis for us so that we only have correct information when going into an interrogation.
In contrast to that, the game gives us the clue for the Badge Pursuit Challenge—a photo of each badge location—then leaves it to the player to pick out the specific details within that photo that will help that player track down that particular location. Sometimes there’s an obvious landmark in the photo, making it easy to find that badge, but sometimes the photo just shows us a generic park or sidewalk. This puts a unique demand on the player to be more methodical in his analysis. You learn to look in the background for signs, unique architecture, types of trees, or a unique view of the L.A. skyline, anything that makes this location stand out from the rest of the city. And because these negatives are the size of a normal roll of film, this analysis is made doubly difficult. It helps to have a magnifying glass at hand, and that use of a classic detective tool only adds to fun of the hunt.
This kind of interaction can easily become tacky, and Rockstar and Team Bondi were smart to keep it limited in scope. Since we’re essentially just looking at pictures, our role in this ARG never becomes outlandish. We’re not asked to investigate a fake crime scene as such theatrics would feel forced, either to avoid an actual police investigation or simply to ensure that all players—no matter how dull or observant—could find all the clues. By keeping this ARG focused on the negatives, our “investigation” naturally becomes more realistic: We’re not playing a hero, just a normal person doing somewhat atypical analysis. Plus, it’s much easier to fall into our given role of detective when we can do it privately.
The limited scope also ensures that this ARG retains the noir style of the game. Analyzing negatives for clues is such a common storytelling trope that to not include it would be an oversight.
Most importantly, this little alternate reality game and the video game itself complement one another. Exploring the world of L.A. Noire makes it easier to recognize locations in the negatives, and memorizing distinctive traits of the negatives makes it more likely you’ll stumble across that location while exploring the city. There’s a joy in driving to a crime scene and suddenly skidding to a halt because you recognize a landmark. Its moments like that, the lucky break, that make the Badge Pursuit Challenge stand out as something special. You can’t script a lucky break.
Instead of giving us more of the same content that we’ll get when playing normally, this pre-order bonus gives players a unique piece of content that forces us out of our investigative comfort zone. It would certainly lose a lot of its charm if it was translated into a digital game, if we could simply view the negatives from Cole’s notebook, for example. The real fun of the Badge Pursuit Challenge comes from handling the physical evidence. While this physical nature helps justify its limited availability, it’s still a shame that this bonus game must be limited at all. At the very least, the Badge Pursuit Challenge proves that even a “collect-a-thon” quest can add another layer of interactivity to a game when done right. Extra cases, suits, or guns just seem like a cop out by comparison.