Friday, August 26, 2011

Inferior Quality: Not for Structural Use!

[The following post begins with and contains a number of huge spoilers about L.A. Noire and in particular its last act, and so is behind the jump for those who wish to avoid such things.]

It was the middle of an ordinary afternoon when she walked through my door.  She sauntered into my office with a walk that would make any red-blooded man stop and stare: dark blonde hair, green eyes, and legs that wouldn't quit.

"Mr. Kelso?" she asked.  She had a German accent -- not something you hear much of in Los Angeles these days.

"That's what the sign on the door says, miss," I replied.  I closed the file I was working on.  Without another word, she handed me a folded letter.  Somehow, I had a feeling my day was about to change.


Just under a third of the way through L.A. Noire, I commented that it didn't feel or behave like a film noir.  Rather, I felt it was a modern story -- and a gaming story, at that -- clumsily wearing a noir's clothes.  I was right to say so at the time, and I was equally right to conclude that the game is Ace Attorney: Grand Theft Auto, set in the 1940s.  For the first 80% of the game, that's really how it feels and how it flows.

But there does come a moment where L.A. Noire suddenly well and truly transforms itself into a classic noir story.  The music, the visuals, and the writing all click into place and suddenly the player can almost hear Gil McKinney calling up his best Humphrey Bogart impression for a narration that doesn't exist.

And there lies the catch.  McKinney doesn't play Cole Phelps, who has been our hero and our player character until now; he plays Jack Kelso.  Kelso's a man with secrets... many of them about Cole himself, from the time they knew each other in the war.

 She told me a story about her friend and a settlement.  Touching, I'm sure, but I didn't see how it was my problem.  But then she slid herself into the seat in front of my desk; this dame wasn't going anywhere without an answer.

"I want you to investigate this case.  I feel my friend may have been the victim of foul play."

I gave up.  Besides, she was easy on the eyes and I didn't mind keeping her around a few minutes longer.  "Okay.  Let me look at the case file."  I found it and flipped through it for a minute.  Sounded like her "friend" took a hell of a fall -- but I was going to need to know more.

We've examined the genre of film noir before: it's the story of a man's downfall, and of society's.  Whether the man has good intent or evil intent doesn't really matter; society is twisted and confused around him to the point where his story becomes part of a web of lies and wickedness. 

Cole Phelps ascends rapidly through the ranks of the LAPD, cracking case after case.  He's a hero and a do-gooder; passers-by on the street praise his work and comment on how they recognize him from the papers.  Los Angeles may harbor its dens of villainy, but he's going to right wrongs, rescue kittens, defend virtue, punish evil-doers, and fight for truth, justice, and the American way!

What's that? It's a bird! It's a plane! No, wait: it's Cole Phelps, badge 1247!

Of course, in order to make this a noir, Phelps must have a downfall.  Like so many men, he's brought low by a beautiful woman -- in a sense.  Unlike the stereotypical or archetypal relationship with a femme fatale, though, Phelps's affair with Elsa is entirely his own doing.  We never have any indication that she once approaches him or asks him for anything; he brings himself to her.

And while the game gets really meaty and engaging during and after Cole's affair with Elsa, that's also where any shreds of coherence it might have had go flying out of the window.  The B plot -- the story of an eminent domain money-grab, the building of the highway system, and corruption in business and government -- ties together very well with the C plot (stolen morphine), and the intricacies of the story told through newspapers ties neatly into the story of Cole Phelps.  It's the story of Phelps himself that doesn't wash.

I had to ask how she knew her "friend," Buchwalter.  I sensed there was something to the story -- supposed they had been more than friends.  "You expect me to re-open this case because you come in here walking that walk?" I asked her.  "Well I'm not buying it.  I think you should tell me what the hell is going on."

She told me.  I wasn't expecting what she said. They really were friends.  Close, but nothing more.  She answered a few more questions but by then I already knew I was going to have to look into this case.  Something about her...

"All right, Miss Lichtmann," I said while she stood to go, "One final question."

"What's your address?"

She sized me up, crooked an eyebrow.  "Is that ...usual?"

"Is there anything usual about this case, Miss Lichtmann?"

"The address is on the letter, Mr. Kelso," she answered me. True enough; she hadn't taken it back.  I was on a roll, and thought I might as well try.

"The address... but not the phone number."

She smirked, I swear, but she wrote it down for me and then strolled out of the office like she knew I was watching.  And I was.


A beat cop, formerly a Marine, rises through the ranks.  He serves as a detective on the Homicide squad for a while.  Ultimately, he cracks one of the department's hardest cases and catches a serial killer who's been murdering women.  Too bad for the detective, the killer had connections and it's to be Kept Quiet.  He's shipped off-screen to Burglary instead, and six months later to Vice, a big win for an LAPD detective.

His partner is rotten, but powerful and connected.  The detective has dealt with surly or unfriendly partners before, and generally won them over in the end.  He doesn't realize how deep this partner is in.  And while investigating a drug case, the detective suddenly, and utterly in all ways without on-screen motive, suddenly decides to start sleeping with the torch singer that his crooked partner has introduced him to.  The crooked partner espies this and has come up with a convenient way to wreck his Dudley Do-Right partner's career.

That's where the game gets interesting, and also where it lost me entirely.  I understand the flashbacks to the war, and I understand that Phelps was a shitty Marine and an even worse leader.  He's got mountains of sins in his past that he wants to atone for and can't.  It explains a lot about his attitude toward Los Angeles and his attitude toward crime, and toward Jack Kelso.  But none of it explains why, out of the blue, Phelps takes himself to Elsa's apartment late at night and sets up residence in her bed.

