Introduction to L.A. Noire
L.A. Noire (2011) was developed over a period of seven years by the now defunct Team Bondi in conjunction with Rockstar Games. It is predominantly an action-adventure game with third-person shooter and open-world sandbox driving elements. Thematically, it draws heavily upon the neo-noir detective thriller genre. However L.A. Noire’s emphasis on story, light gameplay and mix of various game genres is the source of its polarized reviews. The game appears to cater to the needs of traditional adventure game fans, which leaves players expecting more hardcore action-based gameplay disappointed. This analysis will observe how the strengths and weaknesses of L.A. Noire’s design hinges on whether the player belongs to either faction – as well as the aspects that shine or fail regardless of player preference.
Having shipped almost 5 million copies, L.A. Noire qualifies as a commercial success. The game has also done well critically, however the difference between critic and user aggregated scores on Metacritic are of note. The 6% different between the PC and console versions can be attributed to the collapse of Team Bondi prior to the PC release, resulting in Rockstar Leeds taking over production.
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When asked if L.A. Noire was indicative of the open-world sandbox genre growing up from the cartoonish world of Grand Theft Auto III (2001), Rockstar Vice President of Development Jeronimo Barrera denied revitalizing any existing genre, instead stating, “We’re pretty much creating a new genre of video games…This is open-world with some class adventure elements, but we’re using new technology to connect with the player in such a way that has never been done before. To me, this is the next step for games of this type”. Here lies a major discrepancy between developer expectations and player reality. Whilst the game made new ground in motion capture technology and narrative design, it did not introduce innovative game mechanics, with its most praised activity – interrogation – heavily borrowed from the Phoenix Wright/Ace Attorney series of adventure games (2001-2013). This does not constitute a new genre like the developers intended, resulting in players being disappointed, instead of forgiving, to the mish-mash of action-adventure mechanics. Thus the overlying suggestion for improvement in the scope of strengths and weaknesses outlined in this article would be to either reconsider the target audience as mostly adventure gamers, or to recalibrate the mechanics to make them novel. This may also explain why users have generally given less favourable reviews, as professional reviewers must remain less genre-bias when critically analyzing games.
The plot of L.A. Noire was inspired by popular 1940s crime serials and modern cop dramas, with 90% of the 21 cases based on real-life cases of mid-20th century Los Angeles. The game follows a linear structure, with a sand-boxed open world containing optional side missions to play with that don’t affect the narrative. The individual cases are broken down into the four departments that the protagonist, Detective Cole Phelps, moves through: traffic, homicide, vice and arson.
The game benefits from having a diverse range of case stories from insurance fraud and hit-and-runs to a serial killer and police corruption. However each of the 21 cases ties into a larger overarching narrative, sewn together by flash back sequences and newspaper headlines. According to Gaming Nexus reporter Cyril Lachel, “The end result is a fully realized story that digs deep into the mind of Cole Phelps”. Combined with a slow and steady pace, witty dialogue, along with well-spaced twists and narrative rise-and-falls, L.A. Noire’s narrative design goes far in driving player motivation to explore scenes for clues, interrogate witnesses and suspects, and to keep an eye on every detail.
Interrogation and Clue-Finding
Interrogation in L.A. Noire works by selecting one of three responses to an interviewee’s statement: lie, truth or doubt. Lies must be proven false with evidence from the player’s notebooks, truths will be revealed to be correct or incorrect in the following moments of gameplay and doubts cause the player-character to probe the interviewee for further information – the success of which depends on if the correct option was chosen. Lachel remarked, “Even though these interviews are the least interactive elements of L.A. Noire, they are likely to be the biggest takeaway from this game”. This is because player-failure is dealt with elegantly, so as to let players make mistakes without compromising the drive of the narrative, allowing them to miss clues and select the wrong option in interrogations, but still eventually providing the answers. As Lachel puts it, “Sloppy police work results in more work that needs to be done, which is a really slick way of rewarding observant players”.
Notebook evidence is collated from clues found at crime scenes, which must be combed through. For every clue, there are 4-5 unrelated items, adding to the realism of detective work. L.A. Noire avoids the pixel-hunting frustration of traditional adventure games by adding audio cues whenever a player is near a clue, going so far as to buzz the controller when one is found. This levels the game, rather than holding the hand of the player, as the richness in detail makes clues more difficult to distinguish.
The game also rewards good player actions (discovering landmarks, answering questions correctly, ranking up etc.) with intuition points which can be used as aids in both interrogation and clue-finding activities. At crime scenes, they can be activated to reveal the location of clues on the mini-map. This also goes towards reducing the frustration of hunting. During interrogations, the points can be used to remove one wrong option or to reveal what percentage of players globally selected as a given answer. The latter option makes use of the game’s online connection and also partially acts as a social experiment by placing the player’s position in the game side-by-side with those that came before them.
The strength of the interrogation – along with the rest of the game’s components, undoubtedly hinge on the realism of character animations and dialogue, the world architecture and soundtrack. This realism and authenticity is what truly immerses players in the world of Cole Phelps. L.A. Noire Creator Brendan McNamara commented, “I’d say the first year and a half – [maybe] even longer – was just research”. This research contributed to the games’ almost-exact replica of 1940′s Los Angeles. Other huge chunks in the seven-year development process went towards developing new technology including MotionScan, the recording software behind the extremely realistic facial animation. The effort paid off, with reviewers Lachel and Webster commenting on the game’s success in providing highly realistic facial animations while avoiding the uncanny valley. The game also benefits from having high-quality actors (including many actors from the 1950s period drama Mad Men) and dialogue that is imbued with slang from the period.
