LA Noire's Video Gameness Makes For A Twisted Character Study

By James Hawkins in Unraveling Yarns
Monday, July 25, 2011 at 1:00 pm
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A character study is a work of fiction that puts the delineation of a central character's nature ahead of all other plot and story elements. For most video games, the developers' intent is to shelve any deep backstory, nuance, or exposition in favor of protagonist anonymity. This is to allow the player to project his or herself onto that protagonist as a means of becoming more immersed in the story.

Innately, LA Noire is a rare calculated character study. The events that unfold in the story are merely vehicles to usher along the revelation of Cole Phelps' history and the complexities of his personality. But while the deliberate content of the narrative makes for a painful and somewhat eerie story, there is something intrinsic to the video game medium which makes LA Noire very different -- something unintentional and off-kilter. Away from the suspension of disbelief, LA Noire is a sort of ridiculous study of an unhinged, possibly psychopathic, police officer looking to rehabilitate himself. And more, an exposé of how strict realism can't yet be achieved in video games.

Warning: Some Spoilers Ahead...

In between the flashback scenes of Cole Phelps' wartime turmoil and eventual emotional dissolve, the investigation and interrogation scenes take center stage. They are technically brilliant, with visual and aural cues set up around clues and events that we must weave together into the semblance of micro-stories. And those stories build into the LA Noire narrative vehicle that we are delivered over the fifteen hours of the game.

The bits of each flashback to Okinawa, illuminated in grays, are trustworthy depictions of history, and we can take them as such. In these scripted pre-renderings, Team Bondi is delivering us precisely what we need to know, in cinematics, about Cole Phelps' past. The excellence in facial mapping technology and voice acting allow them to do this with the viscous, candid movement of a film. They are supposed to be fundamental in the full realization of Phelps' story.

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But the bulk of the game's story actually deals with the tracking of a serial killer, and is only highlighted by the revelations of Phelp's past. So, for much of the game, all we have to work with are Phelps' mannerisms at the crime scenes to understand why all the focus is on him. In these investigatory moments -- as dozens upon dozens of suspects, persons of interest, and disgruntled ex-boyfriends begin to stack up -- there is a distinct divide between what can be counted on as mere narrative delivery attempts and what pieces are totally adulterated by LA Noire simply being a video game.

Essentially, LA Noire suffers from trying to be too realistic, functioning with the considerably limited tools of our 7th generation of consoles. I offer that everyone who saw the visuals of the game were, to at least a measurable degree, in awe of what was in front of them. But this emulation of reality is dangerous when it comes to how we're supposed to perceive the actions therein. The rendered graphics look real, and sound real, yet the way that the characters act are not exactly real at all, because they are built on an engine of triggers. Mouths move and eyes dart based on the buttons we press, not of their own volition. Thusly, our measurement of disbelief suspension goes haywire and there's a rift between what we're meant to believe and what we have to believe because what we're processing is not consistent. In most games, the game itself looks like an actual video game, not just a modest recreation of reality on a screen, so we subconsciously know full well to ignore the little discrepancies. 

The best example happens when Phelps goes in for a mistaken accusation of lying. He will often scream at the person of interest, who may even be just a young kid, about the violent murder of a loved one, or about some alleged lie they've been telling all along. If that doesn't go over well, he will redact and the air will be cleared to some degree. Hurt may remain in the faces of those he's accused, but Cole turns stoic once again and the investigation continues. 

He looks real, he's voiced fabulously, and yet he is acting like a psychopath -- yelling and brandishing accusations to anyone with a shred of possible motive. There are two ways that we can adapt to this dilemma. First, and this is probably the most obvious path, we can write the unevenness off as simply a limitation of the technology, and then it's up to each individual to reconcile all the different facets of the game into one coherent and homogeneous story. Or, and this is how I played through the game, you can look at it as Cole Phelps actually being a psychopath, with his intense lunacy spilling out into his daily life -- maybe the lunacy came from the war, and maybe it predated even that. But it is there, and he can be seen as a muted psycho about to burst.

I am enamored with the idea that a protagonist can be a raving asshole, going off like a firecracker and blowing cases left and right with his sheer ineptitude and lack of class. That's a beautiful kind of sensationalism that isn't really found in video games, and I think that it should be. In a game which features extreme realism (the Okinawa flashes)  and extreme attempted realism (the investigations), this works especially well because the two can work in accordance, rather than contrarily. He's still trying to vindicate his life's frustrations and regrets -- as the plot eventually leads us to believe -- but he's also being totally insane at the same time.

Everyone in the game sensationalizes Cole Phelps, so why can't we gamers? Because of the nature of the game, we are acting more as an ever-present audience, privy to each of his cagey movements, than as controllers of an avatar, projecting ourselves onto his form. He's talked about by everyone he passes on the streets, labeled a demigod and a hero. Which also opens up the question of how much is real, and how much is in his imagination, which is a whole other article in itself. But looking at it through this lens certainly makes driving down the streets on the wrong side and hitting pedestrians much, much more compelling if they are the actions of a man with a few screws loose, rather than just a bored or lackadaisical gamer. I think you'd agree.

Unraveling Yarns is a weekly column that explores video games as narrative delivery devices. James Hawkins and Rich Schivener rotate week-to-week to discuss their opinions on some of gaming's most challenging and nuanced stories from all generations. Follow James on Twitter @JamesHawk1ns. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichShiv.

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