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L.A. Noire - A Review of Storytelling

Please be warned that:
A: This does contain some spoilers (though, I tried to be relatively non-specific.
B: I am cross-posting this from another place I write: http://thenerderyblog.com/, as I thought it was apt.

Hello folks, Tim here. This is a long one, so get ready.

I beat L.A. Noire tonight (as of now, this was last Friday). I was damn excited for this game. It has an amazing aesthetic. I love pulpy crime narratives, and the cast was impressive. The trailers kept me in anticipation, as they demonstrated some of the animation achievements of the game. The facial expressions are dead-on, and reading people’s emotions becomes an important part of the game play. A very neat idea and it is wonderfully executed. The map is huge, beautiful, and apparently quite accurate. It has some of the best voice acting I have experienced in a video game, and it was a real joy stumbling upon the many actors from the cast of Mad Men and other prominent actors as random characters. Geez…that may be about all the good stuff I can say about this game. But, that is not what this article is about. I am not concerned with the technical developments, the game play, or the design. I am writing solely about storytelling.

Like I said, I was really excited for this game. Super duper, dudes. Like, a lot. I bought it last Tuesday with my hard-earned money, and I am currently unemployed, so that money could have gone a long way. And yeah, it is a technical achievement, and signals a sea-change character animation and voice acting for all future video games. I just want to reiterate that much before I start deconstructing all the things that bothered me.

Oh, and yeah, there will be spoilers.

Here is the main thing that bothers me. There is hardly a narrative to the game. I will explain this accusation, since many people have been complimenting it for its storytelling. There are four main diegetic spaces for the narrative in this game:

1: The main story – this is told through the point of view of the main character, Cole Phelps and the police work that he does. An honest cop trying to make things right.

2. The newspapers – You learn “the story behind the headlines” by viewing the secrets of what has been going on in the city. You quickly realize that all of these newspaper headlines are connected into one story.

3. Flashbacks – These are your experiences (and I think one or two are from other people) from the war. It tells the story of you going to the train to get to training, to your last mission in Japan and all the horrors inbetween. You learn about some of the other characters that begin to pop up, but since the flashbacks are in black and white, and in current-time everyone is wearing hats, it is hard to keep track of who is who or remember who is important to the current timeframe.

4. The narrator – There is a weird narrator for like…the first fourth of the game? He is enigmatic and pulpy. Then they fucking drop it and you never hear the voice again. Why is it there? Does it have any importance? The game makes it seem important, like some sort of unspoken truth is being told about Phelps and his experiences. However, the voice stops speaking really early on, so it makes me wonder why it was there in the first place. Jt is like the developers forgot all about it. Yes, the narrator is a space for storytelling, but it is ridiculously out of place and unnecessary.

So, really, there are 3 main narrative spheres. Without getting too much into it, the newspapers tell the perspectives of the people who are doing crimes, or at least the bigger crimes for the game. The pieces slowly interconnect as you find these papers in the various unrelated cases. The story here is actually somewhat interesting, and has some good plot to it, but it is all non-playable stuff that you would not know about unless you read all these newspapers. Therefore, it just teases you. It gives you what you want, but it is beyond the reach of the main character and the player’s experience. The game tells you the story throughout, but you do not connect with the experience until the last third of the game. Therefore, you know who all the evil people are, and that things are not as they seem for the entire game, and you get to see how all the pieces fit. But it is all dramatic irony – stuff that is going on behind the back of the main perspective of the story. Which is not a bad thing, but that space is where all the interesting stuff happens, and it feels almost like a betrayal to the player.

The flashbacks tell the story of your past. And you know what? You are pretty damn unlikable. This would normally be a way to add “depth” to a character, but for me it just adds conflict. You work your ass off as the player to make this dopey flat-foot copper into a respectable and honorable man, fighting the good fight to keep the always-dirty streets of L.A. clean, and you find out that you are an incompetent know-it-all who everyone hated in the war. So, as a player, you learn the truth about the guy you are playing and busting your ass trying to identify with and it is not good.

And it isn’t like he gives you any favors when you are playing as the cop. He is a real jerk and snaps at people if you doubt them in even the slightest way. He treats liars better than people who are just trying to protect themselves to retain some of their dignity in the face of invasive investigations. But, as a player, I always sort of figured maybe that was just a design flaw with the game. There really should be 4 conversation options, Truth, Lies, Doubt and Suspicion. That way if you are just somewhat curious about something, you don’t have to yell in an old woman’s face for no particular reason. But, maybe that is just who Phelps is? A real asshole? The flashbacks seem to think so, but we do not ever really figure this out from the main story at all. There is not a whole lot of reason to like Phelps, you never really get to know him. You see bits of his life, and learn about his past, but there is not a whole lot of reason to connect to him as a character or to care about him on any emotional level.

