Update: SLee and Topher now have an entire case guide out in e-book form. Even better, it is FREE!
Update 2 (May 5th 2012): If you want some help answering the questions, but don’t want the spoilers of the actual answers, SLee and Topher now have a guide with tips on how to deduce the correct response.
I have been playing L.A. Noire  and I have really been trying to like it. It should be the kind of game I love. I have written before about why I love crime shows and I usually like crime games as well. The game was highly recommended to me by two friends whose opinions and taste I trust. So I want to like it, but L.A. Noire is just not doing it for me. In this post I give the uncharitable version of my reaction to L.A. Noire. In a future post I will give the more charitable interpretation of my reaction to the game. [Note: This post contains spoilers for L.A. Noire and Triggers for Racism, Sexism and Violence. I will note each in-text as they arise, and hide any spoilers that affect the cases]
- Racism and Sexism
- Plot, Choice and the Uncanny Valley
- Gameplay and the Uncanny Valley
- Final Verdict (tl;dr)
- Link Round-Up of Interrogation and Investigation Tips
[Trigger Warning for Discussion of Gender-Based Violence]
L.A. Noire is both racist and misogynist through and through. You play as Cole Phelps assisted by several partners throughout the game. Phelps himself rarely says racist or sexist things, but his partners can be relied upon for a steady stream of racism and sexism. [Light Spoiler for L.A. Noire] One partner,
Stefan Bekowsky Roy Earle [Thanks to Harold for the correction], becomes incensed when a black man makes a suggestion. He spits out, “don’t tell me what to do,” with a tone that indicates he thinks the black man “doesn’t know his place.” Later he says, “What an evening I’m having. First a negro puts his hands on me, and then this.” The game also features anti-Semitic conspiracies as part of the plot-line. Later, Phelps’ partner, Finbarr “Rusty” Galloway, jokes about beating and murdering his girlfriends and wives. Galloway thinks a woman deserves to die if she keeps a messy house. [/Spoiler] But I am not going to dwell on those points, since there is an in-game explanation (America is racist! It was especially racist in the ’40s! It adds realism!) and I expect that anyone who is playing a Rockstar game will anticipate a lot of racist, homophobic and sexist shit and will have prepared themselves accordingly.
Masahiro Mori’s hypothesis of the uncanny valley is usually applied to visual representations of the human-like, such as those in robotics or animation:
Mori’s hypothesis states that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong revulsion. However, as the appearance and motion continue to become less distinguishable from a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels. (From Wikipedia)
My experience of playing L.A. Noire is one of tumbling head over heels into the uncanny valley, but not in its traditional interpretation.
Visually, L.A. Noire is probably not going to give you the experience of falling into the uncanny valley. If you watched someone else play the game with the sound off, L.A. Noire would probably seem like one of the most realistic games ever made. The good features of the game, and its main selling-points in terms of its marketing, are the realistic visuals and animation. The world is really big and really detailed. The facial expressions and acting are also really good. But these good points are also part of the problem, because the development team seems to have paid attention to the visual realism at the expense of plot-based realism.
Things look really good in this game, that is true. But it is all so superficial. It ends up feeling really empty. Allegedly you make choices, gather clues and interrogate suspects and witnesses. But nothing the player does makes any difference to the game’s progression. The non-playable characters’ long-term reactions to Phelps are completely unaffected by the player’s proficiency or deficiency at solving a case. [Light Spoiler for L.A. Noire] At one point I did really terribly on an investigation and ended up with only a one-star rating. Phelps got chewed out by his boss. The boss told Phelps that he would be relegated to “street crime duty.” Since the game does include randomly generating street crimes this punishment could have been realized. But it wasn’t. I did not get stuck driving around waiting for my radio to signal a crime-in-progress. Instead, in the very next scene with no break whatsoever, the boss was inviting Phelps to breakfast and congratulating him on how well he did on the previous case. I was like WTF? I did horribly, why are you congratulating Phelps on his crappy job? [/Spoiler] After a while, I began to find this extremely uncanny.
