Most games, thanks to the ancient and wizened chestnut of limited interactivity, spend a reasonable amount of effort convincing us to do the “right” kinds of things in their environments. The more a game can settle you into a pleasant routine of “acting like a cowboy” or “saving the world from the Combine”, the more you’ll sit back (or lean in) and enjoy the ride. It’s completely understandable and, frankly, is central to the impressive art that is game design and development.
That said, L.A. Noire seems obsessed with this in a way I’m less used to. The game’s attitude to anything outside its purview appears to be “but why would you want to do that?” Like, “but why would you want to go for a walk? It’s so boring!” Or “but why would you want to drive recklessly? It’s so boring!” In response to many of a player’s “natural” approaches to an open, beautifully rendered world, the game seems to throw up its hands in confusion.
I learnt this when I was trying to show L.A. Noire to my parents. I’ve been sort of enjoying it, and I thought they’d get a kick out of 40s L.A. and a game which doesn’t fixate (as much) on face-shooting. It swiftly became apparent just how dull it is as a game. It’s fine when you’re on your own and doing your best to play along with the awkward dialog and tedious crime scenes (“maybe if I tilt her head… to the left!”), but when other are watching, the crushing boredom of what you’re doing really grabs a hold of you. So I immediately felt I should clown around a bit in the game instead.
And L.A. Noire scratched its head in sad confusion and wondered why I was acting the fool like this.
I smashed my car at top speed into another car, shattering both windshields – boom! The other driver got out and stood there with his hands on his hips for a while, more disappointed with the situation than anything. I got out, thinking we might have a little fight about it, but he got into his car and drove off sedately (though a bug did weirdly rip his front wheels off and then reattach them, which was kind of awesome). I drove insanely fast down the pavement and watched as pedestrians either jumped or idly teleported out of the way. No effect. I tried to drive out of the city and, on being presented with no streets out, went at top speed into a chainlink fence blocking the way. Another shattered windscreen, but the chainlink fence was fine.
At every turn, the game emphasised to me just how silly I was being by expressing any desire to participate in anything other than the pick-a-path narrative or occasional genociding of gangs. The city of L.A. in the game is, despite the murders constantly occuring, the most boring place in the known universe. At one point I got out of the car and just ran and walked around the space, hoping for some kind of spark, but the most exciting thing that happened was kicking a cardboard box across a parking lot. Not high on my list of wish-fulfillment.
The authorised interactions of L.A. Noire are admirable in that they try to push beyond the usual fare we get – the idea of reading people’s faces and postures as you talk to them is great, poor dialog and delivery or not. The idea of collecting clues and solving murders, and particularly the ambiguity that forms a part of it, is a very refreshing activity. The dangling of a “world” that acts as a kind of anti-interaction zone, a valium for your agency, is not so great – though perhaps its more a testament to how skilled other games have been at giving you a world not much more interactive but somehow more plausible and livable. In many ways Fallout 3‘s wasteland or Red Dead Redemption‘s Wild West are relatedly barren, but have enough going on that they’re decidedly not flatlining like the L.A. in L.A. Noire.
The Black Dahlia murderer may be picking off its citizens, but so far it’s been the city that’s the real corpse in this game.