Watching As Gameplay: ‘L.A. Noire’ Merely a Visual Novel?

A fair amount of discussion of L.A. Noire has raised questions about how to classify this “game”. Over at GamePro, for instance, Kat Bailey explains, “I feel like L.A. Noire is a success as a visual novel [. . .] it’s meant to be read and experienced as much as played” and that it is “arguable whether that approach is a good fit for the interactive medium of videogames” (“Second Opinion: L.A. Noire, GamePro, 20 May 2011). Additionally, Bailey reiterates another criticism that has been leveled at the game that it “relies heavily on pixel hunting and guesswork”.

I spoke a couple weeks ago a little bit about how I felt that the forward momentum of the story and some of the player’s inability to do anything about it relates to the genre of noir itself (L.A. Noire: The Fatalism of American Sticktoitiveness”, PopMatters, 1 June 2011). While that essay acknowledged the largely linear quality of the storytelling in L.A. Noire, still I find that the notion that L.A. Noire is somehow “not quite a game” because a lot of its choices lead in a particular direction or because the game mechanics include the necessity of a great deal of watching, observing, and pixel hunting is a notion that denies the rather integral relationship that exists between seeing and gaming.

Now, I understand that many of us who would like to argue for a more sophisticated criticism of games as cultural objects or even as art want very much to distinguish between games and the other medium that relies heavily on sight for its enjoyment, the cinema. We are the ones always overemphasizing phrases like “interactive narrative” and the like, followed by other phrases like “which is why you shouldn’t judge games in the same way that you judge films”. However, while passive viewing and voyeurism is an essential experience in engaging with a film, “watching” becomes a rather central and active occupation in most games (requiring a different and, perhaps, more active engagement) and very often requires more time than “doing something” in a game does.

Watch a good game of Chess sometime. Unless on a very short timer, most players will spend more of the game observing the board than they will moving pieces — say, maybe 99% of the “game”.

The reason for this is obvious, of course, Chess as a game requires rather extensive consideration of moves and counter-moves before committing to an action. Now, video gamers are, perhaps, less accustomed to the large portion of a game being spent observing, considering, and acting in a slow and deliberate manner. Many games require frequent and very quickly decided upon “commitments”, and denying that this process occurs while playing even the twitchiest of games is rather foolish. Yes, playing Bayonetta requires an awful lot of thumb action on my part, but I still spend much of my time judging where my “piece” (the double entendre, given my choice of game as an example, is only partially intended) is, how she relates in space to other objects and how I need to approach the situation that she faces is an act of analysis. It’s just that unlike L.A. Noire, in which during interrogations I tend to observe a face, consider what a person has said, try to recall what else I know about the context of a response, and then reconsider whatever shifty looks my suspect may be exhibiting before pressing a button once, in Bayonetta my analysis tends to necessarily be a lot, lot quicker. Something like: oh, there’s seven frickin’ huge angels that want to eviscerate me, move here and press X, X, X, Y, X, now, now, NOW!

Nevertheless, deliberately considered actions based on “looking over the board” are rather common in gaming, even video gaming. I have observed in the past that the Tomb Raider series is a game based largely on considering the environment and how to move around it in the most efficacious and “correct” way possible (Tomb Raider: Anniversary, PopMatters, 13 July 2007) and how throwing switches and considering their response in order to reconsider “tactics” is pretty essential to certain game genres (“The Satisfaction of a Switch”, PopMatters, 19 May 2010). Both articles acknowledge on some level how some video games often slow down the pace in order to allow the player some time for more contemplative consideration of choices and figuring out solutions. In the case of the original Tomb Raider games, these “moments” are surprisingly common.