So, then there is the main story. Or really, lack thereof. The first third of the game is just unrelated cases. Basic training stuff, showing you all the different things you do in the game. Way too much game time is spent on stuff that doesn’t matter. None of the cases you solve are connected in any way, so it just feels like there is no importance to anything you are doing. Yeah, maybe that is because you are just a beat cop or a low-level detective, but there should be some narrative weight to what is going on.

Then you are promoted up to homicide. Finally, on disc 2 of the game, some stuff starts to happen. The murders you are sent to investigate start looking like a repeat killer. And yet, you keep finding someone to pin it on. I mean, after the second or third murder, it is very clearly a serial killer, but there is always someone to blame. You catch someone and they are so overwhelmingly guilty that it seems like a complete coincidence that you keep stumbling upon similar murders. And yet, these dudes are totally guilty. Like, 100% jerkoffs. BUT STILL, by the end of this particular desk, you find out that there is totally a serial killer who has been doing all these murders the whole time, and just finding very specific people who he can set up very elaborate frame-jobs on, and make a bunch of assholes appear to be obviously guilty. So, all the work you put into this part of the game is meaningless. As a gamer, you know that there is a serial killer very early. You are not sure who, but you know there is one. As a cop, you just keep busting people for these crimes. Eventually you catch someone, but it means that all those investigations you did were not worth a damn – both as narrative and playing experiences. You are not a genius cop, because you just found a bunch of obvious evidence that some jerk planted and pointed you in the wrong directions. So, there is a bit of a story here, but it is a meaningless one. It does not connect to the beginning third of the game, and it does not connect to the final third. And like I said, all the struggle to solve those crimes, turns out it wasn’t worth a damn.

So, you get to disc three, Vice squad, and you begin to see the story finally start, and it only took 2/3 of the game to pass by. And it starts connecting your actions as a cop to the newspaper crimes you’ve been learning about the whole game, though this connection is slow. There is a pretty big twist here that would normally have a lot of weight on the game - you fall victim to a tabloid scandal that causes your wife to leave you, gets you demoted and basically everyone in town looks down at you like you are fucking scum. They ship your ass down to Arson squad to spend out your days. Normally this would have a huge bearing on your character, but you hardly know this guy. He is just a cop, who solves cases. So, as a player, since you are just always solving cases, it really does not feel all that different, except that no other characters really respect you anymore (not that they really talk to you all that much in the first place), but you are almost at the end of the game, so who the hell cares? There is a scene of your wife throwing your suitcase out the front door, but that is all you ever see of her, and they barely mention that you have a family otherwise, so there is not really any emotional connection to Phelps’ life whatsoever, you just play as him to solve crimes. And you keep doing that. So, his personal life does not really matter, and you aren’t really connected to it at all in the narrative, so there is not really a reason to feel for him in any capacity, other than he got demoted.

So, then you end up in Arson. Which starts up a new narrative thread that starts to connect the main crime story, the newspapers and the flashbacks into a proper narrative arc. The pieces start falling into place, but it is almost the end of the game. The main character goes through a big change, some stuff finally starts happening and what does the game decide to do? Oh, just make you play as an entirely different character.

This is a guy who has been popping up from time to time in the newspaper/flashback stories, and he is a total bad ass. You actually like this guy from the get-go, he is that awesome. So, you play as this guy for the last three mission, and the guy you get to know for the entire game just goes away and is unimportant. And you get to play as this great character, who is much more fully developed just from all the side-stories, and it is the end of the damn game!

And, since they do these newspaper and flashback stories throughout the entire game, there really isn’t a surprise. You know who all the villains are, you know who is doing what and why. The crimes are just simply walking through the motions. You have to do them, in order to arrest someone, but you know who you want to hunt down, you just have to wait to get to that point.

Then there is the very end. There is a bit of a twist to it, but I just felt really disappointed. It is a very naturalistic ending, but since there is so little reason to care about the main character, it just feels weak and empty. You actually end up caring for every other character in the game much more, so to me, it was not a big loss. It just made the first 3/4th of the game feel like a waste.

Granted, it would be stupid if ALL the cases connected from the start, and they all culminated in some sort of weird final crime, but it could have been handled in a better way. Phelps could have been better developed as a person, rather than just a cop. We could have watched him and his life away from his badge and gun as a way of having a better story in the game, but instead we get a character who you don’t really bother getting attached to until the very end, and by that point nothing matters. Nico of GTAIV is such a deep and complicated character, he has a past which we never see it directly, but it had an effect on his life and actions. He is a developed person and we see him struggle with the world around that. Phelps never does this. We do not get the opportunity to know the character in this way. And it is more than just caring about a character on screen, it is about telling a complete story. L.A. Noire does not do this particularly well, even though it pretends to.
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About Timfasticone of us since 12:14 AM on 05.10.2011