Ambient Challenge: Anger Management

Lee Kelly gives us his take on L.A. Noire

“You’re incredibly rude and insensitive, but I guess you know that.”

That’s about Cole Phelps, the protagonist of Team Bondi’s L.A. Noire. The words are spoken by Mrs. Black, who’s interrogated by Phelps near the beginning of the story. She’s right, too: Cole Phelps is rude, insensitive, and churlish to boot. However, she’s also wrong, because I didn’t know it and wouldn’t figure it out until at least a third into the story. I have experienced a lot of jeopardy and violence in videogames, yet few scenes have inspired such helplessness and dread as watching Phelps grill a traumatized witness. Is this what they call context?

The real story of L.A. Noire is a tale of an angry man who shouts a lot, and I’m not talking about Cole Phelps. If ex-Team Bondi employees are believed, then Brendan McNamara, director and writer of L.A. Noire, was a boss from down under, so to speak. Upon reading the controversy, I admit, rather than being scandalised by the shocking allegations, my first thoughts were, “Aha! That’s why Phelps succeeds at his job by furiously barking at people. Write from experience much, Brendan?” L.A. Noire was in production for an excruciating seven years; it’s reputed that Rockstar Games, the publisher, never wants to work with McNamara again. Whatever the truth, Team Bondi has since collapsed and McNamara has, I imagine, become a schoolteacher.

Side-quests are a peculiar videogame tradition. They’re like subplots from traditional media, but exist on an optional periphery of the story. Side-quests provide nuggets of narrative, fleshing out a fiction with incidental detail; the player is usually given added incentive to pursue them e.g. better equipment, hints and tips, or extra money. They’re also notoriously bland, repetitive, and narratively clumsy. The satisfaction of completing them normally has less to do with their quality than allaying fears of missing something important. After playing L.A. Noire, I wonder if it might sometimes be preferable to reward players for ignoring side-quests.

Cole Phelps is a lowly patrol officer when L.A. Noire begins. He joined the L.A.P.D after military service in World War II and soon starts making a name for himself. The opening four episodes of the story end with his promotion to detective. Phelps craves structure and authority to prove himself, but he possesses all the subtlety of a police siren. He expects nothing less than the fearless execution of his duties, and he dismisses any collateral damage incurred from that pursuit. Phelps is often the worst kind of honest cop: an up-tight bureaucrat carrying a gun. He throws himself into the role of detective with intense gravitas and barely concealed pride.

On route to the scene of Phelps’s first case, while I admired Team Bondi’s rendition of 1947 Los Angeles, my attention was interrupted by an announcement over the police dispatch. Apparently, there was a 401k going down on Hold-em-up Boulevard and an R-Type response was needed. Hm. A prompt appeared: “To answer the dispatch, press A.” These, I realised, must be L.A. Noire’s side-quests, and I instinctively moved to press A. But hold on, Phelps was on his first case as detective; he’d worked hard to get promoted from patrolman; this dispatch was not his duty to answer. I ignored the call. Each time another of these calls went out, I thought about it and didn’t respond.

Awhile after finishing L.A. Noire, I returned to check out its side-quests — called street crime cases — and my original suspicions were confirmed. Street crime cases play to all of L.A. Noire’s weaknesses. Removed from the context of an ongoing investigation, its mediocre chases and gunfights are cast under a harsh new light. They’re not altogether awful, but L.A. Noire is probably better experienced without them.

The interesting thing, however, was that despite ignoring all side-quests, my time with L.A. Noire nonetheless benefited from their presence. It was my decision to flout them, and it was meaningful because of that. Here I was being prompted to break character and meddle with the story, and, each time, my decisions drew me a little closer into L.A. Noire’s fiction. Had its side-quests been removed, announcements over the dispatch would have just been background noise: Phelps would have made the decision to ignore them without consulting me. The creative role of players in a story can be diminished to little more than an audience if they are not presented with real opportunities to interpret or defy the role assigned to them.

An ongoing controversy in the videogame community is whether games are art. I don’t want to enter into the debate as it’s normally conducted. Too often, participants tacitly lapse into what philosopher Karl Popper called essentialism: the discussion proceeds to chase a mirage of what “art” really means. Otherwise, people appear to wrestle over the term for public relations aims rather than genuine insight. The traditional artist wants to distance himself from games because they’re crass and juvenile, while the game designer seeks to bask in the reflected admiration of traditional arts through verbal association. These arguments rarely reveal anything besides what participants on each side want others to think about them.

While checking out LA Noire side-quests, I also discovered that I could only draw Phelps’s weapon in specified scenarios. Apparently, Team Bondi had decided that it would break character too much if the player could just pull out a weapon anytime and start shooting stuff. My decision not to draw Phelps’s handgun when I first played through L.A. Noire was real, but the freedom to do otherwise had been my misunderstanding. The illusion of agency is almost as powerful as the real thing and is often necessary in game narratives, but in this case I felt as though my role in the story had been cheapened just a little.

A determined player can still break the story: Phelps can run to every crime scene, drive along sidewalks and injure pedestrians, or accuse every one of lying without exception. Team Bondi doesn’t stop me doing any of these absurd things, but they do stop me from shooting out tires on passing cars. It’s a seemingly random exception. Perhaps preventing players from drawing their gun is just easy; maybe Team Bondi would also prevent these other story breaking activities if it were more practical. But why bother thwarting the player at all?

I suggest that playing games can be something of an art itself. A problem is that gamers often see themselves as an audience of a play and refuse to take responsibility for their part in the production. Game narratives have a player-shaped hole in them. Too often, after gamers decide to shove that hole full of nonsequiturs, contradictions, and sociopathy, they then hold it against the game for not stopping them. To me, this is like objecting to a crossword puzzle because you’re able to complete it by writing “boobs” in all the spaces. A videogame is unfinished until its player makes the final creative contribution: you can either attempt to realise the game’s potential or vandalise it for miscreant kicks.

It’s customary to talk about people being good or bad at videogames, but, normally, that just means someone’s skill at beating the challenges games typically present. Maybe there is also another sense in which someone can be good at games. Some players are good at roleplaying, at subsuming themselves within a fiction, and at interpreting their part creatively. They are good at discovering the message intended by developers and creating meaning through their own decisions and acts; their talent allows them to become both the actor and the audience. Perhaps the art of a videogame can only be as good as the person playing it.

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