LA Noire and the Aftermath of Violence

LA Noire blog on the effects of violence in videogames

One  of the reasons that L.A. Noire feels so uncharacteristicaly ‘small’ and intimate for a video games is that it deals with violence in a different way than many other games.  Shooters and action games have become (and arguably have always been) predominantly concerned with the visceral immediacy of violence as a way to generate thrills for a player – it’s what games do most consistently after all. The clashing of bone and sinew, the splatter of a headshot and the snap of a neck are all iterated upon to ensure no gamer ever gets bored with pulling the trigger.

By casting the player in the role of a ‘detective doing detective work’ (or at least a game-ey approximation of it) L.A. Noire deals with the aftermath of violence… of course it does. Cole Phelps turns up on the scene only once wrenches have been swung, clothes torn, shots fired and fires started. He then interviews witnesses, friends, family, loved ones – he sifts through their lives, rifles through drawers and turns their salad tongs over in his hand for about 20 minutes. He sees what happens when a life ends in a way that games generally don’t investigate.

We’re used to seeing ‘how‘ a life ends; sometimes with a spurt of blood or a pained gargle. Othertimes its retching and dragging itself along the floor… whilst on fire. There’s very little thought given to the dead once they’ve ‘bought the farm’ – because there’s so many other people to sell farms to.

One of the reasons I love stealth games so much is that they deal with rather Noir-ish quandaries like “what the fuck do I do with this dead body?” in a way that shooters can’t, or don’t. They are the ‘Telltale Heart’ of videogames (Or a ‘Insert Pulp Novel where the Protagonist has to hide a body’ of videogames… none are springing to mind.) In much the same way, I believe there’s more potential and ingenuity in the first 10 masterful minutes of Farenheit/Indigo Prophesy than every Call of Duty that has been or will be released until the end of time (and also more than the rest of Farenheit and Heavy Rain combined, but that’s for another post.)

LA Noire scratches an itch that even the Stealth genre can’t quite reach for me, by giving the player a chance to really sift through the wreckage of a murder. I never get to find out what effect the murder of unnamed PMC soldier had on his family. I just stuffed him in a locker and went about my business.  L.A. Noire, on the other hand, is almost like following around Generic Murderous Open World Player Avatar and cleaning up his mess.

Even more impressive in this respect is that  both story and gameplay are singing from the same hymn-sheet; L.A. Noire isn’t just a game about people dealing with murders and acts of violence – it is a tale of men struggling with the aftermath of the most violent event of the 20th Century.

But with all the focus on the after effects of violence – anything that doesn’t speak to that theme stands out all the more. The shootouts are a particular sore-thumb, not because they control so badly (the same bumblicious controls feature in Red Dead Redemption and I care not a jot) but because a shootout in L.A. Noire ignores the consequences of violence. Cole should have to go through a stack of paperwork, police counseling and all manner of tribunals and hearings every time he shoots someone –  he should even clip a bystander with a stray shot and have his gun taken off him for the next case – not merely pull his patented ‘shit-eating case-closed grin’ as an ambulance pulls away laden with the corpses of fallen wise-guys.

A few wobbly shoot-outs aren’t enought to take away from everything that L.A. Noire does to make violence seem genuinely destructive, not destructive in the way that fully-deformable environments are destructive, more in the ruined lives kind of way. Anything that does this in a world of snap-lock military rollercoater rides must be pretty special right?

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L.A. Noire: Keeping it Low Key

Rockstar Games' LA Noire

L.A. Noire was probably my favourite game of last year – it’s not universally loved; it seems to turn up on as many ‘Best of 2011’ lists as it does ‘Biggest Disappointments of 2011’ lists. The shonky combat controls from GTAIV and Read Dead Redemption make their customary appearance in a Rockstar Game and add a bit of stink to the proceedings, for sure. The driving is an acquired taste (a taste which I thankfully acquired) and outside of the (quite frankly astonishing) facial animation – characters movements are pretty goofy. But as the last post on HP GEEC shows, I’m pretty forgiving when there’s genuine ambition buried under all the glitches and faults.

However lets not mistake “ambition” for that perennial box-blurb-bullet point “epic scale”, especially when it comes to narrative. What impressed most in Brendan McNamara’s studio bankrupting, life destroying, Australian Games Industry killing magnum opus was how small it seemed sometimes.

