L.A. Noire is a story. It is an almost entirely linear experience, with a primary protagonist and a host of supporting characters, a clearly-defined plot, scripted dialogue, and more than one “shocking twist”. It screened at Tribeca. Its animated “actors” are as believable as any simulated humans ever brought to consoles, and its $50 million budget puts it in a league with the major-studio productions of our time.
L.A. Noire is a game. Despite its film-quality aspirations, it doesn’t hide its identity. As a game, it is not simply about exploration and interrogation and investigation, but it is also about doing those things well. After each case, the player is told how many clues were found, and how many suspects’ answers were correctly interpreted, and is scored on a 1 to 5-star scale. None of it makes any difference as to the solving of future mysteries—the plot will progress whether you’re a Clouseau-style bumbling fool or a Sherlock Holmes of the hard-boiled set—but the player is constantly made aware of the proficiency being achieved.
And somehow, L.A. Noire pulls off a believable balance between the two while compromising neither.
A big part of how L.A. Noire manages this balance is in its handling of immersion. What Team Bondi does here is give the player control over the game without ever really forcing the issue of the player becoming the protagonist. The protagonist has a name: Cole Phelps. The protagonist is anything but silent; you spend much of the game listening to him banter with other detectives and interrogate suspects. Not only that, but the game makes Cole Phelps out to be kind of a jerk. Phelps will gladly scream at an abused child to get a straight answer out of her. Phelps will righteously dismiss any joke made at his expense. Phelps will gladly take the credit for any solved case, no matter whether he fell into a conviction or even accused the right person.
Some of the best films and television shows are the ones in which the main character is a flawed, ultimately unlikable human being. Daniel Plainview of There Will Be Blood, as portrayed by Daniel Day Lewis, was one of the more revolting humans to hit the big screen in the last ten years, but the movie was almost irresistibly watchable. House, M.D. is a television show centered on a pompous jerk who just happens to be a brilliant puzzle-solver despite his self-destructive and sociopathic tendencies, personality traits that the last two episodes of the show’s latest season drove home in all but irrevocable ways—it’s hard to root for someone who, on an apparent near-homicidal whim, just drove a car into his ex-girlfriend’s house because she was having lunch with another guy.
Cole Phelps is not nearly the sociopath that House or Plainview are, but neither the story being told in the game’s version of present day (that is, 1947) nor the wartime flashbacks offered to flesh out the character give us a flattering picture. There is no way that this is a character that players would want to inhabit, and so L.A. Noire gives us these outward “game” elements, as if to convince us that we don’t have to. The player remains a player, while Phelps is simply Phelps and not a mere cipher to be interpreted by that player.
What this separation of player and protagonist also does, perhaps inadvertently, is cushion the negative impact that Phelps’ apparent lack of interrogation skills has on the player. All the dollars that had been thrown at the graphics were supposed to be in service of a pretty major gameplay mechanic after all: we’re supposed to be able to read the faces of our interrogatees in order to tell whether they’re lying or not. Sideways glances, gulps, and a lack of eye contact are all supposed to be indicators that someone might not be telling the truth.
Well, either it’s broken or interrogation is harder than just looking for sideways glances. Either way, you, as the player, will get it wrong. You’ll get it wrong a lot.
It’s extremely tempting to say that the developers screwed this up entirely, but there seems to be a presumption of success when it comes to the interrogation sequences that doesn’t translate to other aspects of the game. Perhaps most troubling for the player is the idea that fouling up an interrogation doesn’t trip the game into a retry (except for in the tutorial sequence). The player must live with the idea that their decision has essentially caused Phelps to look absolutely clueless on top of his being a complete and utter pill. Interestingly, the effect is to separate the game from the character even more; by giving Phelps traits that we do not choose to give him, traits that we instead fall into as a result of our own almost inevitable ineptitude, it’s as if the developers and writers are giving him these traits rather than the player.
These are odd feelings to be trying to resolve when there’s an Xbox 360 controller in your hand, and this separation often feels like a mere first step toward more complex narrative possibilities in video games. It feels like a long experiment, and it’s fascinating to experience it even if it doesn’t always work.
At the very least, this much can be said for it: When you first see Cole Phelps on L.A. Noire‘s cover art, before you’ve played the game, you notice the hat, the jacket, the tie, the gun. Finish the game and look at that cover again, you see his face.