by Indy Datta
This post is about narrative in Rockstar Games’ period crime blockbuster video game L.A. Noire, and as such contains spoilers for it, and also for Grand Theft Auto IV and Heavy Rain. And Chinatown. And Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
There’s a story beat in L.A. Noire that encapsulates the awkward moment the game represents in the evolution of video games as a narrative form. Straight-arrow, war hero homicide detective Cole Phelps, who you “play”, is interrogating a barman about a woman who was drinking in his bar last night, and who was later found dead, her body grotesquely abused, having possibly become the latest victim of a serial killer. You ask him if he was working in the bar last night. Yeah, he says, him and the temp barman. You ask him if he spent much time talking to the victim. A bit, he says, but not as much as that temp barman.
At this point, any attentive viewer (and, I would argue, making attentive viewers is a large part of what Rockstar and their peers are trying to do) is thinking, hey, I should find out more about that temp barman. You might even think, hmm, what about that rather creepy temp barman I talked to on that other case, where a woman last seen in a bar was later found dead, her body grotesquely abused, having possibly become the latest victim of a serial killer?
But the game won’t let you follow this line of investigation. At no point will it add the temp barman to your detective’s notebook as a “person of interest”. At no point will Phelps or his partner, hard drinking, no-nonsense Irishman Finbar “Rusty” Galloway, mention the guy again, until the inevitable head-slapping moment of realisation that the answer had been under their noses the whole time. Instead, Phelps and Galloway continue to investigate a series of gruesome sex murders, argue about whether they’re the work of a serial killer or serial copycats, and charge a motley collection of fall guys with the killings.
There are two basic reactions to this. One is to be frustrated that the game hasn’t given you the freedom to act according to your own desires and intuitions, and is making you a passenger. One is to cede part of the narrative space to the invisible hand of the storyteller, and accept their attempt at dramatic irony on its own terms. This dichotomy is an expression of the ludology/narratology debate that animates games criticism, but it doesn’t require that that debate be settled: the two reactions are complementary rather than contradictory. They are two sides of the same coin because a game like L.A. Noire is inherently experimental, an attempt at telling a story with cinematic scope while also heightening player/audience involvement by providing sophisticated interaction, while subject to technical limitations and the limitations of a still-nascent craft. Another way of putting it: we can take the narrative of a game like L.A. Noire seriously, analyzing where it succeeds or fails, and acknowledging that the game is a story more than it is a playground without ever claiming that play has no inherent value without narrative.
About that cinematic scope. For a product being sold in a market sector where “interactive movie” is most commonly a term of abuse, L.A. Noire (why “Noire”, by the way? Are games feminine where films are masculine?) is brazen in its desire to be seen as cinematic. If the setting in post WW2 Los Angeles, the “Hollywoodland” sign often visible in the distance, and the genre (it’s in the title!) didn’t make that obvious, the big action set piece staged on the (anachronistically still-standing in the 40s) set of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance would. The game’s vision of Los Angeles (or a landlocked slice of it – one of my big disappointments was never getting to the beach) is initially reminiscent of Rockstar’s parodic US cities in the Grand Theft Auto series; the Californian cities of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas or New York City surrogate Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto IV.
But there’s a difference. If the cities in the Grand Theft Auto games are playgrounds, L.A. Noire’s Los Angeles is a movie set. If you stray off the path the game has set out for you, you will find that every door is painted on, every shop is closed, every pedestrian is an extra with one of a small repertoire of lines to parrot. The masterstroke of L.A. Noire is in the thematic echoes it finds between its story and these formal limitations.
The overarching plot of L.A. Noire, which is only foregrounded after more than a dozen hours of play, is a tribute to, or stolen from one strand of Roman Polanski and Robert Towne’s Chinatown (or from its bastard child, Who Framed Roger Rabbit). Phelps discovers that a cabal of corrupt businessmen and city officials is conspiring to buy land cheaply, build shoddy housing on it, ostensibly for WW2 veterans, using low grade materials salvaged from movie sets, and then sell the land back to the state at inflated prices when the legislation comes in for the new freeways to slice through this newly-designated residential land. While the movie set recycling angle is in there to bring the superficial attractions of Hollywood – starlets, glamour, sleazy movie producers – into the mix, it does also provide the same kind of thematic kick as when you realise that the real protagonists of the Grand Theft Auto IV saga (the main campaign and The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony) are the diamonds you see being smuggled into Liberty City in the opening credits sequence – a pure and valueless avatar of capitalism, wreaking destruction on every life they come into contact with. So in L.A. Noire, the underlying story is the fakery inherent in the Californian dream, and the way the movies are part of selling it. This has been fertile thematic ground for film-makers for decades, and it would be foolish to claim that L.A. Noire is a Chinatown or a Mullholland Dr. but the way its form resonates with its themes is, at least, novel.
