Pixel hunting is considered the bane of adventure gaming. An object you need is only a few pixels in size and it’s hidden within the scenery, so you’re forced to point the mouse cursor at every object onscreen in order to see what you can interact with and what’s just part of the background. It’s the epitome of frustrating, unintuitive, trial-and-error gameplay, a cheap and artificial way of stretching out a game’s length. It’s a system so universally hated that even updates of old adventure titles find ways around pixel hunting: The downloadable special edition of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge includes a button that highlights all interactive objects on the screen, so players can quickly see what’s interactive and what’s not. There’s no need to hunt anything.
But is pixel hunting really that bad? Or is just poorly implemented in most cases? L.A. Noire argues for the latter point by including its own form of pixel hunting, one that fits so naturally within its world that the hunt becomes an integral part of the game and one of its major selling points.
L.A Norie calls its form of pixel hunting an “investigation.” You’re still essentially moving a cursor around the screen looking for random interactive objects, but now you’re moving an avatar around a 3D space. The system itself hasn’t changed, but in this case, the hunt has a clear narrative context.
You play as Cole Phelps, a detective, and you investigate crime scenes. It makes sense that important evidence would be hidden by the criminal in order to make the crime harder to solve. People naturally associate detectives with the process of investigation, so playing as a detective automatically sets one’s expectations for a detailed investigation of crime scenes. Unlike other adventure games, in which pixel hunting becomes the default method of puzzle solving due to a constant lack of information, L.A. Noire makes the hunt itself part of the puzzle. It doesn’t surprise you with the sudden need to find a random object, you expect such a hunt from the outset given the genre. By simply changing the context in which this frustrating system is presented, it becomes a feature.
Of course, L.A. Noire includes its own set of tricks to make the hunt easier, less frustrating, but at the same time, it drops a lot of red herrings in the player’s path: As Phelps walks around a crime scene looking for clues, you’ll get a musical cue and the controller will rumble when he’s near something important. The game highlights evidence like this by default. However, giving the player such an advantage would make the hunt too easy, and L.A. Noire demands that you do hunt for its pixilated evidence, so the crime scenes are always littered with junk that you can interact with—objects that look like evidence and that the game hints might be evidence, but are not evidence. When the controller rumbles that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re standing near something important, just something interactive. L.A.Noire makes it easy to hunt pixels, but most of what you find is useless. It makes the hunt easier while still making it necessary.
There’s also a way to highlight all the important objects at a crime scene, similar to the button in Monkey Island 2, but this button is treated as a “last resort” kind of hint. You can use “intuition points” to reveal all relevant items on your mini-map, but intuition points are hard to acquire and are best saved for difficult interrogations. By limiting how often you can use this hint, and by making other uses for said hint more attractive, L.A. Noire encourages you to hunt down evidence the old fashioned way.
Each game’s differing attitude towards pixel hunting represents their differing attitude towards adventure gaming in general. Monkey Island 2 is driven by its puzzles, so it helps to focus players on solving puzzles rather than on finding puzzle pieces by making it easy to avoid pixel hunting. L.A. Noire is driven by its story, so it wants you to hunt for pixels because that’s what Phelps would do; it holds back its best hints and litters the ground with interactive junk in order to more effectively put the player in Phelps’s shoes, justifying the hunt both mechanically and narritively.
L.A. Noire embraces pixel hunting but presents it in a new context. All it takes is this new context to make pixel hunting fun.
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