Musings on L.A. Noire, and gray areas in game design

L.A. Noire
L.A. Noire Cover
Platforms PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Genre Tough call
Buy from Amazon

One of the fun attributes of film noir is that, while often filmed in a stark black and white style, the characters and situations aren't so easily sorted. Good guys can keep bad habits, damsels in distress can turn femme fatale, and the line between cop and crook gets muddy. Black and white is the look, but gray is the tone.

L.A. Noire, Rockstar's latest critical smash, pays tribute to film noir's unclear nature not only in style but also in its design. A vast open world is the stage for a linear story. Modern gunfights and street races play nice with adventure game relics and intuition simulation that should prove to be the game's lasting legacy. And, given the task, I'd place L.A. Noire somewhere in the spectrum between pretty good and almost great.

But to be honest, that's not really what this piece turned out to be. It's not quite a review, but not really just a critique, either. Want a review? Here: "L.A. Noire isn't a bad game by any standard, but it's more an interesting experiment than it is a great experience." I'll even throw a number at you. "7." Bam, reviewed.

With that addressed, the following is a look at a few of the ways L.A. Noire straddles many seemingly opposite design elements. Sometimes this leads to nagging issues, others to surprise delights. But more often than not, it's hard to say either way.

Sandbox or Linear?
The meat of L.A. Noire is its linear detective story. In what's starting to look like a trend, Team Bondi chose to surround this one way road with a stunning postwar Los Angeles, an impressive crossing of golden age Hollywood, rising urban neighborhoods, and picket fence Americana. The picturesque open-world setting bolsters the straightforward experience with an organic pacing vehicle. Combing the crime scene for clues, strolling to the payphone down the street, and then driving to the gun shop around the block while talking case details with your partner immerses in a way that warping via menus just can't (but hey, if warping's your thing, you can do that too).

la Noire World

The downside to this meticulously detailed landscape is that even the smallest issue can break immersion in a snap. It's tough to stay in character as the do-gooder Phelps when the city's traffic behavior is so unbelievable, with cars ignoring the right of way and maneuvering themselves into impossible deadlocks when they're not dutifully stopping at red lights for minutes at a time. You'd be crazy NOT to break the traffic laws. The locals are even worse: I'm no west-coaster, nor was I around in the forties, but I doubt Johnny California and his L.A. woman stroll down the sidewalk and spout the same schizophrenic one-liners all day. "If you were twice as smart, you'd still be stupid." "I used to be indecisive, but now I'm not so sure." Are game developers so out of touch with the rest of humanity that they think regular people say these things over and over to themselves while going out to the store for milk and bread? Hell, I would probably like this stuff in the right context, but this is a game that's trying to evoke Casablanca, not Psychonauts.

Forgetting the good and bad, something about the setting just makes me wonder; outside of looking at the pretty neighborhoods and movie studios, there isn't all that much to do in this town. You can respond to crime reports over the police band if you like the game's action sequences enough to suspend your current case and drive all the way across town to shoot people. There's also a scavenger hunt of landmarks to check out and some film reels hidden around town to collect, and that about does it for the game's sandbox activities. I have to wonder if the the open-world design is a remnant of some other game L.A. Noire may have once been in its lengthy development, considering how disproportionate its size and beauty are to its utility. That's not a complaint, considering the appealing scenery and how many other open-world games are stuffed with pointless fluff; it's just a curiosity.

Cerebral or Visceral?
Like most great detective fiction, L.A. Noire is equal parts action and intrigue. In the course of a single case, you could gather clues at the scene of the crime, drive to the next location, interview a witness, chase a suspect (on foot or in vehicles), gun down some crooks, interrogate jailbirds at the station, and choose a suspect to charge with the crime. No one activity monopolizes your time, and every one of them is competent at the very worst, even if some of the action sequences come off as obligatory or inexplicable (an out-of-nowhere bulldozer scene and a movie studio shootout come to mind). The result of this concoction is a definitive private eye game with an excellent balance between poking holes in testimony and putting holes in trenchcoats.

la Noire Cars

L.A. Noire's car chases, shootouts, fisticuffs, and on-foot chases prioritize simplicity and familiarity, emulating trend setters in each category and keeping the learning curve at a gentle slope. It's clear that Team Bondi's priorities lie elsewhere: although failure in any of these sequences results in a Game Over, the player can outright skip them after a few tries. I have to applaud this decision: you didn't buy L.A. Noire to play a cover-based shooter, you bought it to outwit criminals and squeeze information out of shady characters.