Note that I said, if Grand Theft Auto is a playground. The controversy that attends every new release in that series takes as its starting point the freedom players have to wreak havoc in Rockstar’s synthetic cities: driving fire engines into kindergartens, squashing pensioners with helicopters, turning flamethrowers on streetwalkers, that kind of thing. You can usually rely on some rentaquote type to use the term “murder simulator”. But, of course, Grand Theft Auto is no more a murder simulator than is a kids’ game of Cowboys and Indians in the park and, more to the point, it has little scope in it as a playground for mayhem because the simulation of the life of a city is broad but entirely lacking in depth. You can play Grand Theft Auto IV without ever taking part in the story, but after a relatively short while, there’s no point doing so: it gets boring. Making player freedom a long-term compelling proposition in the absence of narrative requires that game design resources be directed towards deepening simulation or other rules of play, and Rockstar clearly prioritised the narrative side of the game.
L.A. Noire takes this process further. As noted above, the simulation of the environment has been made even shallower than in Grand Theft Auto, and player freedom has been constrained in very obvious ways – you can’t take out your gun at all unless the game decides you’re in a combat situation, and it won’t do that unless it’s part of the story or one of the designated side missions. So, even given that L.A. Noire has so much content in it that it comes (if you’re playing it on the Xbox) on three DVDs, where almost all modern games can fit on one, it seems reasonable to assume that this sacrifice must be intended to pay dividends elsewhere.
The big marketing hook for L.A. Noire was that it ushered in a new era of realism in character interaction, and in particular, that the performance capture technology it showcased would allow players to read non-player characters, and make judgments about them based on non-verbal cues. The reality is somewhat more mundane – the investigation element of L.A. Noire is achieved by grafting an adventure game on top of the Grand Theft Auto template – and it is the fusion of game genres that adds the richness and complexity more than the technology (don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to have something to do in videogames other than shoot people). The adventure game format that L.A. Noire uses is cosmetically similar to that used in Quantic Dream’s recent Heavy Rain, but is fundamentally little changed since the heyday of point-and-click adventure games like LucasArts’ Monkey Island series, or even since the days when the frontier of interactivity was free text entry in Infocom games such as the Zork series, or The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Crimes are investigated by collecting clues and then interrogating witnesses, informed by your knowledge of the clues. Rockstar would have us believe that the way they have captured the performances of the actors adds a significant extra dimension to this process, but in reality (and without intending to diminish the achievement of the technology or of the actors, many of whom seem to have been hired because there’s no Mad Men this year) that extra dimension usually comes down to a simple shifty/not shifty binary. There is, frankly, little difference between the way an interrogation plays out in L.A. Noire and the kind of “Use carrot with key ring to open chest” puzzles familiar from text adventures – you might kid yourself you’re trying to read the minds of the game characters, but you’re really trying to read the minds of the puzzle-setting game designers. Also, as noted above, whether you solve the puzzles or not doesn’t, in the end, matter that much. It’s a sleight of hand; what Rockstar wants is to get you really paying attention, so that you’ll stay put for 25 hours of story. (With, it should be noted, limited success. If a measure of success in designing an interactive narrative is the proportion of people who make it to the end, the evidence suggests that the current state of the art is not the final word in generating that kind of engagement.)
Heavy Rain is an interesting comparison point here. As noted, it has a similar debt to old-school adventure gaming, but even less interest than L.A. Noire in giving the player freedom, and is even more committed to the idea of being an interactive movie (although unlike L.A. Noire it does have “Choose Your Own Adventure” style branching endings). The results are mixed – the standard issue sadistic serial killer story doesn’t have the reach or ambition of Rockstar’s games, to say the least, but several of its scenes play out vividly, there’s a perversely admirable commitment to playing the audience like a cheap violin, and when it pulls the big reversal on you, revealing that one of the characters you play (and probably the one you liked most) is the villain, it works better than the creeping realisation in L.A. Noire that Cole Phelps is a prig and a phony, because for all the sprawling mass of content in L.A. Noire, Rockstar choose to keep Phelps a fairly uninteresting cipher for much of the game’s playing time, giving him no life outside the job. Sure, the reveal in Heavy Rain is an outrageous fraud upon the audience, but it’s the kind of outrageous fraud that Hitchcock would have chuckled appreciatively at. Also, Heavy Rain can be played through in less than a dozen hours, which strikes me as a much more sensible length for storytelling: there is more than a little redundancy in L.A. Noire.
I said above that I considered games like L.A. Noire to be an experimental form of narrative, and the innovations introduced with every generation should never be taken as the last word. In a decade from now, a successor to L.A. Noire might feature the ability to talk directly to non-player characters, with a device like Microsoft’s Kinect parsing your facial expressions and body language as well as your words (which would be an advance over any contemporary conversation system, but also a return to free text parsing, as in the earliest adventure games). Advances in performance capture and animation technology will make the characters in L.A. Noire look as convincing as those in Grand Theft Auto 3 do to us now. But what excites me most is the prospect that storytelling in games could continue to develop to the point where it will become redundant to ask whether games really can tell stories as well as the movies.