This week, I finished playing through L.A. Noire, the latest Rockstar game. It had everything I love – a film noir vibe, clue-based gameplay, and hard-boiled gumshoes who probably refer to women as “dames”. How could it possibly fail me? And yet it did.
Let it be said for the record that I don’t intend this to be a review. Let it also be made clear that I am not a very big fan of Rockstar’s flagship franchise – Grand Theft Auto. Given that this game is not meant to be much like GTA, I would add that the fact has little to no bearing on my thoughts – but I thought I’d reveal it in the interest of full disclosure. (I am, incidentally, a huge fan of Red Dead Redemption, a game that I will frequently mention below.)
Also, there will be spoilers below.
The simple way of describing the problem with L.A. Noire is to point at the characters and the plot. The heart of the matter, however, is in what L.A. Noire aspires to be – an interactive movie.
The player is charged with playing as Detective Cole Phelps, decorated World War II hero returning home to Los Angeles to join the police force. Within the first few cases, it is apparent that Phelps is unlikable at best and unrelatable at worst. Partway through an early case, a drive-time conversation with Cole’s partner reveals that Cole has a wife and child. But we never see them. The player is only Cole Phelps when he is solving crimes. It is an impersonal view of the character. Compare this to Red Dead Redemption which, more than anything, was a game about John Marston’s family (and perhaps secondarily about the death of the Old West).
All we see of Cole is an uptight man with the occasional flashback to the war, where it is gradually revealed that he was a rather incompetent officer. When Cole inexplicably cheats on his wife 3/4 of the way through the game and his career spirals out of control, we are left wondering why he did this. We never get an answer. To be clear, this isn’t a “life is complicated and some questions have no good answers” moment. This is a “the writers didn’t make this character real enough for me to even allow me to guess what his motivations were” moment.
So for most of the game, we control Cole, a man who does things beyond our comprehension. And I ask you: in a game about solving mysteries, to be presented with a character so flimsy that you can’t even understand him at the end of the day despite being him, is there a greater sin?
When the player’s point of view suddenly shifts to Jack Kelso, it came as a relief to me. Jack fell pretty flat to me as well, but was as a whole more well-realized than Cole. In fact, the most real characters in the entire narrative were Cole’s partners and associates, who at least had their own personalities and mannerisms. Roy Earle’s flippant off-the-books attitude and James Donnelly’s fiery biblical conviction showed that there were interesting characters and ideas to be had. Unfortunately, each partner is only present for a few hours of gameplay at most and is then discarded by the wayside as the player moves to a new department within the LAPD. At the end, when controlling Jack, the player is without a partner entirely, resulting in a lonely existence.
In a game that chooses to style itself as letting the player be able to solve mysteries, the plot and pacing is surprisingly weak and laughable at points. While in the homicide division, Cole runs into a gruesome murder that he solves. In his next case, he encounters a similar killing and the characters in the game chalk it up to a copycat killer. When they see a third such killing, they once again do the same thing – even though the player is well aware by now that this is not the case, the entire LAPD never admits it.
Each time, Cole arrests and charges someone with a murder based on the evidence. I reached my breaking point in one case where I investigated all possible clues and arrived at the conclusion (in my own head) that both of the suspects were equally likely to have killed the victim. There was identical evidence on both sides, with nothing to suggest which one was the real killer. Yet the game didn’t recognize this option, nor did its characters – I was forced to charge one, even though it was abundantly clear that neither committed the crime because of the way the previous killings were reoccurring.
Believe it or not, there were six such cases before the characters finally found the real killer instead of charging an innocent who fit the clues the killer left behind. At some points, Cole seemed to show an inclination that he knew all these killings couldn’t be copycat killings, but his captain dismissed the idea and Cole, despite being a by-the-books officer, chose to forget all about his qualms. Worse, he and everyone else appear to be genuinely shocked at the end that it wasn’t a string of copycat killings.
This may be the most egregious example of terrible writing in L.A. Noire, but it is sadly not the only one. The player is expected to turn off part of his brain in a game about solving mysteries.
Many reviews of L.A. Noire talk about how it is the closest thing yet to an “interactive movie”; I disagree. The writing is careless, the characters are flat, and the gameplay (which I didn’t cover) is mediocre. If this was a movie out in theaters, it would get terrible reviews.
This is not L.A. Confidential, much as it aspires to be. Truth be told, writing in most games is so terrible that it would get laughed out of serious literary or film circles. Whatever Holy Grail the industry aspires to in this sense, it is not there yet.
In thinking about this goal, it seems we often forget that it is hard to overcome inferior gameplay, and impossible to get someone to truly love something that does not regard the player as intelligent. Desire and ambition are qualities to be applauded in L.A. Noire. But perhaps Rockstar only had to look to its hit last year to find this quote: “It’s wantin’ that gets so many folks into trouble”.