by wjw on July 9, 2011


I’ve recently completed the video game L.A. Noire (sic), which has prompted some thoughts about audience expectations, and how to satisfy them— or at least mollify them, assuming that actual satisfaction turns out not to be possible.

For those of you who haven’t somehow been swept up in the hype, L.A. Noire (sic) is a video game that charts the rise (and fall and rise) of a Los Angeles policeman circa 1947.  The game took all of seven years to develop.  It looks quite gorgeous, and the player moves through a beautifully reconstructed 1940s Los Angeles created in part from aerial photographs taken during the period.  The streets are full of authentically-rendered cars, and the shadows full of criminals, some— like Mickey Cohen or Johnny Stampanato— drawn from history.

Also authentic is the game’s depiction of the period’s racism, crime, and corruption.

The police in the game use methods authentic to the period, and much of the pre-release hype concerned the game’s MotionScan technology, in which actors were shot simultaneously by 32 cameras, allowing players to “read” the expressions of suspects and decide whether or not they were lying or shading the truth.

Players will recognize the contributions of veteran character actors like Michael McGrady and Keith Szarabajka, and also flash that the game’s protagonist, Cole Phelps, is played by Mad Men’s Aaron Staton.

There’s even an option for playing the game in black & white, just to give you that authentic B-movie feel.

So— hype aside— what’s the game like?  I suspect your reaction to the game will depend on exactly what your expectations of a game actually are, and how they differ from your expectations of, say, a novel.

Writers make certain unstated contracts with their readers.  The contract for a category romance, for example, might read as follows:  “This is a story about relationships, and it will end happily.”

Put an unhappy ending on your category romance, and readers will burn you in effigy (that is, if your publisher doesn’t do it first).

The implicit contract for a science fiction novel might be something like, “This work will be about something the author believes to be possible, if not probable; and while not set entirely in the world in which we live, will nevertheless provide enough synergy between our world and the world of the story to be interesting to the reader.”  Or, for another kind of science fiction story, “Here’s an adventure story with ray guns and space ships!”

A contract for fantasy might read, “The author here presents a story that is flat impossible, but which will nevertheless be of interest to the reader for reasons that have nothing to do with verisimilitude.”  Or, for yet another kind of fantasy, “Here’s an adventure story with swords and magic!”

A mystery contract could read, “This is a story about crime and detection.”

A hard-boiled mystery might read, “This is a story about crime, detection, and moral ambiguity in which the protagonist will be compelled to deal with the worst and most degrading elements of  human character.”

What is the unstated contract for a video game— specifically for a role-playing game, which is the subgenre in which we find L.A. Noire?

Maybe, “This is an immersive gaming experience in which you will take on the role of a character in a gaming world, a character that will be required to solve puzzles, endure combat, and/or undergo trials in order to achieve a successful outcome.”

Maybe a happy ending isn’t in the contract, but it’s certainly standard.  When y0u battle to the far end of Arnhem Bridge or kill the Dark Lord or win the PGA championship, you generally get some presents and some adulation.

Often at the beginning of a roleplaying game, you begin by creating a character.  This character is the skin you’re going to inhabit during the course of the game.  You may get to choose the character’s appearance, along with his/her skill sets, characteristics, and abilities, all of which are going to be tested during the course of gameplay.

In L.A. Noire, you get to play Cole Phelps.  This isn’t unusual: there are plenty of RPGs where you don’t get a choice of who you play.   But it has to be admitted that Cole Phelps is a prick.  He’s an honest cop, but he’s also self-righteous, preachy, and generally annoying.  And you also get to experience his World War II flashbacks, which show you that he was a prick back then, too.

But Cole Phelps at least gets to do interesting stuff.  There are gunfights, which I’m reasonably good at, and car chases, at which I suck.  (It’s Rockstar Games, of course there are car chases.  But unlike Grand Theft Auto, you can’t run over pedestrians and destroy property with impunity.  Unfair!  Unfair!)

You hunt for physical evidence at crime scenes.  You chase criminals over rooftops.  And you interrogate witnesses and suspects— and when they lie and you call them on it, you need the physical evidence to back up your claims.

The interrogations are interesting, though there are relatively few directions in which they can go.  The motion-capture technology is nifty enough, though sometimes it’s eerie as you begin to see the real actor behind the video masks.  It’s like your game console is haunted by the ghosts of character actors.

The game has a couple uber-plots that are quite interesting.  One involves the Black Dahlia killing, and the other features a lot of war-surplus morphine that seems to have been hijacked by the hero’s old Marine unit.  There are some genuinely bracing action scenes, one involving a mad shootout at D.W. Griffith’s old Babylon set, and others in various underground location.  Other scenes take place in and around classic Los Angeles landmarks.  You can get genuine tension here.

Mostly what you do in this game, though, is drive.    And it’s not just car chases, it’s actual driving.  When you get a call that something’s happened in the Valley, you have to get in your car and drive from central Los Angeles all the way to the San Fernando Valley in real time, stopping at stoplights and waiting for traffic, and experiencing the super-detailed highly authentic scenery as it oozes slowly by.  (I learned to hit the siren whether it was an emergency or not, and then at least I didn’t have to wait at the red lights.)