Naturally there was the vast sprawling 1940s LA to ‘explore’ and more than one conspiracy plot that goes all the way to the top I tells ya! But the moments from L.A. Noire that still bounce around in the memory a few months later are characterised by their intimate nature. Peppered throughout the larger narrative are sad little vignettes about soldiers struggling to readjust to life after the war, Hollywood wannabes taken for a ride, marital disputes, business deals gone sour and more; all of which are standard fare for The Continental Op. or Philip Marlowe – but not so much for video games.

Video game plots tend to spiral out of control for a number of reasons. One of them is the need to last over 10 – 20 hours (or else they’re not ‘value for money’ don’t you know) and when adhering to the principles of all those screenwriting books you bought when you were 22, a story needs rising action, escalating to a dramatic climax followed by a resolution. And when you start your tale with afuckingwarinspace – escalation can be a bitch.

Another factor is the assertion made by many a great games writer, that “Interactivity Kills Storytelling” and that traditional storytelling can never work in a videogame – which, on the whole I agree with… but I still find it funny to imagine this conversation taking place in a videogame writers room…

Writer 1: I just can’t seem to nail this third act reveal, you know;  that there is a pit beneath the city that resurrects only those with the blood of the dragon-father in their ancestry and that the main character and his party were all brainwashed as children to enhance their psychic abilities which lead to a kind of collective amnesia which makes them forget that the hero is in fact the villain but from an alternate time-line that may or may not be the past… and that the cops are corrupt.

Writer 2: Yeah, but don’t worry. It’s probably not working because Interactivity Kills Storytelling.

Writer 1: I suppose you’re right – God damn those players. This would work brilliantly as a novel.

It’s true that LA Noire eventually succumbs to the same bloated storytelling pitfalls that all games seem unable to avoid  – the low point for me being an utterly baffling sequence in which secondary protagonist Jack Kelso leads a gang of formerly dope peddling ex-servicemen in an assault on the home of a real estate magnateto clean up the streets or something?  – but that’s not before spoiling the player with some delightfully low-key (by videogame standards) old-school storytelling.

It’s also true that interactivity hobbles the moment-to-moment narrative; Cole Phelps’ mood swings are now the stuff of legend among video game critics; I often felt guilty for pointing Cole Phelps’ face-melting invective hairdryer at some poor grocery store clerk – but I suspect that Cole’s wildly erratic interrogation technique was at least partly down to the team grappling with some genuinely new and exciting ideas. (And partly down to him being an honest-to-goodness asshole)

And at least the storytelling that was being hobbled was something a little more down to earth than the usual goblins and telepathic aliens bumf we’re used to –  hell, perhaps if Cole Phelps had been interrogating a man whose body has been possessed by the demon fore-arm of a cloned soldier, I wouldn’t have minded so much if he went off the handle. But the very fact that I was invested in the story of a jilted lover or a morphine-addled musician, made Cole’s incongruous outbursts all the harder to stomach.

Mood Ring Protocol: Alpha Protocol as a Personality Test

Role Playing Game Alpha Protocol

I have this nervous laugh that I can’t seem to shake. I crack it out around new people mostly, or when I’m trying to impress someone. It’s not an endearing noise, it sounds like I’m not only stupid, but I find the stupid things I say very funny. Funny enough to make a honking flat, lifeless guffaw to break the silence. It normally comes after a particularly dull pun or observation that was meant to be an ice breaker but backfires. Once it’s backfired a few times I normally do something distance myself from whoever I was talking to. Clearly I’m not talking about Mike Thornton here, Alpha Protocol’s hero holds himself a little better than I do in a conversation no matter what button is pressed. But he’s not much better when I’m the one pressing the buttons. 

The character creation suites that greet you in most games exist to give the player an opportunity to tell the game who he or she is. “I have magnificent bone structure” says the player, “But of course you do” replies Fallout 3 (or a similar title) “I am extremely intelligent” they continue “Well you bought this game now didn’t you?” coos Fallout and gives the player a speech bonus and the ability to hack turrets. (As a side note, “I have magnificent bone structure” is one of my real life jokes that misfired and was faithfully followed by a nervous laugh.)

The critically ‘meh’-ed Alpha Protocol gives you no option to impress your idealised image of yourself on to Mike Thornton from the opening. You can choose a selection of unsatisfying beards and hairstyles then slink into a range of plastic looking sneaking suits that would make Solid Snake and Sam Fisher snigger. This is not a character you create by manipulating sliders and allocating stats – sure, there’s some of that, but a lot of it’s merely cosmetic. The real character creation comes during the missions. This is the messy, ugly birth of a secret agent and everything he does is not only a reflection on the player, but also a part of his character. 

