Livin’ in Noire-Noire Land
Tuesday, 21 June, 2011

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, orĀ 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.

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6 Responses to “Livin’ in Noire-Noire Land”

  1. David Says:

    Completely off-topic, do you think you’ll end up taking a look at Frozen Synapse any time…? I know it’s a terribly dangerous game to go near, so I’d hate to encourage you in any way.

  2. Pippin Says:

    I keep hearing about Frozen Synapse – and it does sound amazing. My only qualm, really, is that those kinds of games really stress me out and I might die if I start playing it… but that could be exactly the reason I need to play it (to challenge myself, rather than to commit suicide).

  3. David Says:

    Let me know if you buy it, we can play a few rounds. I suck at it, sadly, but it’s lots of fun and suits ‘other-side-of-the-world’ play as you can take your turn whenever you want.

  4. Pippin Says:

    Oh okay… interesting that it’s asynchronous in that way – that makes it sound vastly less stressful, though people might get sick of me taking hours to work out what to do! So it’s more like simultaneous chess? And you generally play with randoms around the world? What’s their pace of play like?

  5. David Says:

    Yes, it’s like simultaneous chess. With guns. And explosive projectiles. You can either play in real-time (which is fun), or ‘by email’, taking your turn as and when you please (which is also fun), so if you want or need to take hours you can.

    You can play with randoms. The pace is entirely up to you. People tend to be playing many games simultaneously so there’s no problem if your games take longer, people just take their turn when they can.

    There’s also a single-player campaign that is quite tricky and satisfying, with a weird story that I suspect isn’t too bad but I can’t follow it :)

    It really is very good if you like that kind of game.

    I’m on server ‘UK1′ BTW. You’d need to join the same server if you want to play against me. For now, at least.

  6. Pippin Says:

    Hmm. I’m clearly going to have to take this seriously. After L.A. Noire is done I’ll look at Frozen Synapse as the next game on the list!

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