Gameplay Analysis: L.A. Noire

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.

Investigating clues, such as this corpse, is a major gameplay component.

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.

Interrogation requires that the player pay close attention to the suspect and act on their hunches.

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.

Next time, I plan to shift my attention to Irrational Games’ 2007 title BioShock and take a look at how the story affects the gameplay, and vice versa.

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Character Analysis: Cole Phelps from L.A. Noire

L.A. Noire is an action-adventure detective game from developer Team Bondi and publisher Rockstar Games. It was directed and written primarily by Brendan McNamara, who also wrote and directed 2002’s The Getaway. Unfortunately, I never played The Getaway, so I can’t really compare the two games. However, if you’re familiar with some of Rockstar’s games (I’m thinking Grand Theft Auto 4 and Red Dead Redemption), then you know that their more recent games tend to be filled with intriguing, complex characters. L.A. Noire does not disappoint in this regard. The protagonist is Cole Phelps, an ex-marine and veteran of Okinawa, who has recently risen to the rank of Detective within the LAPD. The game’s overarching plot involves corruption within the post-war police department, but it is also very much about Cole’s personal story. In fact, I would argue that one of the game’s strongest points is the complexity of Cole’s character. He is admirable at times, despicable at others, sometimes incredibly keen and sometimes downright foolish. I find him altogether fascinating because his complexity makes him seem like he could be a real person and not simply a character in a video game. I’ve decided to analyze Cole in order to uncover some of the reasons why I find him so interesting; this procedure may also offer some general pointers on good character building and development.

By necessity, MASSIVE SPOILERS FOLLOW. Read ahead at your discretion.

We should begin our analysis with Cole’s behavior during World War 2, which we are shown via flashbacks throughout the game. Sometime in 1943, Cole signs up for Officer Candidate School along with a young man named Jack Kelso. It quickly becomes apparent that Cole has delusions of grandeur: he repeatedly expresses the desire to make a name for himself as an officer, which Jack critically identifies as “Custer’s Syndrome.” Animosity quickly develops between the two men due to their fundamental ideological differences; Cole wants to gain glory for himself, while Jack wants only to fight the enemy and keep his own men safe. Towards the beginning of L.A. Noire, the narrator offers a brief statement explaining the rivalry between Cole and Jack:

Cole Phelps and Jack Kelso. With some people, it’s as simple as chemistry. Two guys who should have been friends, but their personalities got in the way. Phelps—a good guy, but wound way too tight. And Kelso—a quiet man who could never walk away from a fight.

Jack Kelso: an honest stiff and a damn good Marine.

Eventually, Jack drops out of OCS and joins the 6th Marine Division in order to “fight the real enemy.” Cole remains in OCS and ships out in time to participate in the Okinawa campaign in April 1945. He graduates as a lieutenant, which gives him immediate authority over the enlisted men in his company.

Despite his extensive training, Cole is an inept leader of men in combat. He shows an obsession with the chain of command as well as an insistence to handle any combat situation with its appropriate “textbook” solution. His constant mantra, “We’re doing this by the numbers,” appears to obscure his apparent inability to rethink battle plans and effectively strategize under pressure; as a result, many men under his command die needlessly. Throughout the campaign, Cole frequently encounters Jack, who has advanced to one of the sergeant ranks. Jack has proven himself to be an effective leader who prioritizes his men’s safety and formulates battle plans that minimize risk while still getting the job done. However, Jack’s abilities are often overlooked by his commanding officers because he does not attempt to put himself in the spotlight as Cole does.

Later in the campaign, Cole’s intelligence gathering unit is nearly eradicated due to casualties, and it is folded into the 22nd Marine Regiment for participation in the upcoming battle to capture Sugar Loaf Hill on Okinawa. During the assault, Cole becomes pinned down in a foxhole and chooses to hide instead of continuing the advance with the other men in his regiment; he remains hidden all night until reinforcements arrive in the morning. Jack, arriving with reinforcements from 6th Division, finds Cole and berates him for hiding throughout the battle. However, Jack’s CO discovers that Cole is the highest ranking officer who survived the battle and awards him the Silver Star in recognition of his bravery; Cole accepts his medal and promotion with just a hint of dazed reluctance.

Cole’s behavior during the war gives us enough information to determine his base characteristics. By and large, he is a man who tends to behave according to custom, rule, and expectation. This tendency results in his “by the books” attitude, but it also makes him an honest cop who always strives for a just conviction—he is never content to charge a suspect in order to make himself and the department look good if he believes the real perpetrator is still at large—and who does not buy into the corrupt dealings of the LAPD. He is also a proud man: he believes he is exceptionally skilled and has no qualms with showing himself off. One of his partners once calls him out on this, saying:  “Hubris disguised as humility. Kind of your trademark, don’t you think?” His partner may have been right to accuse Cole of putting on a show of humility, but it may also result from genuine shame; despite his show of confidence, Cole is also ashamed of his cowardice during the war, especially on Sugar Loaf Hill, and wishes that he had been more like Jack. Cole’s and Jack’s paths intersect late in the game, and we discover that Cole looks up to Jack even though he never admits it—he is too proud for that. He even apologizes to Jack for their years of rivalry, but it comes out awkward and somewhat forced. Cole and Jack have a very pained relationship—not quite friends but not quite enemies, either—and Cole always treads softly and self-consciously in Jack’s presence.