In that game, combat and frantic decision making comes in short bursts, breaking up what is otherwise very frequently a very slow-paced puzzle game about gauging distances in space and manipulating objects. But L.A. Noire‘s pacing, as a decision-making game, is even more glacial by comparison, and I, for one, really don’t mind slowing down once in awhile to “ponder the board” or that a game might choose this as a dominant preoccupation for a player. In a sense, playing (and, yes, I do mean playing the game, not watching it) is a bit more like playing Tetris on its opening levels, except that the pieces falling never speed up as the game progresses. While this might sound dull, it is less so in a game that appreciates the art of watching, as L.A. Noire‘s own design and production suggest. This is a game developed around technologies that show a clearer and more distinct set of patterns on human faces, playing the game of reading and then making decisions about them seems only natural and would seemingly be very silly if placed on a rapidly escalating timer.

Additionally, one of the other important elements that suggests that what you do (even if “doing” is enacted at slower intervals than video game players are frequently accustomed to) is not entirely arbitrary is the way that interrogation is handled more generally. Making choices about whether a character is lying, telling the truth, or should be doubted or whether clues at a crime scene are all discovered (the aforementioned “pixel hunting”) is evaluated, despite (again) the inevitability of the plot moving forward in the game whether or not mistakes have been made. Having ways to “respond” to other characters in games is common enough. However, I wouldn’t classify the dialogue trees of most games as being similar to the “tree-like” options in L.A. Noire. Certainly, games like Mass Effect allow for making choices in how to approach NPCs, but, again, the manner in which they are evaluated is significantly different. Largely because you are being very literally evaluated in L.A. Noire in a very familiar way.

The idea that you are “wrong” is not something that you have to contend with in Bioware’s space opera. Yes, it has effects on your “morality”, but the game does not suggest that your performance is poor as a result of choosing one dialogue option or the other (consider that in Bayonetta combat performance is “graded” at the close of every level, much like L.A. Noire — like L.A. Noire, the plot moves forward despite the fact that you were a lousy 8-foot tall, sexy librarian killing machine during this level, but it still shames you for that bad performance). Instead, the effects merely indicate a sense of your avatar’s character to you, the player, in Mass Effect. There are no “rules” that evaluate Shepherd’s dialogue performance as correct or incorrect or having performed well or poorly.

In fact, that game neatly labels and orders options on the tree to indicate what you choice to make if you want to be a decent fellow in responding to a question or a sarcastic jerk. L.A. Noire turns dialogue into a game by suggesting that there is a problem in your play as a result of choices. (And really, who has to play a perfect game to know that they have “solved” the game? Mistakes will always be made — even by the most masterful Chess players. Thus, error in a game should not be confused with failure, and likewise, thus, a forward momentum towards solution does not seem entirely out of bounds in a game.). In that sense, L.A. Noire feels more like Bioware’s “other series”, the Dragon Age games, which (again, as I have argued in the past) tend to make games out of dialogue responses in ways that other games with similar “choices” do not (“Be Careful What You say: Conversation in the Dragon Age Series”, PopMatters, 30 March 2011). Because other characters in the game lose respect or a sense of camaraderie with you as you speak to other characters in Dragon Age, dialogue frequently feels as much like a game as the combat section does. These choices evaluated by an external judge (represented by your companions in Dragon Age and the final evaluation screen of a case in L.A. Noire) speak directly to what is considered good play and bad play by rules determined outside yourself.

Dragon Age‘s rules for performance may seem more overtly obvious than L.A. Noire‘s, since relationships to your friends “change” if you violate “their” rules. And, indeed, while I have never been teased by a Risk board for losing in my quest for global domination, my friends have pointed out my errors to me. This smacks of an authentic repercussion for bad play. Nevertheless, L.A. Noire chooses instead to emphasize the more abstract concept of rule systems that exist to govern play objectively. The case evaluations suggest that there are rules to being a good detective, like judging interrogation subjects accurately and tracking all relevant clues, and it shames you for not following them. Mass Effect doesn’t ever shame me for choosing to play my Shepherd as a Renegade rather than as a Paragon because, well, I was only playing. By establishing external rules for evaluating successful play, but even without an obvious fail state, in L.A. Noire, which suggests the existence of a system of correct and incorrect options, I know that I’m gaming.

Watching facial tics and recalling things that I have heard before might seem different than looking over a game board, but because there is such a system in place, I recognize that there are good moves and bad ones, which suggests that I am not merely playing around.


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