What’s so refreshing about Alpha Protocol isn’t its story, its characters or its world, but rather what it is telling me about me and more importantly, unlike most games Alpha Potocol is not telling me how much of a bad ass I am. Many videogames succumb to a variant on what the AV Club have lovingly termed the Poochie Rule – “whenever [The Character] isn’t onscreen, the other characters talk about him like he’s a cross between Bruce Lee, Muhammad Ali, Rambo, Zohan, and God.” – In video games, that translates as being constantly reminded what an earth shattering bad-ass he/she is. What Alpha Protocol repeatedly tells me is that not only am I overly cautious, too eager to please and socially inept but I also make some pretty bad decisions under pressure. .. sometimes not even under pressure. 

My first meeting with Journalist Scarlett was emblematic of the way I play Alpha Protocol and, sadly the way I am in real life. She introduced herself, I opted for a joke, didn’t work, I got defensive and answered her questions aggressively then spent the rest of the game sending her intel in order to win back her favour. Sound familiar? First paragraph kind of familiar? Urgh. There was a sickening knot of recognition in my stomach that I’ve never had in a game before. Once I got over feeling sorry for myself, I was simply swooning with admiration. 

To me, Alpha Protocol is one long, rapid fire personality test that isn’t afraid to subtly tell me that I am most assuredly not Daniel Craig or Batman. I am just a man fumbling his way in the dark, always ever so slightly out of his depth trying to make decisions with a smidge less information than I’d prefer. Let me rephrase that. I am a man with a highly customised fork in a world full of intelligence soup. What’s exciting is that the game not only allows for this, it’s pretty understanding about it (if not comforting.) 

I can see why people were put off not only by the shocking animations, the bugs that leave enemy bodies twitching, impaled on a door, the PS2 standard Graphics and the often subnormal AI –  but also the lack of feedback and info on how you’re doing in the big scheme of things. Gameplay-wise I felt like I was doing everything right mission by mission – I was a ghost, mostly non lethal and rarely spotted, acquiring contacts left right and centre (or circle triangle and square) and with a wealth of support and handlers jostling to help me in my missions. Why then, was I always scrabbling for money? Why is the EU moments away from declaring marshal law and China about to go to war with Taipei?  Why am I a desperate, bearded, failed secret agent scrabbling towards the end game with a sense that this is not going to end well for me no matter what I do? These are pretty exciting questions to be asking oneself after a couple of hours with a supposedly 6/10 game. 

Maybe I’m a bit stupid? Maybe I’m indecisive? Maybe I’m overly cautious? Too eager to please? Whatever’s wrong with me, it’s been thrilling to have it pointed out by the same black box that usually tells me how great I am. These are my mistakes, this is my story. It’s not a march to victory, it’s a tense, seat of your pants thriller about a rookie agent up to his neck in international arms dealers and terrorists. Alpha Protocol  succeeds by making me take my failures personally – it’s a bitter tonic to swallow, but what other game can I say that about?

The Edge of the World

Helicopter in GTA IV

When you’re younger – it seems like there’s more time for pushing the boundaries in game-worlds. I remember playing some god-awful motor-bike game on the PC where every now and again, I would veer off the poorly carved dirt track where I was meant to be pulling off gnarly stunts, and I’d drive that little bike off towards the horizon where I would eventually hit some weird sort of Grand Canyon Wall Thing that I couldn’t vault over with even the gnarliest of jumps off the sweetest of ramps. And it’d take a while to get there too. I could have been reading or studying physics or learning to pass a Rugby ball off my left hand (something that eludes me to this day.) But I chose to drive to the end of this poorly realised stretch of desert in a bargain bin PC bike game, just to see what was there.

These days, I rarely go to the Edge of the World. The last time I went looking for it was probably on the PSP’s ‘Vice City Stories’ in which our hero would eschew the usual crime rampages and turf wars of the game’s missions, and fly his sputtering helicopter out to sea to see how much sea he could see. I might have tried it in GTAIV too, but the memory isn’t quite as strong.

There’s a soft pang of loneliness when you hit the edge of a game-world and see the artificial way in which you’re hemmed in. I stumbled upon it most recently in Deus Ex Human Revolution when, in Detroit – Adam Jensen reached a motorway tunnel in which a truck had jack-knifed, blocking the path for a bunch of motorists who act dissapointed, even though I’ve never seen anyone drive a car in Deus Ex. (In truth, they sprayed the same ‘anti aug’ insults my way, as if my robot arms were worse than a traffic accident.)