Let’s break Cole’s character into two key attributes. Cole is:

–          Proud, but also conscious of his shortcomings

–          No-nonsense, strait-laced and “by the books”—qualities that sometimes hinder his performance

Cole does not change overtly until near the end of the game, but there are signs early on that he is undergoing internal turmoil. Roy Earle, Chief Detective of Administrative Vice, introduces Cole to Elsa Lichtmann, a German refugee, popular jazz singer and struggling drug addict. Cole is married with two children, but he is obviously taken by Elsa as he repeatedly visits the Blue Room club to listen to her sing. Eventually, Cole begins an affair with Elsa. Roy blows the whistle on Cole’s affair in order to overshadow a scandal within the LAPD that is about to come to light, and Cole immediately becomes a social outcast (the extreme reaction of the general public makes more sense when we remember that the game is set during the early years of the Cold War, when “anti-American” behavior was severely scrutinized). Obviously this is a huge blow to Cole’s pride: his reputation is tarnished because he fell for a woman.

Elsa Lichtmann: a good-hearted woman caught up in a hell of a mess.

Cole’s relationship with Elsa deserves further attention because it suggests some fundamental changes in his character. Cole and Roy have an interesting conversation in a DLC mission that occurs just prior to Cole’s initiation of the affair. The two are discussing a suspect in the case they are working:

ROY: That old boy really fell for that broad.

COLE: She was incredibly beautiful, Roy.

ROY: Would you throw it all away for a woman?

COLE: Life has a way of making you pay for your pride.

ROY: You’re quite the romantic, Phelps. Stick with the percentages. Broken hearts are for chumps.

Roy Earle: crooked cop and all-around dick.

It would appear that Cole foresees what is in store for him. He knows he’s going to have an affair with Elsa and feels as if it can’t be stopped. Perhaps he feels that he is rightfully being taken down a peg; he will nearly ruin his life because he loves this woman. And there is sufficient reason to believe that Cole really does love her, since he stays with her for the remainder of the game. It also appears evident that he never really loved his wife, Marie, since he is willing to throw away his life with her in order to be with Elsa. If we remember that Cole often behaves according to custom and what is expected of him, we might speculate that Cole married Marie and started a family because that was what society expected of him. This is only speculation, and it is never directly supported in the game, but it suggests interesting character growth; perhaps Cole’s affair with Elsa indicates his “loosening-up” and a new conviction that playing by the rules and doing what’s expected of you is not always the right thing to do. Cole’s affair indicates that he is beginning to “see things from a human perspective, rather than the ivory tower he created for himself,” as Elsa puts it.

Cole has to swallow his pride when he falls for Elsa, but he also has to do it when he is forced to ask Jack for help uncovering a huge property scam involving the Mayor, the Chief of Police and the DA, as well as some other shady characters. If you couldn’t tell earlier, I think Cole’s and Jack’s interactions are the most fascinating in the game because we can feel the years of convoluted history between them. Cole has to rely on Jack, his old rival and “frenemy,” in order to restore his soiled name; however, he maintains a tricky balance between humbling himself and retaining his dignity, never being totally honest with Jack. He can’t quite bring himself to completely swallow his pride—not with Jack.

Cole’s final actions are also delightfully ambivalent, but they do suggest some meaningful growth. Cole and Jack head into the city’s sewer system and confront the linchpin of the bigwigs’ property scam: a mentally disturbed ex-marine who was traumatized on Okinawa when Cole ordered him to clear out a Japanese-occupied cave with his flamethrower—a cave that turned out to be a field hospital full of wounded soldiers and civilians. Upon realizing that his order drove this man insane, Cole insists: “It was war. For God’s sake, I can’t be held responsible for everything that happened!” However, he then allows Jack to mercy kill the marine—knowing that he will go to jail for life if he survives—even though Cole needs him alive to make his case. Finally, Cole helps lift Jack through a ceiling grate as the sewer begins to flood with rainwater; he insists that Jack go first because he is wounded. A torrent of water whisks Cole away to his death before he is able to make it aboveground, but he finally put someone’s safety ahead of his own. His dying decision was to save Jack before he saved himself.

*          *          *

So, what do we take out of this long and complicated analysis of Cole Phelps? Perhaps there isn’t a clear lesson to be learned. Cole is an interesting character because he is complex; like a real person, he often has conflicting motives and desires operating simultaneously. His actions are sometimes unpredictable because he is too complicated to be read like an open book—another quality that I consider very “human” and true to life. Finally, Cole is admirable at times and despicable at others—sometimes he is both at the same time. He is a man who tries to do what’s right but sometimes gets in his own way. He has made many mistakes and done things he regrets. He is neither a hero nor an antihero; his moral character lies somewhere in the gray area, as is true with most real-life persons.

