Get Lost, Jerk.
So I finally finished the (first?) “Homicide Desk” segment of L. A. Noire. That means, for one thing, that I “solved” the Black Dahlia murders and, for another, that there will be some spoilers in here if you haven’t already made it at least that far through the game.
In a nutshell, I’m a little shocked and actually quite outraged by how this game has been treating me. It’s been treating me like some kind of chump. I’m reminded once again of Jesper Juul’s comment that games “make us deficient” from the outset so that we can redeem ourselves within their system. Man does L. A. Noire ever subscribe to that view, and not in a subtle way.
Put simply, you run through all these very similar murder cases, picking up the evidence and convicting the people who are implicated. By implicated I mean that you find the murder weapon in their house along with bloody clothes and they have a motive and they generally don’t actually deny having killed the victim. One brutal element of this process is the amount of failure you go through the whole time, with the game providing a little musical flourish each time you screw up an interview question. Still, I’ve enjoyed that somewhat as a bastion of ambiguity in an otherwise straight-up world.
Now, in the final Dahlia case, the game cheerfully pulls the rug out from under you completely and lets you know, completely unapologetically, that none of the people you charged for the murders had anything to do with it. Instead, it was… this other guy! Turns out he planted all the evidence (rather miraculously framing people with motivates and bad tempers). Turns out he’s oh so clever and leaves poetic clues. Turns out you were just a stupid asshole the whole time, unable to see the truth. As a final double indignity, the game forces your to kill this guy instead of bring him to justice and then, as the ultimate slap in the face, lets you know that even if you had caught him alive, he was the son of some important dude and so you could never have charged him. As in: “you were totally wasting your time all these hours, jerk! Wrong suspects, wrong evidence, no chance. How’s it feel?”
As I discussed in connection with the game’s forcefully thrusting boredom upon you if you dare to step out of the narrative line, L. A. Noire seems fixated on jerking you around more than any game I’ve played in recent memory. In all facets it creates the illusion of openness and ambiguity, then pulls it away from you. Big open city… with nothing to do. Murder cases… that you never had a chance of getting to the bottom of at any point. The real murderer… who you have to kill rather than catch. Overall, it seems to be a game intent of negating itself and rendering itself meaningless. The point is made repeatedly that while you might think you can take charge of the situation, in fact you cannot. In this way, L. A. Noire borders on being utterly uninteractive at a macro level – you don’t actually make a difference.
Maybe it sees itself as some epic poem about the impossibility of justice and so on, but I think in that instance I’d prefer something more poetic and less flat-out rude from an interactive standpoint.