Livin’ in Noire-Noire Land

I continue to play L. A. Noire bit by bit. Solved a few cases now, walked the beat, picked up and rotated the clues (and the beer bottles and cigarette packs) in my 3D hand, interrogated my fair share of dudes and ladies, driven the dry street of L.A. (except when it rains, when I drive in the wet).

Today I became obsessed with the interviewing/interrogation system the game uses. Basically, in questioning a suspect (or person of interest) you generally ask them some question, listen to their response, and then choose one of three options: agree they’re telling the truth, express doubt, or accuse them of lying and prove it (the Phoenix Wright option).

At any given point, so far as I can tell, one of those options is right and the other options are wrong. So, this being a video game, how can you tell what the right thing to do is? Good question: I can’t. Ostensibly, of course, you use what you know about the facts and clues of the case to catch any contradictions, but there seems to be considerably more weight placed on “reading” the person’s facial expressions and other bodily clues.

Thus, you’ll ask some important question and then watch as the person looks away to the right before answering, or touches their neck, or flinches, or folds their arms. And so on. And from this you derive that they’re lying, or not telling you everything, or whatever it might be. And yet despite all this glorious body language, I’ll be damned if I can get these things right at all. On occasion I’ve reloaded knowing one option was wrong and still managed to pick the other wrong option.

At least part of this is because the “reading” of a person’s manner and tone is a super spooky second order problem. You’re not really reading a potential lying person’s behaviour, you’re reading a 3D animated model of an actor who’s acting as a fictional character who might be lying. That means you’re often trying to look at at actor “acting innocent” through the warped lens of 3D modeling. And I, at least, find that rather tough.

Basically, everyone looks suspicious all the time. Their eyes do weird things – or is that the modeling? Their faces twitch – but is that just an exaggerated animation of natural human facial expressions? They fold their arms – though that could be the actor beneath the digital clay portraying someone who’s defensive about being questioned. And so on.

This interview setup is fascinating because, despite appearing in the usually rational world of a video game, it throws you into a careening spin about what to pay attention to, about what to believe, and at what level to believe it. This has the pleasing effect of more or less forcing me to experience (repeated) failure, and in that way feels like a sports game – the other team does score sometimes, and that’s allowed even within sports-glory fantasies. I get questions wrong, miss evidence, and wonder what would have happened if I’d been less overwhelmingly confused by the tics and twitches of virtual Tom, Dick, or Harriet.

As a formal game design in the traditional sense, the interviews feel like a catastrophic failure, more guess work than detective work – I’m constantly shocked by the “interpretation” of my button press that my character makes, as he starts shrieking when I hit “doubt” and so on. At the same time, it’s exactly this frustrating ambiguity that at least hints at a what is presumably the genuinely murky and oft-mistaken world of actual detection.

So hats off, or at least tipped askew, to the designers of this strange, mixed up world of the interview.