"Forget it, Player One, it's Chinatown"

by Arthur B

With L.A. Noire Rockstar have finally found a genre in which their love for flawed protagonists and downbeat endings is a boon and not a hindrance.
A while back I got all huffy about the end of Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar's Western sandbox game. In this article I'm going to rave a bit about the plot - and, in particular, the end - of L.A. Noire, Rockstar's 1940s cop game. (Well, Team Bondi's game that Rockstar published, but still.) This is going to be alarming to some because there are details of the ends of both games which are quite similar, but I think in every respect Team Bondi have managed to execute the sort of personality-led, story-led, linear game that Rockstar clearly have been interested in doing since at least Grand Theft Auto IV and, in particular, managed to do it in a manner which won't piss off lovers of open-world sandbox games.

They've done this by ceasing to pretend to make an open-world sandbox game. I'll rave about that and some non-spoilery stuff before I get to the details of the ending, but don't worry, I'll yell before I start tossing out spoilers.

In that respect, the concept of the game has helped them a lot. The whole point, after all, of being a freelance fixer for the criminal underworld or a lone drifter mooching around the Old West is the fact that you're a person beholden to no man, no law, and no code save the one you choose for yourself (if any). It makes absolute sense in a game about cowboys or gangsters to be able to just run around ruining people's day, whereas if you're a gumshoe in post-World War II Los Angeles working cases you're inherently going to have a more structured existence. You're not running around town aimlessly, you're a man on a mission. Team Bondi have implemented this perfectly by stripping out all the fripperies, minigames, side-quests and other distractions which would otherwise litter a sandbox game.

You are Cole Phelps, he's presented to you in a particular way, you have to accept that he's this particular character with this particular attitude and he's going to do these particular things and you accept this all for two reasons. Firstly, if you stick the game in your XBox you're deliberately choosing to play a game about a cop rather than a criminal, and if you're doing that you're probably going to be willing to accept a little more structure than you'd find in, say, Saints Row 2. Secondly, the game doesn't make any pretense of offering you any options of things to do which don't involve being a badass LA cop taking down bad guys - but it delivers the experience of being a badass LA cop taking down bad guys so well you don't want to do anything else anyway. The only significant chunks of non-main plot content are street incidents you can optionally choose to respond to when they're announced over your car radio, and those are almost invariably short and sweet bursts of actions rather than being more involved missions.

So, the spoiler-free point I want to make with this article is this: if you want to be a 1940s guy in a sharp suit and a hat, drive around a beautifully detailed creation of Los Angeles as it existed in that era, shake down suspects for information, chase people, shoot people, and occasionally beat the shit out of someone with your bare fists, LA Noire is what you're after.

Spoilers for LA Noire and Red Dead Redemption happen after this point.

OK, so at the end of Red Dead Redemption John Marston gets killed off and you have to play his irritating son Jack Marston in the post-game free-roaming segment. At the end of LA Noire Cole Phelps gets killed off, and whilst there's actually no post-game free-roaming segment before the kill happens you spend the last few missions switching between playing Cole and playing Jack Kelso, a former Marine Corps buddy of Cole turned insurance investigator. The former pissed me off for reasons I've already described in great detail; the latter I actually found pretty damn exciting.

Back when we were doing the first season of Text Factor and we were discussing The Maltese Falcon we made a big deal of how alienating it is - a trait it shares with a hell of a lot of noirish detective fiction, and which Team Bondi actually manage to implement pretty well in the game. Just as in The Maltese Falcon the reader is kept at a distance from Sam Spade, so too is the player kept at a distance from Cole in LA Noire. Sure, you've got control of him when he's on the job, and really that's precisely what you want... but there's a story about his time in Japan which, until towards the end, you're not privy to, and drives and urges which preoccupy him to a sufficient extent that sometimes he will make very, very bad decisions in pursuit of them, and you can't stop him.

If this sort of thing were poorly handled, it'd feel incredibly disempowering in a way which is detrimental to the game; it still kind of does feel disempowering, but the designers realise that noir is in many ways a disempowering genre - the hero often doesn't know what's going on, usually is in over his head, and is at the mercy of events. Whereas your Poirot-style detectives doorstop their suspects, get detailed and unintentionally revealing accounts from all of them, and eventually high-handedly summon them to the drawing room so that they can lay out the facts piece by piece and expose the criminal, your hardboiled detective is surrounded by liars and bullshitters who give up information only with extreme reluctance, has a laundry list of questions and very, very few answers, and usually finds themselves desperately chasing a trail of evidence which seems to be leading them not towards a liberating illumination of the truth but deeper and deeper into the morass.

What Team Bondi have managed to do so brilliantly is to turn the disempowerment that inevitably results when developers try to inflict a detailed plot and a well-realised main character on an open-world sandbox game, and chosen a genre which is supported by that disempowerment instead of ruined by it. Rather than being irritating speed bumps on your way to dominance of the criminal underworld, or violations of the freedom promised by the Old West, the decisions Bondi have the player characters make on your behalf are carefully chosen to keep the player off-balance. To pick out an example which has attracted some comment, Cole's decision to cheat on his wife is not completely out of the blue, but it's fair to say that it's quite sudden. It's a short-sighted and self-destructive decision which sacrifices his promising career trajectory and family life for the sake of his infatuation with a woman who didn't exactly go out of her way to solicit it and whose commitment to him seems to be variable at best. As the player you're screaming at the guy not to do it, and if it happened in a GTA or a Western game it'd bug the hell out of me, but in this particular context it works to create the impression of a world which is beyond your or anyone else's control, where things just plain go to shit from time to time and there's nothing you can do about it. And Cole's death is just one of those things that happen.

