Control Yourself: Agency and Narrative in Open World Games

I recently ran across an interesting article that Tom Bissell wrote about his experiences playing Rockstar’s L.A. Noire, and one comment in particular stuck out to me. “When I stopped thinking about him as someone with whom I was supposed to feel any kinship, Cole Phelps became a deeply compelling character,” Bissell writes of his experience, saying that the game became much more enjoyable once he’d divorced himself from the illusion of “being” Cole Phelps (“Press X for Beer Bottle: On L.A. Noire, Grantland, 8 June 2011). Having spent some time playing L.A. Noire myself, I was surprised to find that on the whole I agreed with the sentiment. While originally I had indeed sat down to play the game so that I could become the weary cop, the One Good Man on an overworked and corrupt police force, I quickly stopped thinking of the game that way and started thinking of it as a way to get to the bottom of who Cole Phelps was and what, if anything, caused him to be such an aggressive, angry guy all the time.

Sure, he seems like a nice guy at first.

Cole Phelps is his own character. He is not a role to be played by the player as in other games because he makes his own choices as to how to interrogate a witness or a suspect. The player might indicate whether or not they think the witness is lying, but it is Cole Phelps who decides whether or not to berate the witness or to accuse them of murder. There is no possible way to play Cole Phelps as a kind and sympathetic police officer short of blindly believing everything that he’s told, a tactic which portrays Cole as a kinder, dumber man (and if you’re interested in scoring high, it kills your case rating).

This is what Phelps looks like most of the time.

The viciousness of Cole’s accusations have been commented on before, and while generally they seem almost warranted (being rather rude to the pervert who drugs starlets and films them having sex of lying is not really going to bother anyone, for example), there are numerous occasions when an accusation of murder is made to a young starlet lying in the hospital or to a newly widowed housewife. Phelps’s technique is appaently to accuse everyone of murder in the hopes that they’ll crack and tell him what he wants to know — and to do so in the meanest way possible. He’s not actually that great a cop (especially given his apparent obsession with looking at beer bottles), but the real important thing is that the player is completely unable to make Cole Phelps not act like an asshole to potential suspects who may be varnishing the truth.

This is something of a hallmark of Rockstar’s games — Red Dead Redemption serves up John Marston, who I desperately wanted to play as a decent human being and yet could not. In the Mexico portion of the game, Marston works for both sides of the civil war taking place in the country, and the player must work for both sides in order to advance the story. There is no way to let the player decide that really, all things considered, the current government is corrupt and in need of change. Thus, screw that government. The only way to get to the point where Marston will stop working for the government is to wait for the plot to kick in. In the final mission for the government, Marston is betrayed and thus works exclusively for the rebels from that point forward, but it is doubtful that many players would have waited for that to happen if given the choice.

You are told that Marston can be either a good guy…

Or a bad guy, but there’s not much more than a cosmetic difference.

Marston, like Cole, will very rarely give the player a chance to insert any of their own personality into him, apart from choosing whether or not to step into some of the conflicts that occur as he rides from one mission to another. Yet even these moments ring somewhat hollowly, as stopping an execution by government soldiers while on the way to firebombing a village alongside another squad of soldiers hardly makes one feel as if Marston is fighting the fight of the just. It works for the story that Rockstar is telling, as this is Marston doing whatever he has to do to get his family back, after all, but the open world of the game is married to an almost brutally linear narrative, in which, regardless of how many prostitutes you save from getting knifed and no matter how many innocents you rescue from being murdered, you still firebomb those same innocents when the story calls for it.

The difference is that in Red Dead Redemption, the game does eventually let go of the character, but it does so by killing John Marston and replacing him with his son Jack. Jack, unlike his father, only has a few missions that he is required to complete, and the rest of the game can comfortably be spent riding around the massive world causing as much trouble (or righting as many wrongs) as the player chooses. Of course, the problem then becomes the fact that Jack is a far less pleasant character to listen to than his father (Paul Haine has discussed why this makes narrative sense). I’m in no rush to complete the final missions of Red Dead Redemption myself because I think that John is a better man than his son, and I’m reluctant to finish John’s story just yet. Even John Marston, however, suffers from the aforementioned slaughter of Mexican innocents and Native Americans (bizarrely, he registers disgust towards the very people who necessitate the slaughter of these innocents while doing their bidding anyway, and while in the case of the Native Americans he has very little choice, the Mexican section remains puzzling).

Rockstar’s games seem to be under the delusion that there is no disconnect between allowing a player to roam the world and play as a nice person (or as a brutal killer) while at the same time forcing the player to conform to their own personal portrait of the character in order to progress through the game’s narrative. In L.A. Noire Rockstar wisely did away with all subtlety and removed even the illusion of being anything other than the Cole Phelps that they envisioned (while you can still drive recklessly or steal automobiles, the game will blatantly ignore it in the next cutscene, for example). This strengthens the narrative and cuts down on the disconnect between the character that the player controls and the character seen in the cutscenes, but at the same time, it makes all the open world elements of L.A. Noire seem even more tacked on than they already are. It is close to a perfect balance but not quite. L.A. Noire would be a much stronger game if they did away with the tacked on Open World elements completely, while Red Dead Redemption would be better if Marston were able to choose a faction to assist — perhaps, both factions could lead to his ultimate target — but this time the player could make legitimate choices about whether or not Marston was a hero or a villain. An open world setting taunts the player with the illusion of choice when married to a strictly linear story, promising the ability to Be the Hero or Be the Villain while at the same time sapping those illusory choices of any real weight.


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