On the one hand there is an ultra-realism portrayed by the visuals of the game, but on the other hand the plot is so thin. The choices are so meaningless. The player is so impotent. The juxtaposition of the ultra-real visuals and ultra-unreal plot induced a reaction of strong revulsion. I didn’t really want to play anymore; it just didn’t seem worth it. Why would I bother thinking about the case and trying to figure out the details if this wasn’t going to make a difference to the success or failure of my character? The game bills itself as interactive, but what am I really interacting with? What do those interactions mean if Phelps is met with the same responses no matter what I do? (I am not alone in this reaction; Kirk Hamilton writing at Kill Screen describes a similar experience.)
In an interview with Develop Brendan McNamara said,
…when [MotionScan] technology can capture full body performances, the level of realism will be hard to differentiate between game, film and television. That will make the gameplay experience pretty seamless from exposition to action. (cited in CVG)
I am not sure this is true. For the gameplay to be seamless from exposition to interaction you need more than just pretty visuals. You also need a plot that interacts with the player’s decisions and gameplay that backs up the feeling of realism. In L.A. Noire, however, the gameplay undermines rather than enhancing realism.
There are a number of gameplay mechanics in L.A. Noire: you drive around and chase suspects, you search for clues, and you interrogate witnesses and suspects. I am only going to focus on the last of these, since it was the interrogation that seemed really disconnected to me.
The mechanism for interrogating subjects is that you have a list of possible questions in your notebook. Rather than giving you the exact question Phelps will ask, the notebook simply contains the gist of what Phelps will say. This is not problematic, because it doesn’t really matter at this point if Phelps says something other than what the player expects.
Next you are supposed to study the facial expressions and body language for clues as to whether the person under interrogation is lying, withholding information, or telling the whole truth. It is not that difficult to tell the difference between a deceptive answer and a truthful answer and you should only pick ‘lie’ if you have a specific piece of evidence to back it up (if you are having trouble, see the tips below especially 1 or 2). Once you have decided if the character is truthful or deceitful and whether you have the evidence required you then have only 3 options: ‘Truth,’ ‘Doubt,’ or ‘Lie.’ And this is where the interrogation becomes uncanny.
There is no description of what Phelps will say if you choose any of the options. So you don’t get a sense of what part of the statement he will respond to. For example, the person under interrogation might tell you about their last interaction with the victim and in the course of doing so they might also let slip a detail you know is false. So what part should you react to: the true part or the false part? If you have evidence to backup the false part should you pick ‘lie’ or should you pick ‘doubt’ since only part of the statement is untrue? The game does not offer any explanation about how you should go about the interrogation. In several places I found myself completely shocked by what came out of Phelps’ mouth. I was like what is going on here? I did not expect Phelps to react to that part of the statement. Phelps’ reactions often broke the illusion of controlling the character; he seemed not to respond to what I was instructing him to do.
There seems to be an easy fix to this, which would be to include a line of explanation after the options. It wouldn’t have to be too specific. Like the original question it could just give us the gist of how Phelps will respond. But it would help alleviate the complete sense of disconnect between the realism of the scenery and the lack of control over the character. I dunno, perhaps the writers felt that they could not come up with a brief description that would also maintain the mystery.
At other times it was difficult to figure out whether a specific piece of evidence can be used to back up an accusation of lying. You are given a variety of clues, and sometimes it is just impossible to tell whether they add up. A specific example: Strong Spoiler alert for The “Silk Stalking Murder” case (hover over to reveal). Your notebook records some general things about each piece of evidence, but it also leaves a lot out (see tip 4 below). So you have to decide which extra pieces of evidence are relevant. But there are a million different ways to do this, and when the link that comes out of Phelp’s moth does not match the link in the player’s mind it once again becomes very uncanny and frustrating.