In the end, I suppose I find Cole to be a fascinating character because he is hard to pin down. I dare say that his “characterness”—that quality of being obviously a literary production possessing certain defined characteristics—is overshadowed by his pervasive “humanity”—that quality of being too complicated to ever completely and permanently define. Personally, I consider this one of the best types of literary characters, and I imagine that most of you would tend to agree.

For my next post, I’ll examine the unique gameplay of L.A. Noire and consider how it affects the player’s experience of the story. Stay tuned!

PRESS START

You may have heard of the 1989 Japanese arcade game Zero Wing. More likely, you may be familiar with the opening cutscene added to the 1991 Sega Mega Drive port, re-popularized about ten years ago with thanks to the internet. The intro is famous for its laughably-horrible translations from the original Japanese into English, resulting in lines such as “Somebody set up us the bomb” and “You have no chance to survive make your time.” I have selected one such line to serve as my mantra for this blog: as it becomes clear to the spaceship captain that the evil CATS has his balls in a vice, he desperately orders that all “ZIG” star fighters launch immediately to combat the menace; his solemn command, translated into English, becomes “TAKE OFF EVERY ‘ZIG’!!”

In my decision to begin this blog, I likened myself to one of these ZIG Fighters embarking on a mission “for great justice.” Like the ZIGs, I am boldly thrusting myself into a great void; they venture into the void of space, while I venture into the oppressive void of internet anonymity. The ZIGs embark on a mission to save the galaxy from evil, while I embark on a mission to make a name for myself, small as it may be.

Not coincidentally, that was a perfect segue into introductions. Allow me to utilize my meager knowledge of journalism to present you with the essential things you need to know about me:

WHO: Mark Wilhelm

WHAT: Student of creative writing and psychology at Butler University

WHERE: Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

WHEN: Right now, but also throughout the past 21 years, and hopefully for many more years to come

WHY: Because my parents had a second child

HOW: I’m well, thank you for asking

But while those are the essential things you should know about me, they aren’t the essential things you should know about this blog. You may have surmised from my header that this is “a blog about writing and storytelling in video games.” Well done, my friend—but alas, I need to say more about that.

You need to know that I’m intensely (yes, intensely) interested in the ways that video games tell their stories. I’m particularly intrigued by nontraditional methods—methods that do not directly mimic written stories, films, or other types of non-interactive media. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with those kinds of methods; on the contrary, I love the traditional methods and spend much time playing games that adhere to them. However, I’m always exceptionally interested in a game that engages the player in an unexpected way or uses a specific gameplay element to drive the story. These descriptions are very vague, but there will be plenty of time later for me to describe some of my theories and ideas about storytelling in games. For now, you really just need to know that this blog will focus on great writing, storytelling, and story elements in video games.

In exploring this theme, I’ll offer a mix of my own ideas along with analyses of great examples that have caught my attention and stuck with me. In truth, I expect that I’ll be analyzing video games much more than I’ll be proposing theories about good storytelling; writing students know (because it is repeated to them incessantly) that reading is an essential part of writing; this is because we teach ourselves how to write well by reading the writing of others. The same idea applies to video games: we can learn how to write good interactive stories by examining interactive stories that others have written. So, in order to understand what constitutes good writing and storytelling in video games, I’ll examine many individual games that have really impressed me in this regard. Maybe it’s a specific character, the plot, or the method in which the story is delivered to the player; whatever the case, I’ll attempt to analyze the story element in question and come to some conclusion as to why it works well. Through this practice, I hope to slowly uncover some secrets to effective storytelling in video games (as well as to amuse you, my faithful readers, and to simply discuss fantastic games).

However, more important than all of that (even the stuff about the metaphysics of interactive storytelling, as scintillating as the topic is) is my desire to initiate stimulating conversations about these games and to interact with others who share my passion for storytelling. The ultimate goal of this blog is to interact with other prospective game writers and build a modest place for myself within their community. Talking about what interests you is all well and good, but I’m hoping to make a career out of my interests, and the best way to start working toward that is to find others who also want to do this professionally. Therefore, I want this blog to be a place for discussion just as much as, or more than, a place for only my own thoughts and opinions. I’m hoping to catch the interest of my fellow gamer-writers and introduce some provocative ideas for contemplation and debate.

“TAKE OFF EVERY ‘ZIG’!!” is my personal self-command to make some noise and share my ideas with the video game community. However, I also offer it as a call to arms and rallying cry to all others like me. It’s a suggestion that you consider what I’m selling you, voice your own opinions and ideas, and thrust yourself into the world just as I’m trying to do. More importantly, it’s an invitation to band together with me as we try to make a place for ourselves in the video game community. In summation, it’s an order to defeat CATS and to grasp your future by the throat. Let’s not disappoint ourselves, shall we?

He is one smug bastard.