Realism is a principle followed not only in art style, but in mechanics. Cole’s slow walking in comparison to traditional third-person shooters work with the overall slower pace of the game, also working to allow players to take in more of the rich environment. Driving between locations, combing scenes for clues and taking notes to use in the interrogation of witnesses and suspects all add to the tedious realism of detective work.
The realism of detective work was not enough to sell action fans on the merits of weaker gameplay, with Webster also commenting, “L.A. Noire aims to make you feel like a real-life police officer, but real-life police-work is actually quite dull”. Even adventure fans struggled to see the merit of quick-time gun-fights, car chases and fist fights in what Adventure Gamers writer Nathaniel Berens describes as “…essentially the most expensive and most expansive adventure game ever made.”
In L.A. Noire, all action elements have been simplified and made optional – rendering their value to progression negligible. According to Berens, this is wonderful for adventure purists, who can skip through the action – although at the cost of purposefully failing gunfights and car chases. However action gamers such as GameOver reviewer Brian Mardiney found the “mandatory, and often ludicrous, action sequences” to be “Indiana Jones moments [that] simply have no place in a serious crime drama”. For Wester, the quick-time fights combined with extended drives around the city between cases mean “Practically all you do is direct your character from one cutscene to another”.
Part of the disconnect between action fans and the intention of the developers is due to market expectations tied to publisher Rockstar Games’ previous, action-oriented games. The work extensive marketing about the narrative-driven qualities of L.A. Noire is cancelled out by the very inclusion of third-person shooter and open-world driving mechanics, as players expect that a successful merging of genres should occur without loss to any genre. Here, adventure fans come off well, as the design of the game does not punish slow reflexes or those who wish to skip action altogether. Perhaps a better compromise would have been to include more complicated and traditional shooting and fighting mechanics (e.g. different weapons have different ranges, reload speed etc.) whilst maintaining the option to skip the fight. A more drastic design choice would be to leave the fights and drives out of the game completely. Thunderbolt reviewer Matt Wadleigh raised this point and remarked, “No one wants to spend ten minutes watching their favorite CSI character drive to a crime scene, so why make players do it over and over and over again?”.
Interrogation and Clue-Finding
Interestingly, the most praised mechanic of the game – interrogation – was also the most criticized. The problem lies with the pass-fail answer selection, where players must select the correct option amongst a host of equally plausible options, or fail an entire section. As mentioned previously, this ultimately does not impact the narrative however players with a penance for perfect gameplay are compelled to replay for 45 minutes for the chance to reselect an option. This aspect could be improved by implementing a sliding scale of points for the options providing – changing the options from pass-fail to great-okay-bad. This would also add to the realism of interrogation, as real-life conversations are rarely black-and-white as to the direction they follow.
For Wadleigh, the problem with interrogation is that answers are either too obvious, or impossible, with uncertainty arising from Phelp’s inconsistent behaviour upon selecting doubt and lie. Oftentimes, Phelps responds with anger to doubt and patience to lies – giving the opposite effect desired. According to McNamara, this is due to a change in the game design: “When we originally wrote it, the questions you asked were Coax, Force and Lie. So Force was a more aggressive answer, and that’s where we actually recorded it…so everyone says that Aaron on the second question goes psycho, but that’s just the way we wrote it from before”. This flaw could be solved by re-balancing the interrogation mechanics to make Phelps more sympathetic and persuasive with the doubt option, thus allowing more intuitive player-options, or by retaining the original design and letting players know that the option causes Phelps to be more forceful.
The principle of realism is at times followed to the detriment of fun gameplay. The slow character movements (walking, running, turning etc.) ground the action to the pace of the narrative. Here, the best thing to do would be to wield creative license and place higher value on player-fun than real-world physics. Increasing the speed of character movement could be done at a rate so as to improve the gameplay of fights without impeding the speed of the narrative.
Yet the intentions of the developers in creating slow character movements must also be taken into consideration. Cole Phelps is an army man and a cop – but he’s not the stereotypical mega buff male hero of other video games. He has psychological issues and the design of the player controls helps the player feel as vulnerable as Phelps does. Their frustrations mirror Phelp’s fear of inadequacy.
Furthermore the hyper-realism of faces becomes jarring against the somewhat lackluster body animations. This breaks the realism of the characters and becomes an annoyance in moving around the game world. According to an anonymous source, the reason for this is because only one animator worked on gameplay during large parts of production and Team Bondi left their Lead Animator position empty from January 2008 until the final release date. One solution is to reduce the amount of animation required overall. While having diners come and go into a building that the player never enters is a great level of detail that contributes to the immersive realism, it should not come at the cost of quality of main-character animation. Another solution is to utilize the same MotionScan technology for facial and body animation, to reduce the discrepancy between the two. If this isn’t possible due to the amount of extra animation work it would create, then the game should be redesigned so that the lower quality of body animation is not as noticeable, e.g. using props to hide a lack of finer movements.
The overall consensus, critical or otherwise, is that L.A. Noire’s narrative, visual and technical successes far outweighs their flaws in gameplay. But for a game that aimed so high as to create a new genre – is this enough? Is creating a technically innovative game that pushes the boundary between films and games something that pushes the games industry forwards into acceptance as an art form, or backwards, further away from being recognized as an art form with mechanics of its own?
Jaymee Mak is a Game Design student and a winner of the Women in Games Scholarship
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