It strikes me that few games have used the feeling created by ‘hitting the limits of the world’ as an actual part of the game. It could be argued that Assassin’s Creed’s ‘Animus’ method (of blocking off areas that “Aren’t in this memory”) does just that. But I’m talking about something a bit more specific. Something that’s a bit more like The Prisoner, where Number 6 repeatedly tried to escape the confines of his ‘world’ and is repeatedly dumped back where he started by the end of each episode (sometimes, a few times within the episode.) The closest thing that comes to mind in the gaming is The Chronicles of Riddick, Escape from Butcher Bay which sees Riddick’s escape plans constantly thwarted by X-ibit or whatever.

Far from being a surreal, metaphysical mind-fuck device, this idea seems much more real to me than the concept of being able to ‘go anywhere, do anything’ that games are so obsessed with these days. I do have the freedom, and the right to go almost anywhere and do almost anything at any time – but come 9-oclock on Monday morning, I’m sat at my desk doing my job – not clinging to the top of a car bonnet with my shirt off and a scimitar tucked into the waist of my jeans.

This seems perfect for some kind of list feature as a future post. I might come back to it.

Down the Garden Path of Least Resistance: Shrub Cloaking in Crysis

Crysis blog on sneaking through the jungle

Cloak. Move. Hide in a Shrub. Recharge.

Don’t you just love attention grabbing, gimmicky openings to blog posts?

Cloak. Move. Hide in a Shrub. Recharge.

But sometimes, it’s just easier to start writing when you’ve got a gimmick to kick things off.

Cloak. Move. Hide in a Shrub. Recharge.

And this pretty accurately represents my time with the recently console-ified Crysis

Far from being the robo-suit wearing Predator I’m creeping along, checking my environment from bushes and, when I’m absolutely sure that it’s not going to get me killed, picking off the odd straggler with a scoped, silenced headshot. Which is fine, but not exactly what I’ve been promised.

This is one of the troubles with leaving players with the choice of approaches to open environments. One tactic always, eventually wins out and it’s hard to look beyond it. In Crysis’ case, the old shrub-cloak has proven to be the best way to get through any situation – even if it’s a little slow. In Metal Gear Solid 3, crawling slowly around the outside of the area was always the path of least resistance. And in Far Cry 2 (sequel to Crysis’ spiritual predecessor) discovering an optimal murder technique and becoming a monotonously efficient killer was kind of the point.

When a player hits on one of these tactics, it’s hard to resist the urge to utilise it whenever possible. Even though I know that I could sprint into the centre of this shanty-town, leap onto a roof and fire a missile at that tank to take out 3 guys before jumping down, punching the building I was standing on to crush the guys inside – I also know that I wont. For I am a Shrub-Cloaker. I’ve actually gotten out of a tank because I know it won’t be as effective as Shrub Cloaking.

This is, perhaps the price you pay for genuine ‘openness‘ in games. Seeing a search party of 4 or 5 guys stalking through the forest in Crysis doesn’t quite have the same effect as watching a single guard approach down a corridor with a flashlight in Splinter Cell. To be fair, it’s probably more of a flaw with me than it is with Crysis or any of the games mentioned above (in spite of MGS3’s ‘circle the area’ tactic, it’s still my favourite game of all time.)

That being said, some of  this is down to the games themselves. With recharging health, recharging energy and all of… oooh, 6 weapons? there’s not much incentive to chance it and get right into the middle of things in Crysis, especially when it’s so easy to operate on the peripheries of most areas. There’s a reason why I’ll stick my face into a rad-scorpion pit in Fallout and it’s not because I find the hissing sound soothing.

It’s an idea that Steve Gaynor puts across brilliantly in his post “Basics of effective FPS encounter design (via F.E.A.R. and F.E.A.R. 2)” which echoes around my head every time I play pretty much anything where I’m holding a gun.

In the same way that a writer needs to put his/her characters through the wringer, I think a sneaking game (which I consider Crysis to be) needs to force the player go right into the middle of the map at some point and do the absolute worst thing they can imagine having to do there. That could be for in-game rewards or as part of the story.

In a game where you can turn invisible or bullet proof and sprint faster than a car, “throwing sticky explosives onto a stationary artillery ‘thing‘” isn’t the worst thing I can imagine doing. On the other hand, in Metal Gear Solid 2 when I’m a girly haired cart-wheeling rookie alone on a weird oil rig who hasn’t found the suppressor for his incredibly loud gun… the worst thing I can imagine doing is searching for explosives with a can of coolant spray in a heavily guarded area.

In Crysis, I imagine I’ll Shrub-Cloak my way to the end of the game unless something weird happens like giant flying squid aliens start attacking but what are the chances of that?