Warning: This article contains spoilers for the video games L.A. Noire and Portal 2.
It’s time that video game players stopped giving game makers a pass for playing tricks on them that they’d never put up with if the graphics weren’t so cool, or if they were watching a movie of the game’s story. Rockstar Games’ recent hit release L.A. Noire is not the only example of this kind of thing, but it’s the one in which I first really noticed the problem, and so it earns the focus for this article.
In L.A. Noire, the player takes the role of Cole Phelps, a World War II vet who quickly rises through the ranks of the 1947 Los Angeles Police Department. In between missions — er, cases — the player is treated to flashbacks of Cole’s military training and his experiences leading up to and during the Battle of Okinawa. It would be nice to have the information conveyed by some of the later flashbacks earlier on in the game, but I’ll give those a pass because they’re war flashbacks, so maybe Cole had blocked some of them out and we’re experiencing them as he recalls them. I don’t think that’s how it’s actually supposed to be in the game, mind you — as it’s certainly never stated to be the case — but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.
So there you, the player, are, playing L.A. Noire, solving cases first as a beat cop, then at the Traffic Desk, moving on to Homicide, Vice, and Arson later on. As you go along, you move Cole around, find clues, pursue bad guys on foot and in your car, have the occasional fistfight or gun battle, and interrogate suspects and other people of interest. Now, I could write another whole article on the problems with the gameplay in those aspects of the game, particularly how incredibly nonintuitive the driving experience — which should come perfectly naturally for a character, like Cole, in his late 20s — seemed to me, causing me to get more and more frustrated with the car chases and eventually to take the game up on its skip-to-the-next-bit offers on most of them. And much has been made about the interrogations, which really showcase the technological improvements Rockstar has made, in that the interrogatees’ faces actually look like real human faces to the point where you can (and must) read them for clues to guide you in the interrogation.
It was in the interrogations that I first became aware of the fundamental problems with the game, because even when I correctly read the facial expressions I oftentimes was surprised at what Cole said when I selected Truth, Doubt, or Lie, since those are the only options players have during interrogation. Cole would go further than I thought was indicated by the instruction “Doubt,” and, with a limited list of things to ask about, I couldn’t guide Cole to avenues of inquiry that I’d thought of, simply because he hadn’t. This is on top of the fact that, when combing crime scenes or other locations for clues, Cole has the remarkable ability to tell on sight whether something is useful or not — seriously, why bother making it possible for Cole to pick up random cigarette butts and empty bottles when he will tell you they’re irrelevant as soon as he does?
I began to realize that I wasn’t really playing Cole Phelps — I was simply guiding him through a bunch of arcade-like sequences, while the story kept going without my having any real ability to change or guide it. This was brought home when, while driving during a homicide investigation, Cole mentioned his wife and kids to to his partner. His partner was surprised to learn that Cole had a family, which is reasonable, but so was I, which is not. This is fundamental information about Cole’s character, and it is patently ridiculous that the player, who is supposed to be Cole, has no idea about it until that point.
As if that weren’t enough, I also had no way to affect the major plot points at all. Now, for some of those points that was perfectly reasonable, since they were events outside of Cole’s ability to control. But one of the most significant turning points of the story is when Cole begins cheating on his wife. The game doesn’t let the player choose not to do this, or lead the player into making the choice, demonstrating clearly that the game is controlling Cole and that the player is really just along for the ride. Then towards the end of the game it got even more ridiculous, when without warning I was suddenly playing Jack Kelso instead of Cole. Suddenly Cole was a non-player character, and I was forced to play a character I knew even less about than I did about Cole. The ending, wherein Cole dies saving Jack and Elsa (Cole’s lover), didn’t hit me nearly as hard as I suspect it was meant to, because I felt I had never really understood Cole well enough to care about him. (And, incidentally, does anyone have an explanation why Roy Earle, of all people, gave Cole’s eulogy? Was there really nobody else interested?)
I don’t mind the fact that the game has a story to tell — I prefer games that do, in fact — but it’s infuriating to be an onlooker when you’re supposed to be a part of it. I don’t mind being led to make choices that are necessary to move the game along, but only if I get to make the choice. In Portal 2, for example, the game leads you to replace GLaDOS with Wheatley, and at the time you’re confident it’s the right decision to make because GLaDOS is continuing to test you and Wheatley is promising to let you go. It’s absolutely necessary to the game’s story that you make that choice, and you can’t go on without making it, but you’re still deciding to do it. And that remains true for the rest of the game, including deciding to carry GLaDOS-in-the-potato with you once you find her: you have to make the decisions you make, but you always know it’s the right thing to do and it doesn’t just happen in a cut scene where you couldn’t do anything about it anyway.
Now, I’ll be honest: L.A. Noire is the first of the Rockstar Games line I’ve played for any real length of time, mostly because I only just got my Xbox 360 in April, and before that I only had a Wii. So I can’t say whether the other games are like this one. But I know I’m going to hesitate before buying the next game of theirs, and any other that seems like it might suffer from the same kind of issue — and I recommend you do the same. I got more of a sense of Chell, the player character in Portal and Portal 2, than I did of Cole Phelps in L.A. Noire, and Chell never says a single word.