This post is SPOILER-FREE.
L.A. Noire plays unlike any other game you’ve seen in a while. It has its traditional driving and shooting sections, but the heart of the game lies in the detective work—finding clues and interrogating suspects. The crime scene investigation sections are reminiscent of old point-and-click adventure games in which certain objects in the environment must be inspected in order to advance the plot. The interrogation sections bear some resemblance to dialogue trees used frequently in RPGs, but they require a more interesting and focused type of player interaction than simple “choose your response” conversations. Both of these key gameplay elements combine to create an intriguing connection between the player, the story, and how the player causes the story to unfold. This is a very vague statement, so I’ll now try to explore some of the details and explain why I find this type of connection so fascinating.
Let’s begin by considering the whole nature of the game. It is a detective game, so naturally it is dominated by exploring crime scenes, following leads, and trying to piece together what exactly happened and who is responsible. The story—of each individual crime and of the game as a whole—unfolds as more and more clues are discovered; as a result, the player’s perception of current events is constantly changing and evolving as new information comes to light. This type of story is very common, of course, especially within classic detective stories and the film noir genre. However, I’m convinced that an interactive version of a detective story, such as what L.A. Noire offers, introduces an interesting new element to the classic twists and turns of the murder mystery story.
Consider this: as we’re reading a mystery novel or watching a detective film, we’re following the protagonist as he attempts to decipher the mystery. We’re mentally working through the implications of each new clue just as the protagonist is; our understanding of the story is changing as we get closer and closer to the truth. However, our interaction with the narrative is parallel to the narrative itself: our hunches and evolving understanding of the case can never change or interact with the story itself. We know that the detective will eventually put the pieces together and solve the crime. Whether or not we are able to decipher the clues and discover the truth, the protagonist is sure to do that for us if we just follow the story through to its conclusion. In the end, we can have no real impact on the narrative.
Placing a mystery story into an interactive medium changes this entirely. Suddenly our hunches and theories—our evolving understanding of the case—become incredibly important because it is our job, as the detective, to solve the case. If we cannot piece things together, then no one will; we cannot rely on the narrative to resolve itself. The player’s perception becomes an integral part of the narrative because the player has the responsibility of solving the crime.
I know that this may not seem all that interesting to some readers. One of the things I’m interested in, though, is video games that really pull the player into the story—games that make the reader’s thoughts and feelings matter, in some way, to the development of the story. I think L.A. Noire, as a detective video game, does just that. As we examine the crime scene and interrogate suspects and witnesses, our understanding of the case changes. We form hunches about the specifics of the crime and who committed it. The interesting part is that we are then forced to act upon our hunches. Granted, L.A. Noire limits the player’s free reign significantly: we are only allowed to explore certain locations and interrogate certain individuals. By placing these restrictions on us, the game offers some guidance as to what sorts of hunches we should be forming. It tells us that we are right to be suspicious of the victim’s husband, but not of the victim’s next door neighbor. These kinds of restrictions are understandable, as allowing the player complete free reign would necessitate a larger game than would be possible. Still, within the limitations that are placed on us, we must try to piece together the clues and solve the mystery. And while the game does not allow the player to fail outright (which might have actually made the game more interesting), poor detective work results in a poor understanding of the case and a low rating, indicating poor performance. If we want to fully understand the case and tie up all the loose ends, we must follow through on our intuitions and figure things out for ourselves.
The interrogation gameplay is of particular interest because it complicates traditional methods of information-feeding commonly used in video games. Interrogation consists of three parts: asking the question, listening to the suspect’s response and observing their behavior, and determining whether or not they are telling the truth. The player is given three options: they can accept the suspect’s statement as truth and prod for additional information; they can doubt the truthfulness of the suspect’s statement, prompting Cole to threaten or berate them in order to obtain more accurate information; or they can accuse the suspect of lying outright and confront them with hard evidence that proves they are lying. The catch is that incorrectly gauging the suspect’s response leads to a failure of sorts. For example, if the player accepts a lie as truth, Cole will not press the suspect for more information which may have been critical to solving the case. Similarly, threatening a suspect who is telling the truth will upset them and might discourage them from sharing important information. While the system is far from perfect (its three-response design is too simplistic for its wide range of applications, since “doubting” a suspect can range from accusing them of leaving out a small detail to accusing them of being the ringleader behind an entire illicit operation), it requires the player to closely observe the suspect, consider everything they know about the case, and take control of information gathering. It requires that the player be actively engaged in the narrative, and it forces them to make decisions that have a real impact on how the story unfolds. I find this method much more interesting than the simple “go here, do this” storytelling that far too many games employ these days.
In the end, L.A. Noire’s gameplay forces the player to really get involved in the story. The player cannot simply sit back and ride out the narrative, but must instead involve themselves in it. They must act on their constantly changing understanding of the case, and they must take control of information gathering. Additionally, the player’s performance impacts their understanding of the narrative—if you fail to find important clues or do poorly during your interrogations, then you’ll have an imperfect understanding of the case specifics (though, as stated earlier, you can’t really fail a case). It’s this sort of storytelling—the kind that integrates the player’s thoughts and feelings into the unfolding of the narrative, rather than delegating them to the sidelines—that I find particularly fascinating and which I hope we see more and more of in years to come.