The interrogation is really frustrating and it is disconnected from the realism of the visuals. To make things worse, the interrogation is also futile. It really doesn’t matter whether you do well at it or not, because you will still end up arresting the perp. So why even bother?
Good: Visuals, Acting, Expanse of the city
Bad: Racism, Sexism, Gameplay, Plot, Tutorial
L.A. Noire is making some advances with the visuals and acting. The game has great technical advances, but anyone buying this game probably already knows that, which is why I did not focus on the visual aspect in this discussion.
The developers pride themselves on the indistinguishablility of this game from film or TV. In many ways that is true, but this is not a good thing in all the ways that it is true. Visually the game looks like TV. You can actually recognize the actors and their emotional expressions. From a visual perspective the similarity to TV is good. But it is also passive like TV. You don’t really interact with the plot line and your interrogation of the suspects is both disconnected from your expectations and also the plot so that it ends up pseudo-interactive rather than being actually interactive. The disconnect between the realism of the visuals and the lack of realism in one’s interactions and their effects on the plot made the game fall back into the uncanny valley from this gamer’s perspective.
There is not enough explanation of the game mechanics. Many of the problems of the game could have been fixed with a better tutorial section. (See Extra Credits: Tutorials 101)Vodpod videos no longer available.
If you are after eye candy, or would like to watch a mostly passive plot unfold while annoyingly interrupting your passive reception of a trope-filled plot, then this game is excellent. But if you are after an interactive experience that gives you some control and where your actions have consequences, then this is probably not the game for you.
I think many of the tips listed in following links help to explain why the gameplay is so uncanny. The links that follow have been chosen so that they do not contain spoilers:
1. Xbox Freedom: Tips & Tricks–L.A. Noire Interrogations. Of all the interrogation tips I read, I found this list to be the most useful. They have a pretty good description of how to tell whether the suspect is lying:
When someone is lying or withholding evidence, the key give away is lack of eye contact or shifting eyes. Pay attention to the facial expressions of your current witness/suspect, as these are key, though the eyes are the most important part. Just as in real life, those who are lying or withholding information will tend to not look you in the eye, while those who are being truthful will look you in the eye. HINT, when someone is looking right at you, they are always telling the truth. If there is any shifting of the eyes, they are usually lying or withholding information. The way to differentiate between lying and withholding is quite simple, as it comes down to remembering what evidence you already have. If you’ve forgotten, simple go into your notebook and review your evidence, and you’ll be able to know between fact and fiction. Remember though, to accuse someone of lying, you MUST have evidence to back up your claim.
2. Joystiq: Be a Better L.A. Noire interrogator. This list of tips is also quite useful. They provide detailed pictures with arrows to point out the kinds of tells Team Bondi thinks are relevant to detecting lies. They explain the way that accusing someone of lying actually works:
This can be tricky though, because what specifically needs to be proven may not become clear until you actually accuse a person of lying. If you’re unsure, go ahead and make the lying accusation (you can always back out of it later), and let Phelps tell you exactly what he’s trying to prove. You may lose a few experience points if you have to back out of a lying accusation, but at least you won’t make a wrong choice and miss a lead. Also, keep in mind that accusing someone of lying and backing out will tick them off and make their expression harder to read for that question.
Another helpful thing to remember is that your casual observers (those sort of tangentially connected to the case) will rarely lie, as they don’t have as much to lose. Lying is typically reserved for suspects facing down some considerable jail time.
So, that is great. Now I know what is to be gained or lost by choosing the wrong answer, but why the hell didn’t I learn this during the gameplay? You really should not have to rely on the internet to explain the game mechanics to you.
3. IGN: L.A. Noire: 5 Essential Tips from Team Bondi. These tips come from the development team, but I don’t find them very useful. For me, there was nothing here that I had not already picked up from playing the game, and that is exactly the problem. They tell us to gather all the evidence, use the notebook, use the difficulty settings (whether the music plays continuously or fades out during our search for clues), use intuition only when necessary, pay careful attention to the speech and surroundings, and ask our partner when we are not sure what to do next. Yup, I got that from the game, why not give us something useful?
