'L.A. Noire'

The Fatalism of American Sticktoitiveness

by G. Christopher Williams

1 June 2011

You can get through the entire story by being the least competent detective in the world. The story will unfold, as it were, despite you.

One of the common complaints about L.A.Noire is the sense that players have of the title being more an example of interactive fiction than of it being a game.  Certainly there is something to this observation, as despite having some tactical shooting elements (especially in its secondary missions), most of L.A. Noire‘s gameplay boils down to activities that do not require successful mastery of the game’s mechanics.  Both the actions of searching for clues and interrogating suspects do not really have a fail state.  If you do not turn up all of the clues in a case or if you fail to properly deduce whether you should trust a suspect’s response, doubt it, or accuse that person of lying, you will still ultimately resolve any given case that Cole Phelps is investigating.

Again, certainly your performance will be evaluated by the close of the case (which speaks a bit to a more game-like quality to the overall experience, as “following the rules” results in being acknowledged as a “better detective”), nevertheless, success, like justice (in the game’s world apparently), is inevitable.  You can get through the entire story (barring the initial tutorial interrogation, which does require correct answers to move forward) by being the least competent detective in the world.  The story will unfold, as it were, despite you.
Unlike its British counterpart, the American detective story has seldom concerned itself with strategy, tactics, and, well, gamesmanship.  As the hardboiled detective writer, Raymond Chandler, observed when discussing his distaste for the British “drawing room” mystery, such a story “is offered [to the reader] as a problem of logic and deduction” (“The Simple Art of Murder”The American Literature Archive, 1950).  Indeed, wasn’t it that most famous of British detectives that declared, “The game is afoot!”?  Chandler’s concern with the British detective is that he tends to solve the case by looking at clues, interrogating suspects, and then taking the situation and breaking the crime “down into a series of simple operations, like assembling an egg-beater.”  For Chandler and writers in the hardboiled and noir tradition, crime was not a game.  He credits his contemporary Dashiell Hammett with giving ”murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish.”

Detectives in this tradition, then, recognize crime as a problem that needs to be resolved but in a more direct, more experiential, and (often) more violently realistic way.  Chandler’s Philip Marlowe spends much less time testing his own hypotheses as he does simply shaking a few treess to see what falls out.  In this sense, the American detective story is less about intellect and quick wittedness as it is about perseverance.  Oddly, this is the the very quality required by L.A. Noire to resolve its fiction: stick with it, eventually an answer will emerge. 

It is also the quality that makes this American form of the detective story so very American.  What is admirable about hardboiled detectives isn’t their intellectualism, it is their sticktotiveness.  They appeal to an anti-intellectual tradition in American culture that values toughness and pragmatism over abstract thinking and obscure knowledge.  It is constancy of purpose that will win the day.

Hardboiled and noir protagonists, then, are rarely brilliant thinkers and tacticians.  Instead, they tend to get “involved” with the seamier parts of the world they occupy and that “involvement” forms the work of detection.  They experience the world and see what happens when they ask some questions, look around a little bit, and then often get beaten down as a result (which happens to Jack Kelso in L.A. Noire and which happens to any protagonist worth their salt in most hardboiled tales—it is emblematic of that perseverance of spirit mentioned earlier).  In a sense this seems an appropriate way of expressing the genre in a “game” form.  L.A. Noire is less about being right than it is about experiencing the seamier side of 1940s L.A, being the detective, living in his world, and interacting with its inhabitants is the main focus of play, not “the game” of investigation.  If this makes the game more interactive fiction than game, so be it.  It expresses noir in an interactive form that is appropriate to the genre’s thematic interests.

This idea was especially apparent to me when I was first faced with choosing between two suspects to charge with a crime midway through the game, during the “Black Dahlia” inspired cases in the game.  Up until that point for every crime that I had solved, I had done so merely by having the apparent perpetrator revealed over the course of that case’s plot to me.  Being given a choice of possible murderers was actually offputting to me as a player, since I had grown accustomed to never been given the opportunity to do so.  Most suspects had fled from pursuit or outright admitted their guilt through word or deed up until that point, and I had simply chased them down as appropriate.

To make matters more troubling, the two suspects being held were characters that seemed to both have motives for the crime, opportunity, and some physical evidence to point at them being the killer of a married wife and mother.  I hemmed and hawed a bit over the problem, moving back and forth between interview rooms.  The fact that my interrogations had gone moderately badly (I missed one question with one suspect and two with the other) also made me doubt how clearly I was seeing the case.  Perhaps a missing piece of information would have tipped the scales one way or the other?

My partner suggested that I implicate one of the suspects who was a confessed pedophile, as opposed to the other suspect, a husband enraged no doubt (if he was guilty) by his wife enough to do her harm but certainly no threat to society at large.  While I admittedly saw the pragmatism in getting a pedophile off the street, I wanted to believe that justice should prevail.  However, I frankly was doubtful in some way that either suspect was guilty at all, as this case looked to be one of several murders by the Black Dahlia and a frame job was possible as well.  The game offered me no real option though.  To move on, I had to choose.  So, I took my best guess, which . . . didn’t actually matter.

I should have seen that pragmatism was the best strategy here because whether I chose the correct murderer or not was beside the point, the plot moved forward.  The hardboiled truth was that the case needed solving, the police captain was more interested in closing the books on the case than in the appropriate solution to a “game”.  Making either choice equally viable for progress revealed the hard truth of policework and the hard fatalism of noir: in the real world, expediency and a sense of security (the sense that one less murderer is on the loose) is more crucial than being “right” (be that morally or in terms of gamesmanship).

In this sense, L.A. Noire is less about playing a game well than it is about doing a job well.  This fits neatly with Cole Phelps’s own problems in the game.  As a decorated war hero filled with self doubt about the successfullness of the job he did during the war, Phelps is less a hero in a game than someone chosen to represent American strength and steadfastness in the line of fire.  That he may not have gotten it right (or that you may not either) doesn’t matter—only that the job gets done.


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