The other reason I'm not so irked by the whole character death/secondary player character this time around is that Jack Kelso is a far more interesting character to play than Jack Mason; he's appeared now and then throughout the entire game so he's hardly a stranger, and the contrast between his investigations and Cole's are interesting because whilst Cole always works with a partner (who are always extremely well characterised, by the way), Jack works alone - so whilst in Cole's investigations you have your NPC pal tagging along doing the buddy copy thing, when you play as Jack things are a lot more tense, because a lone gumshoe poking his nose in the wrong place can disappear a lot more easily than two cops in regular radio contact with their headquarters - and the game makes sure you know it.

I'm not completely uncritical of the game - I think the way the homicide division cases ultimately pan out robs the player of the feeling that they've achieved anything at all during that arc, as well as essentially turning it into a long string of completely meaningless choices which were presented to you as meaningful choices, and there are few things that irritate me more quickly about a game than if it pretends to offer you a choice but in fact doesn't. The game is best when it accepts and is completely happy with its linearity, and sells you on it, rather than pretending that the open world is more open than it pretends to be. The plot ultimately drags you to a sordid end with only the most minor of impacts on the thick underbelly of corruption spreading across the city. (In particular, the final scene makes me desperately wish for a sequel in which I get to shoot my partner from the Vice Squad dead between the eyes. That, or play him.) When you are dealing with noir material, that's exactly what you want: corruption going right to the top, flawed protagonists, the heavy hand of destiny and a jaded acceptance that no matter how much shit you hose off, the cess pit called society is never, ever, ever going to get clean. If you're willing to just sit there and go along for the ride it's a fantastic experience, and the game is a textbook example of how to convince the player to do just that.

Red Dead Redemption presents you with a character you can't look away from whose devotion to his family is his defining trait and who embodies the freewheeling spirit of the West, and then shoots him in the back and steals him from you just when he should be riding off into the sunset with his wife and son by his side and the mother of all bounties on his head. LA Noire, on the other hand, gives you the whole grimy, sordid mess you hope to find in a noir story, complete with a messy ending which is capable of surprising you even if you know that Cole is going to croak. Hopefully Rockstar learn from it.

(A big thank you to Dan and Kyra for getting me the XBox 360 version of the game for my birthday.)

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Comments (go to latest)
Rude Cyrus at 06:20 on 2011-07-01
See, I have to disagree with you on certain parts. It's true, the ending and overall story fit much better here than in RDR, and the game is worth playing, but there are two big complaints I have: one, I didn't really care about Cole Phelps. I knew almost nothing about the man, save that he's a bit of a dick and committed some atrocity during WWII. I don't know about his home life, what he does when he's off-duty (besides going to a nightclub and watching some woman sing). When he makes jaw-droppingly stupid decisions, he doesn't offer any motivation or excuse. When he's killed, it isn't some redeeming moment -- he basically gives up.

Second, when I play a game, I want to feel like I've accomplished something. Being told that everything I've done has been for nothing, that I'm just another cog in the Machine, that life sucks and then you die, is frankly, shit. I'm not saying games can't have flawed protagonists, downbeat endings or realistic storylines -- but you'd better have some good characters along the way, which, for the most part, this game didn't have.
Arthur B at 13:04 on 2011-07-01
I did find I ended up caring more about Kelso, but then Kelso is much more of a classic hardboiled protagonist anyway (due to the whole working alone thing). But I didn't find the fact that I felt alienated from Cole was a problem, and I actually liked the fact that I didn't know much about him aside from the stuff which came up in flashbacks and which relate to the plot. Part of the thing with his character is that he'd like to be the sort of guy who's all about the job and keeps his past and his home life safely stored away but, like often happens in noir stories, he can't keep up the barriers that effectively.

The fact that you're basically playing as Kelso at the end rather than Cole makes me hope for a sequel in which you're playing Kelso all the way and you go gunning for those grinning bastards at the funeral.
Robinson L at 18:30 on 2011-07-05
Rude Cyrus: I'm not saying games can't have flawed protagonists, downbeat endings or realistic storylines

I hope you're also not saying that "realistic storylines" necessarily = "grr, life sucks, society will never and can never improve, everything is shit, grr."
Arthur B at 02:00 on 2011-07-11
I think it was a pretty poorly-kept secret that Rockstar were not thrilled with Team Bondi.

As far as sequels go, that depends on who owns the IP. On a quick search, it seems that Take Two (Rockstar's parents) currently own the trademark. As for the facial animation, Team Bondi don't seem to have any published patent applications out for it. Doesn't look like there's a whole lot Team Bondi could do to stop Rockstar making a sequel.
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