I’ve tried, but I just can’t fail at L.A. Noire

In my L.A. Noire, Cole Phelps is the super detective you read about in the papers. He looks great in a suit, he always gets his man, and – more importantly – he’s able to go back and recreate history whenever he does something wrong.

I bring this up because my Cole Phelps doesn’t particularly resemble the mistake-prone Cole Phelps discussed in Patrick Klepek’s recent article on Giant Bomb. I’m not going to provide a full recap of Klepek’s original piece – you should go and read it for yourself – but the general gist is that unlike other video games, L.A. Noire is more compelling because it allows the player to deal with the consequences of failure and he encourages players embrace the possibility of defeat.

It’s an excellent point, and I happen to agree with much of what Klepek says. I just haven’t been able to follow his advice. I’ve tried to get out of my own way, but I always feel compelled to replay every interrogation in search of that elusive five-star rating, and while I wish it were otherwise, I’ve nonetheless abused the “Quit” and “Resume” features in an effort to get around the auto-save function.

As you’d expect, the constant reloading has slightly diminished my impressions of L.A. Noire, but I still haven’t been able to break the habit and that got me thinking. L.A. Noire certainly isn’t a bad game. The writing is incredible and I like the fact that Rockstar and Team Bondi are taking the medium in a new direction. Even so, there are risks whenever you’re giving the player the keys to the story.

To elaborate, it seems somewhat ambitious to expect anyone to strive for imperfection, even within the context of a video game. Walt Disney and Die Hard are comforting because they reinforce some vaguely defined moral ideal that lets us know that things are generally all right with the world and video games operate within that same escapist realm. Reality is frequently unpleasant, and that’s exactly what we’re looking to get away from when we turn to entertainment.

Yet while most people would prefer to avoid failure, Mr. Klepek correctly points out that the associated feelings of loss and regret can make for a far more poignant and memorable experience. A typical English class is littered with prominent tragedies – Shakespeare comes to mind – and even pop culture has at various points been taken over by Harry Potter (books five and six in particular) and Titanic. 

Harry Potter, however, would look drastically different in the hands of anyone other than J.K. Rowling (think fan fiction), and it’s worth remembering that the audience doesn’t always know what’s best when it comes to a favorite franchise. Given the chance, how many people would opt to rewrite the ending of The Half-Blood Prince? Albus Dumbledore may have an irresistible appeal, but his survival lessens the impact of the drama in a way that irreparably damages the series as whole.

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The point is that while people may accept (and even cherish) the occasional tragedy, it’s not something that we seek out voluntarily. Rather, it’s something that we deal with whenever it’s unexpectedly thrust upon us, and that’s as true in entertainment as it is in real life. With Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare doesn’t give the audience the chance to change the ending and the play is more effective because it literally demands that we face the horrible realities associated with loss.

Video games can enhance emotional responses because agency imbues the player with a sense of responsibility when things go awry, but that same agency can also allow players to avoid actions with any meaningful consequences. It’s all a matter of control. In recent years, game developers have given more power to the player with level editors, character customization, and etc., and there’s been a similar trend with narrative in games like Dragon Age and Heavy Rain. We’ve been taught that you can always get the ‘best’ ending as long as you put in enough gameplay hours or check the right FAQ.

For me, that’s the conundrum of L.A. Noire. Trophies, achievements, and five-star ratings explicitly reward the player for a predetermined set of “correct” answers and align the game with the amoral mechanics of trial and error. The musical chimes that crop up during interrogations clearly and unambiguously tell you the instant you’ve done something wrong, and my immediate impulse as a gamer is to go back and fix the problem in hopes of a better outcome.

Those kinds of fail-state indicators inevitably alter the way we perceive a game like L.A. Noire. We’re asked to view the interrogations as puzzles with rigidly defined solutions instead of ambiguous situations with dynamic human players, and the branching narrative opportunities just don’t seem as important as my own obsessive-compulsive need to get everything right.

Rockstar and Team Bondi have ultimately ceded control of the story to the player and in doing so have limited their ability to force us to confront more challenging emotions. Tragedy becomes a gameplay option instead of an artistic necessity, and there’s no reason to expect players to settle for the worst when the best is so easily attainable.

So while Patrick Klepek is right to put an onus on the player – if we want games to offer more authentic emotional experiences, we have to accept the fact that winning isn’t always a possibility – L.A. Noire suffers when it fails to break the ingrained tendencies of gamers. Developers sometimes have to be bold enough to forcibly drag us to places we wouldn’t ordinarily venture because my L.A. Noire isn’t necessarily going to be the best version of the tale.