But that makes it all the more disappointing that the game's final few chapters focus entirely on the pedestrian action sequences and feature almost none of the game's more impressive verbal confrontations. Rather than relishing in the brand new concept that this video game project has created (face acting!), your last impression of L.A. Noire is a sewer level, something that's a low point in any game without the words "Ninja Turtles" in it. And yet, despite focusing on the action, there isn't even a final boss or a dramatic shootout finale, which is just batty because the ending was perfectly set up for both. Maybe I'm spoiled by the explosive confessions of guilt that are commonplace in the Ace Attorney series, but L.A. Noire manages to go out with a whimper while still coming off as needlessly loud.

Logic or Intuition?
As I noted earlier, if there's one reason to try L.A. Noire, it's for the verbal interactions with suspects and witnesses. The game utilizes a technique that starts with an obscene number of cameras capturing an actual actor's face from every angle and ends with an perfectly animated face in the game. Whatever sorcery goes on between, it works beautifully. And it has to, as the player needs to pick up on nervous ticks and other signs of abnormality when suspects and witnesses submit their testimonies in order to sort truth and lies.

Specifically, after hearing someone speak, you'll be given three assessments to choose from: Truth, Doubt, or Lie. If they seem sincere, go with Truth. If their body language implies that they're hiding something, go with Doubt. And if you have evidence that proves their statement is faulty, choose Lie and throw the right piece of evidence in their face. Compared to the conversation trees employed by most games that simulate human interaction, it's a pretty novel setup that adds a dimension of instinct to what's normally an affair of cold logic.

la Noire Interrogate

An omnipresent flaw of adventure games is that your thought process may not align with the game's logical pathways, even if both are correct. A piece of evidence in my repertoire, when presented in one way, may disprove the suspect's testimony, but I can't be sure that Detective Phelps is going to see it the same way. That's no different here, as I occasionally experienced. It's just a limitation of the medium, and to L.A. Noire's credit, it manages to create something novel in its attempt to avoid that road block.

Pass/Fail or Partial Credit?
I'm not sure how I feel about the way the interrogation cog fits into the rest of the game, however. See, each chapter in L.A. Noire evolves based on your actions, specifically what information you do or don't get out of witnesses and suspects. If you get too rough with a witness and they clam up on you, you might not get the suspect's name out of them and have to pursue other leads. But no matter what you do, you'll end up at the end of the case through some means. Couldn't get the suspect's address out of the bartender? You'll probably find it on a scrap of paper somewhere. Didn't get the confession out of that communist? You can charge him with the crime on circumstantial evidence anyway and end the case.

The upsides here are game flow and replay value. Details or people involved with the case might stump you, but you'll never be "stuck" in L.A. Noire, curbing the frustration that can come with hitting a mental roadblock in logic games of this nature. And the alternate branches of each case ensure that you may find some new details about the case from subsequent replays.

The downsides, as I see them, are in challenge and progression logic. The perpetual availability of a safety net can discourage detectives from comparing evidence, testimony, and body language in earnest, though ultimately the decision to do so is up to the individual player. As for the logic, you've got to end up at the end of the case somehow, and it's not always a convincing sell if you fumble every lead before uncovering the killer's identity through improbable means. The biggest disappointment for me was actually at the end of a case, where I had to charge one of two suspects with the murder. Neither was a convincing suspect at all, so I went with the more likely of the two and was praised by the chief for my work. Out of curiosity, I went back, picked the other guy, and got chewed out for it. Either way, at the beginning of the next case, it was revealed that neither of the two suspects did it, and whomever you accused is set free off-camera. My initial instincts were correct, but I wasn't allowed to act on them and was instead forced to choose the lesser of two wrongs. It's times like these that L.A. Noire's detective story feels disconnected from the player's own detective skills.

In a game as complex and nuanced as L.A. Noire, there's plenty to think about. It's one of the more interesting experiences of this generation, a notion made all the more surprising that it began development in a time before the Xbox 360 existed. I doubt Rockstar's sleuthing story will be remembered as fondly as Grand Theft Auto IV or Red Dead Redemption (and perhaps rightly so), but it's certainly made a greater impression on me than any other Rockstar game I've played.

la Noire Rope