Review: L.A. Noire, and the trouble with consequences
Posted by Gerard at 14:35 on 03 Jun 2011
The preamble handbook I found in a bin says you should sum up your position in a review in the first paragraph, because nobody reads the rest. LA Noire is rather good. There. You should probably consider playing it if you haven't already. It's a third person detective game, with shooting and driving. If that sounds nice, go play it, complete it, then come back here and read what I think about it. Then you can put your thoughts in the comments. I call it the Internet.
Nearly a Detective
I don't like to complain too much about games. People work hard on them, and LA Noire has had a lot of care poured into it. I want to like this game, because it's new, it takes a chance. It's not an FPS with a number on the end. This is what I want games to be like. This is what I remember games being like when I was younger. New, unexpected, trying different things that surprise you.
Perhaps I'm just hard to please now. I think I expect too much. LA Noire promises a lot, it has such a delightful premise to me: being a detective. I wanted it to be great, to be one of those games you set down in your head for the future, that you come back to again and again in memories. Like Shadowman, The Witcher, Uplink. The games that stand out because there's nothing else like them. LA Noire is almost one of those. Almost.
Because although I really enjoyed playing through LA Noire I didn't feel like it was enough. My problem is that everything is too opaque. Too much is obscured, deliberately withheld, for whatever reason. I think the problem is consequences.
The problem with consequences is that, in a game, you've got to give people some indication of how things will turn out. That's not to say you can't have grey areas, difficult moral choices. I like games that put you in a situation where there's no clear right answer, and you have to choose based on your own feelings, rather than what you think will yield the best loot.
The Witcher presents these quandries perfectly - Dragon Age manages it in more simplistic terms. I like situations where there is no right answer, because your choices are equal. Knowing what will happen because of your choices creates responsibility. It makes me care, feel that I'm making a difference.
But obscuring the consequences of your actions removes this responsibility. If you have no idea what will happen, the choice becomes meaningless and trite. The outcome doesn't feel like it has anything to do with you, as it was just a shot in the dark. Choose door A or door B.
Obscuring the truth
This is my first problem with LA Noire and its consequences. In an interview with someone you have three options when they say something, "Truth", "Doubt", "Lie".
There's an obvious formula behind using this system, and once you work it out things are quite simple. If someone says something you can disprove with evidence, things are easy. If someone says something but shifts their eyes about, jostles in their seat, looks down when they talk, choose Doubt. If they look you dead in the eye, choose Truth.
In essence, every interview works like this. But occasionally someone will shift their eyes about when they talk, so you choose Doubt. Cole says something meaningless, like "give me more or I'll send you to the gas chamber!". Your suspect says "that won't work on me!", and you've lost. You miss out on some information, you can't fully complete the case now. You were supposed to know that threatening this guy wouldn't work.
But half the time when you choose Doubt, Cole doesn't threaten anybody. Occasionally he pleads, "come on, you can give me more than that", sometimes he appeals to someone's sense of decency, and occasionally he comes out with a piece of anecdotal evidence, or a theory like, "I know you killed her, mac". What Cole says when you choose the Doubt option is totally obscured from you, there's no way of knowing what your choice will lead to. Choose Truth or Doubt, who knows what Cole will say? It's a crapshoot, guesswork, but a guess that gives you an X and a bad mark. You've failed this bit, sorry, you should have known, somehow. Your guess was wrong, you're punished.
This isn't game breaking, but it spoils the immersion. You don't know what Cole will do, so sometimes you're just guessing - applying the formula. When the formula works it's dandy, when it fails it's just exhasperating. The same thing happens with a couple of the cases. You have a list of places to visit - do you go to the bookmakers or the music agent first? Choose the bookmakers and you won't have the right evidence to get what you need. You've failed - the game tells you that. So reload and go to the agent, for the points? I reload, because I like achievements. "Fuck you, game" I think, while I'm doing it.
This happened maybe four, five times, but it was enough. How was I supposed to know? Maybe I'm too concerned with winning, with getting it right. But that's because the game gives you a score, gives you a rating. I'm programmed to go for the perfect score, how can I resist?
Four oh four Not Found
My other problem about consequences is with the storytelling. Everything starts fine - you get a crime scene, you find clues, you figure out what's going on, interview people and so on. It all seems to be coming together, you work out how the crime was committed, you find a motive, some shady company that keeps cropping up: it was all part of something bigger. But in so many cases, especially on the homicide and arson desks, you end up with two suspects. Both have motive, opportunity, means. You just have to make a choice: charge one and you get five stars, charge the other and you get three. Case over.
Although the whole game, the whole narrative, comes together properly, the cases individually just aren't clever enough, or satisfying enough. This is mostly because they feel unresolved, to me. Choose a guy, case over. You never find out what happened, you don't really uncover things properly, till later - and even then it's all left to your imagination.
The consequences of your casework are just left hanging. This isn't Phoenix Wright where there's a big, intricate series of events that you put together and explain in court. There's no proper closure on the individual cases in LA Noire. Perhaps it's intentional, I don't know. Perhaps this is what real police work is like. It doesn't mean it didn't still rub me the wrong way, leave me feeling a bit empty, like the whole endeavour was pointless.
I did like LA Noire. I liked careering around the roads like a maniac. I liked just watching the faces as people talked. I liked uncovering clues and shooting men. The voice acting, the atmosphere, the locations are remarkable. I just felt like it was a deeply unsatisfying game, as if too much was left unsaid. When it worked, when the formula fit, it was wonderful. But then that was finished, and you got no more. Like a book with the last page of each chapter missing.
And so in the end LA Noire never really gets the balance between narrative and freedom quite right. Cole Phelps isn't your character. His story isn't your story. This isn't a detective RPG, even though you level up and can change outfits. You don't have the freedom to be your own detective.
Cole's his own guy, does things of his own accord. I suppose that's fine. He's an interesting dude. I liked learning about him. But I wish I could have learned more about the cases he worked on. More about the victims, the perps, the dirty cops. It was almost enough. But not quite.