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L.A. Noire: The Interrogative Mood

June 16, 2011

Yes, I borrowed the title. It’s a very good book, by the way.

Oh, hi Cole. Looking serious again? Yeah, thought so.

In a review of L.A. Noire that I wrote for PopMatters a week or two ago, I touched on a part of the reaction to the game that struck me as curious: the disappointment that people seem to be feeling that interrogation is either “frustrating“, “broken“, or “opaque“, among other criticisms. As the most distinctive part of the game, it’s also the part most ripe for criticism, but the criticism that has appeared often seems misdirected.

The problem is that much of the criticism is boiling down to “I was terrible at it, and therefore there must be something wrong with it.”

Game critics are gamers who have necessarily played hundreds of games. There is an expectation that comes with playing a game — at least, a console game — that your mistakes will be erased with the push of a button, that you’ll get to try, try again until you get it right. The interrogation sequences of L.A. Noire don’t allow for this. If you get something wrong, your suspect/witness clams up and you just have to go without whatever crucial piece of information they might have been hiding. This is, obviously, unthinkable.

This issue seems partially related to the way the interrogation sequences are presented to us. Theoretically, we should be able to look for a sideways glance, a furtive breath, or a bitten lip and know right away that whoever we are speaking to is a DIRTY LIAR. On the other side of that, if the person looks directly at us, speaks clearly, and doesn’t hedge their answers, they are a SHINING BEACON of TRUTH. It is, of course, not that easy in practice. When “intuition points” are introduced, which offer the player the opportunity to glean some extra insight into what the “right” approach might be, the initial reaction is to scoff. “I won’t need those,” we think, “I’ll just look extra carefully at the eyes.”

Seriously, what could this look possibly mean?

Still, there’s a hint in that they are called “intuition points”. Unless there is cold evidence that the person is lying, much of interpreting the answers that the person gives is up to the player to, uh, intuit. Often, the most effective method of questioning is based on a hunch. If a player looks sideways but has no apparent reason to lie, chances are, they’re not lying. What the game doesn’t tell us is that hey, some people just look off to the side when they talk. Sometimes, a sideways glance is nothing to get excited about.

How do we know which instances are which? Well, those intuition points suddenly look awfully useful. I found myself driving around L.A. circa 1947 just for the sake of finding random landmarks that would help me gain the experience levels necessary to gain more of the things. You simply can’t collect enough of them.

Really, the game sets us up to fail, and fail often, and then live with our failure. More than anything, these passages evoke games like the original King’s Quest, games that don’t tell you when you’re screwing up, content to let you screw up until you’re in such an irrevocable position that you have to start over. Missed an item along the way? Well, go ahead and keep going, but eventually, it’s going to bite you in the ass. You’re never going to be able to get to the end without it. In L.A. Noire, you can keep going, and you can even solve whatever mystery it is you’re working on, but good luck winning the affections of your superiors, much less your colleagues.

As pointed out in the review, this serves to separate player from character, which I believe was actually the developer’s intent. That interrogation is frustrating you is the point. If Cole Phelps were better at it, he would cease being Cole Phelps and become a reflection of the player, and really, nobody should want to see more of themselves in the character of Cole Phelps.

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