At one point I looked at the statistics that the game had obligingly created for me.  I’d been playing for a total of 11 hours.  Of these, one hour was spent combing crime scenes for evidence.  One hour was spent in shootouts and chases.  And FIVE HOURS was spent driving.

I’m not sure what I was doing in the other four hours.  Some interrogations, but generally those didn’t take long.  I suspect the rest were cut scenes.  (“Cut scenes” are the movies that video games give you to advance the plot and unload exposition.)

There are a lot of cut scenes in this game.  Enough to make up an actual movie— which it actually was, the game was recut as a film and shown at the Tribeca Film Festival, and it got respectful reviews.

Playing this game, you’re basically in someone else’s movie.

And make no mistake, it’s a film noir here.  Maybe even a film noir(e) (sic).  The major plot developments aren’t in the player’s hands.  Cole Phelps’ story arc is as predetermined as that of a Robert Mitchum flick from 1949.  Every major development in the character’s story is prescripted and laid out in cut scenes.  Phelps does dumb things.  He does annoying things.  He pays the price for his dumb and annoying behavior, and there’s nothing the player can do about it one way or another.

Playing the game,  you never have the impression that it’s your movie.  You don’t get to make the important decisions.  You get to make the busts, but it turns out the busts don’t matter all that much.

So where does that leave us in terms of audience expectations?  L.A. Noire (sic) delivers a lot of what gamers expect— there’s action, there’s chases, there’s puzzles.  There’s tons of atmosphere.  There’s sex and drugs and smoky jazz.  There’s an unusually intricate plot that I’m not sure I entirely figured out. There’s a flawed hero, which makes for interesting cinema, even if he’s not quite as successful as the protagonist of an RPG.

But there’s no agency.  Not a lot of what the player does actually matters to the story the game is trying to tell.  You really can cut out all the player action and still have a good B movie (albeit one with lots and lots of driving).  Cut out the B movie, though, and you have a bunch of interconnected scenes with no story.

Now,  there’s limited agency in most RPGs.  Your character is heading for a specific goal, even if you (as a player) don’t always know it.  Game designers have worked out a great many successful methods for making sure your character goes where he’s supposed to go, and accomplishes what he’s supposed to accomplish.  So what you experience is actually an illusion of agency.

That illusion vanishes entirely in L.A. Noire (sic).  All the major plot developments are rendered in cut scenes, giving you no sense that you’re in control at all.  You’re stuck in someone else’s weird period art film.

I didn’t find it a completely satisfactory gaming experience.  I was frustrated by it, though I wasn’t so frustrated that I stopped playing.

And the game had an ending that, while perfectly acceptable, maybe even expected in a film noir, is a little surprising for a game.  Gamers who slogged through to the end may still be waiting for their parade.

My expectations for film noir were completely fulfilled.  My expectations for a game were not.

My recommendation?  Go watch In a Lonely Place and Build My Gallows High and The Big Sleep.  You won’t have that annoying console to get between you and the story.

Barbara Webb July 9, 2011 at 3:41 pm

Yeah, I think I’ll skip this one.

Andrew Timson July 9, 2011 at 5:58 pm

What I found to be helpful: if you hold down the “get in the car” button, your partner will drive for you. Makes the time go much faster. 🙂

Ted July 9, 2011 at 6:52 pm

Have you read this essay on the game?

Press X for Beer Bottle: On L.A. Noire

wjw July 10, 2011 at 3:59 am

“You begin the game strongly assuming that Phelps has a Dark Secret, and he does. But that is not the most interesting thing about him. The most interesting thing about Cole Phelps is that he is an asshole who might also be insane.”

Ted, that’s a great article.

Ted July 10, 2011 at 7:43 am

Glad you liked it, Walter.

I enjoyed L.A. Noire a lot. I was kind of disappointed at the conclusion of the Black Dahlia storyline, but the game became significantly more interesting from that point on, and I thought the ending was terrific. I would love to see more games follow its lead.

Matt July 10, 2011 at 6:01 pm

I am actually on the last mission right now, and can I just say I love how Jack Kelso comes in is brilliant?! What an original idea, and kudos to Rockstar for thinking outside the box (GTAIV and esp. Red Dead Redemption are the best games ever made) and bringing us a mature work of retro-noir!

Which genre is next for Rockstar? My Science Fiction free-roam-fix is on the way with Mass Effect 3? Can they top it?

Great article!

Nathan July 11, 2011 at 2:02 am

I haven’t been a gamer in a decade or so, but I also really enjoyed that article. It got into some of the things I’ve pondered about gaming. Even when I was a gamer, I was in it more for the story than the gameplay. I was never interested in multiplayer arenas, open-ended games and so forth. I enjoyed the gameplay, sure, especially when it was well done as with most Blizzard games and many LucasArts games, which comprised the majority of my gaming at the time, but gameplay was less fun to me than, for instance, getting into a good book, so without a compelling story driving the game, I just wasn’t that interested. Puzzles? Pfft. I want to see what happens to these characters!

Anyway. It was interesting to read such a thoughtful analysis of issues I hadn’t thought about in nearly a decade.

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