Noah J Nelson on Friday, May. 27th
I’ve been waiting for L.A. Noire for over a decade now. The hunger started not long after reading Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, where the character of Miranda makes her living as a “ractor”- basically an actor taking on the role of a video game character in real time. L.A. Noire marks the first major step towards making that kind of experience a reality. The facial mapping technology used by developer Team Bondi means that the entire game hinges on witness interviews and interrogations, not on shoot outs and car chases, as previous blockbusters from publisher Rockstar Games have.
Interactions don’t take place in real time, we’re still a few years away from that, but they call upon the player to use their own ability to track evidence and read an actor’s performance to tell whether or not a character is lying. It’s gripping, immersive stuff when tied to the classic noir film themes.
It’s also the most controller-throwing, frustrating experience I’ve had in years. One that seems to have bypassed all the lessons Rockstar has learned about storytelling in the past decade.
Creating a compelling lead character is always a delicate balance in video games. The hero of Rockstar’s last hit, Red Dead Redemption, was a big gamble. John Marston was a man forced on a mission by the government to save his family, and there’d be no stopping along the way for the kind of bad boy antics of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto games. You were stuck in the Old West surrounded by brothels playing a guy who was fiercely devoted to his wife, like some kind of cosmic retribution for all the nasty things gamers got up to over the course of the four major GTA games.
Only that didn’t matter, because from minute one you knew who Marston was and what was at stake. For me the bonding with Marston was deep, and Rockstar played me like a fiddle.
Not so with L.A. Noire’s lead, Cole Phelps (Mad Men’s Aaron Staton), a straight and narrow LAPD detective who is cut from the same cloth as L.A. Confidential’s Ed Exley. Like Exley, Phelps- at least at the start of the game’s narrative- is squeaky clean. He’s also as boring as Exley. In the James Ellory novel and (film adaptation) this isn’t so much of a problem as Exley is just one of three leads. We can hate Exley a bit for being a humorless square, and the narrative provides us with the proper distance to still enjoy the character.
Several hours into the game Phelps remains a blank slate. He’s the LAPD Golden Boy, but we have no idea why he’d put himself on the front lines of the war on crime. There are hints as to his motives, and this kind of slow burn reveal of motive makes literary sense. Yet the problem is that this is a video game, not a novel, and like an actor a video game player has to have a certain amount of information to know how to “play” the part from an emotional standpoint.
That’s just not something I’m finding in L.A. Noire, and it wouldn’t be such a big deal if the game was just about shooting and car chases. With the gameplay uniquely focused on human interaction, Phelps feels like a blunt instrument. At key points of each interview the player is given the option of either accepting what is being said as the truth, catching out the subject in a lie, or just casting doubt on their story.
Lies are easy enough to deal with. The evidence guides you there, but it’s the line between accepting statements as true or casting doubt where the real challenges lay. The game allows only for this binary choice (trinary when you factor in catching fact based lies, but that’s really a separate skill), but gives the player no control over how Phelps behaves. You might, for instance, want to question a grieving 12-year-old’s story by teasing out the details with gentle nudges. Hit “doubt” because you’re not buying their tale and Phelps just barks some accusations, gets the info he needs, along with a demerit on the case’s final report card. It’s like trying to perform an appendectomy with a chainsaw.
This would all make more sense if you knew where Phelps is coming from, and it is here that the emotional game Team Bondi is asking us to engage in reveals a fatal weakness. Every conversation in the game actually calls upon us to engage our emotional intelligence in relation to two characters- Phelps and the witness- and we’re getting next to nothing from Phelps. Therein lies the irony: if the game wasn’t doing such a good job of creating the dramatic moment we wouldn’t even know what we were missing.