4. Lost Generation Gaming: 5 Essential Tips to Becoming a Better Detective in L.A. Noire. These tips demonstrate exactly why I find the gameplay mechanics break the realism:
Creating Mental Clues
While the notebook does a great job of logging all your clues and information. Sometimes the details on the clues from the games dialog will be left out. It’s your responsibility to remember these details by always paying close attention to detail when investigating a crime scene. For example, if you find a certain piece of clothing that would only apply to a certain persons race, age, or gender make a mental note of what Cole is saying about the clothing. That way if you interrogate a suspect and they deny knowing anything about the victim, you can combine that piece of clothing with your mental note gathered during your investigation to pin that clue to that person.
So the game gives me a notebook where it automatically writes down the information for clues, but it does a shitty job of this, so I should make ‘mental notes’ as well?
5. Pure Cheats: Of course, if you are still frustrated there are tons of ‘cheats’ that will just tell you the correct answers and clues that you require. Here are two that I think are quite good. [Note: Strong Spoilers at the links] The first is from Tech Adventures with SLee and Tropher I think it is useful because the page has a list of the case names with links to the cheats, so if you want to spoil one case but not all this is your guide. The second is from MS Xbox World it just lists the basics: how many questions and the correct answers, how many clues and where to find them. It is provided in one big list, so you might accidentally catch a glimpse of the answers to other cases in addition to the one you are working on.
1. I am not sure why Rockstar decided to go with the feminine ‘Noire’ in the title. It just looks wrong to me. There is some controversy about whether to gender city-names masculine or feminine, but “los” seems like a pretty clear indication to me. ‘Los Angeles’ is masculine (the ‘los’ gives that away in Spanish. If it were feminine it would be ‘las’ as in ‘Las Vegas’). In French ‘ange’ is masculine. So, there seems to be no reason to feminize L.A. Despite the controversy in some cases, this seems like a case where the gender of the city should also be masculine, and therefore should take the masculine form of the adjective, ‘Noir.’ I have no idea why they decided to give a feminine form of the adjective to a masculine noun. Perhaps it is just one of the ways in which the game is sloppy. I might leave off the ‘e’ from ‘Noire’ as a result of the difficulty my fingers have in typing it in. I apologize in advance.
2. Unlike Portal 2, which uses sexism, fat-phobia and prejudice against the adopted and mentally challenged at the textual level in order to criticize sexist power structures, L.A. Noire simply invokes sexism and racism but makes no further comment about it. Racism and sexism are used within L.A. Noire for no other reason than sensationalism with the excuse of ‘realism’ or “faithfully reproducing the era.” For some (probably those who don’t experience much racism or sexism themselves), I suppose racism and sexism add to the authentic reproduction of an era. For others (those who experience a lot of racism and sexism in their mundane lives), racism and sexism completely break the immersion and escapism a game might otherwise provide. I guess it depends on whom one is trying to please.
3. I can’t really tell you where to look if you are interested in reading more about the racism. All the discussions of racism that I could find were on forums; I couldn’t find a decent discussion that did not devolve into racism-apologia (Rockstar always puts lots of sexism and racism in their games, you should expect it! Hardy har, har, you’re just so sensitive, you shouldn’t mind watching members of your group portrayed as lesser! It’s just a video game!).
4. For more on the misogyny see FemPop’s review, “L.A. Noire: Rockstar’s latest Attempt at Art is Awfully Successful.”
5. These “excuses” for adding racism, sexism, and homophobia are just so tired. I also don’t think the racism/sexism-apologia mentioned in the footnote above constitute valid excuses. I find it very mentally exhausting to steel myself against constant group-based-insults directed against members of my group when playing a game for 30 hours or so. My reluctance to analyse the racism or sexism in any more depth might, in part, be a result of this mental exhaustion. I hope someone else has the fortitude, and if I come across such a review I will link to it.