Meanwhile, the playable portions of the game were all staged as, "Through Phelps's eyes, the player observes and deconstructs noir-style stories that happen to other people."  So it makes a degree of sense that when Phelps's story itself becomes the main narrative, we have to observe it from other people.  It's no accident or coincidence that we switch to (the more interesting perspective of) Jack Kelso when Cole Phelps begins to unravel.  A noir film keeps the viewer in the unwound protagonist's position, but for some reason the structure and nature of the game -- or perhaps all gaming? -- requires us to switch vantage points.

Switching the point of view character is a neat trick, but it also has the unfortunate side effect of drawing the player's attention to all of the other tricks and gimmicks in the game, and they don't hold up under inspection any better than the Elysian Fields housing developments do.  

This is how well the Elysian Fields housing developments hold up.

Ultimately, narrative gaming requires a purpose for player action.  That's really, really important: what sets a game apart from a film is player participation.  You, holding the controller or aiming the mouse, need to be responsible for some kind of major contribution to the story.  Either you lead a character where he needs to go, or you aim his gun where he needs to fire, or you choose what he will or won't investigate, or what choices he'll make that affect his future.  That's the entire essence of narrative gaming.

L.A. Noire ends up ultimately without any purpose or need for the player.  Yes, you can play shooting sequences -- but you can also just skip them and have an identical outcome.  Yes, you can play car chases -- but you can also just skip them and have an identical outcome.  Yes, you can find clues at a crime scene -- but you can miss a bunch and have an identical outcome.  Yes, you interrogate suspects and question witnesses -- but you can flub all those and still have an identical outcome.

The story continues in its own time no matter how much you fail.  Certainly, if Phelps gets shot in the face you need to restart from the last save point, but that's it.  Even if you do everything wrong and one-star every case, and even if the chief hates your guts and thinks you're the worst cop in history, Cole Phelps will still face accolades on the street and be considered a rising star.  The very act of knowing what to do next is spoon-fed: a phone icon will appear on the screen when the game needs to tell you something, and as soon as you walk to it Cole has the conversation himself, with no player input.  You learn what you need to know even (and especially) when you the player had no idea you needed to know it.

It's a rotten structure, and the game itself gives us its own metaphor: Elysian Fields housing.  The homes are being made from lumber scavenged from an out-of-business film studio.  The parts making the houses were meant to make film sets, the illusion of houses.  And that's what we have: a game built from sequences that give the illusion of participation, but that don't add up to a real, serious structure or a coherent idea.

I wish Team Bondi knew how Sir Samuel Vimes felt about overly obvious Clues.

Despite my ranting, I didn't hate L.A Noire.  As a spin on the noir genre, using modern convention and a modern medium, it's kind of neat.  The reliance on actors and their craft is astounding and I'll admit to being impressed with the advances in facial motion capture.  The more plausible and the less plastic we can make the heroes in our realistic-graphic games, the better off we are.  (Standard disclaimer: many art styles are valid and not all games need to be aiming for full realism.  I just prefer that the ones that do try, succeed.)

But as an actual game, as a story, as a piece of interactive fiction?  L.A. Noire has some enormous problems. I learned way back in Myst, in 1994, that if a narrative game is forcing a binary choice of A or B on me, the correct option is C.  Forget red or blue pages; take the white one.

There are a number of cases (the entire Homicide desk and the Phelps section of Arson) where Phelps ultimately comes up with two main suspects and must charge one of them with the crime in order to complete the case.  Unfortunately, it's not just obvious that doing so is wrong; it's glaringly so, as big a sign as "HOLLYWOODLAND" out in the hills.  And although the game lampshades this mechanic and in fact makes it a driving plot point of the Homicide desk, that doesn't help the player's frustration.  With a binary choice you can pick the "wrong" one of two wrong choices, but the narrative marches on and drags you in its wake.

And that's just it: you're being dragged along.  The fun of a mystery is getting a feel for whodunit just before the characters do.  Sometimes we have part of that pleasure, by knowing who didn't do it, but waiting for Cole Phelps to read the script just gets exhausting.  "Yes, we KNOW, we saw the CUT SCENE and the EVIDENCE, would you kindly put two and two together please sir?"  And then of course sometimes the player picks up two, and picks up two, and puts them together in Cole's hands and suddenly find the game's conclusion is "five."

So by the time we reached the climactic case, I was not only waiting for Cole to get shot -- I was kind of rooting for it.  Letting him drown in a vaguely noble act of self-sacrifice, after saving others, felt like a cop-out (no pun intended).  Phelps, then, is well and truly out of the picture, but Rockstar has said they feel that L.A. Noire is the start of a new franchise for them.  If we must continue with characters we already know, at least Jack and Elsa have interesting stories to tell.


When Biggs and Elsa spotted me coming in, they shifted and gave me a seat.  Small favors.  Still, I shouldn't complain about Biggs; he's a good guy.

That jackass Earle was giving Cole's eulogy.  Lying through his teeth.  Even Phelps deserved better.  Elsa couldn't take it anymore and stormed out; I sent Biggs out after her.
He paused on his way out.  "You were never his friend," he said.

"No," I had to agree.  I'd never liked Phelps and I'm not sure I ever respected him until the end.  I'm not sure he ever deserved respect until the end.  But he did get to die a better man than he'd lived -- and I had always hoped he could learn.
"I was never his enemy," I said.  Biggs nodded, and went after Elsa.

I'd go see Elsa myself, after the service.  I had her address, and her phone number.

Maybe this private investigator gig had something going for it, after all.

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