Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Anger Management

"You're incredibly rude and insensitive, but I guess you know that."

That's about Cole Phelps, the protagonist of Team Bondi's L.A. Noire. The words are spoken by Mrs. Black, who's interrogated by Phelps near the beginning of the story. She's right, too: Cole Phelps is rude, insensitive, and churlish to boot. However, she's also wrong, because I didn't know it and wouldn't figure it out until at least a third into the story. I have experienced a lot of jeopardy and violence in videogames, yet few scenes have inspired such helplessness and dread as watching Phelps grill a traumatised witness. Is this what they call context?

The real story of L.A. Noire is a tale of an angry man who shouts a lot, and I'm not talking about Cole Phelps. If ex-Team Bondi employees are believed, then Brendan McNamara, director and writer of L.A. Noire, was a boss from down under, so to speak. Upon reading the controversy, I admit, rather than being scandalised by the shocking allegations, my first thoughts were, "Aha! That's why Phelps succeeds at his job by furiously barking at people. Write from experience much, Brendan?" L.A. Noire was in production for an excruciating seven years; it's reputed that Rockstar Games, the publisher, never wants to work with McNamara again. Whatever the truth, Team Bondi has since collapsed and McNamara has, I imagine, become a schoolteacher.

Side-quests are a peculiar videogame tradition. They're like subplots from traditional media, but exist on an optional periphery of the story. Side-quests provide nuggets of narrative, fleshing out a fiction with incidental detail; the player is usually given added incentive to pursue them e.g. better equipment, hints and tips, or extra money. They're also notoriously bland, repetitive, and narratively clumsy. The satisfaction of completing them normally has less to do with their quality than allaying fears of missing something important. After playing L.A. Noire, I wonder if it might sometimes be preferable to reward players for ignoring side-quests.

Cole Phelps is a lowly patrol officer when L.A. Noire begins. He joined the L.A.P.D after military service in World War II and soon starts making a name for himself. The opening four episodes of the story end with his promotion to detective. Phelps craves structure and authority to prove himself, but he possesses all the subtlety of a police siren. He expects nothing less than the fearless execution of his duties, and he dismisses any collateral damage incurred from that pursuit. Phelps is often the worst kind of honest cop: an up-tight bureaucrat carrying a gun. He throws himself into the role of detective with intense gravitas and barely concealed pride.

On route to the scene of Phelps's first case, while I admired Team Bondi's rendition of 1947 Los Angeles, my attention was interrupted by an announcement over the police dispatch. Apparently, there was a 401k going down on Hold-em-up Boulevard and an R-Type response was needed. Hm. A prompt appeared: "To answer the dispatch, press A." These, I realised, must be L.A. Noire's side-quests, and I instinctively moved to press A. But hold on, Phelps was on his first case as detective; he'd worked hard to get promoted from patrolman; this dispatch was not his duty to answer. I ignored the call. Each time another of these calls went out, I thought about it and didn't respond.

Awhile after finishing L.A. Noire, I returned to check out its side-quests -- called street crime cases -- and my original suspicions were confirmed. Street crime cases play to all of L.A. Noire's weaknesses. Removed from the context of an ongoing investigation, its mediocre chases and gunfights are cast under a harsh new light. They're not altogether awful, but L.A. Noire is probably better experienced without them.

The interesting thing, however, was that despite ignoring all side-quests, my time with L.A. Noire nonetheless benefited from their presence. It was my decision to flout them, and it was meaningful because of that. Here I was being prompted to break character and meddle with the story, and, each time, my decisions drew me a little closer into L.A. Noire's fiction. Had its side-quests been removed, announcements over the dispatch would have just been background noise: Phelps would have made the decision to ignore them without consulting me. The creative role of players in a story can be diminished to little more than an audience if they are not presented with real opportunities to interpret or defy the role assigned to them.

An ongoing controversy in the videogame community is whether games are art. I don't want to enter into the debate as it's normally conducted. Too often, participants tacitly lapse into what philosopher Karl Popper called essentialism: the discussion proceeds to chase a mirage of what "art" really means. Otherwise, people appear to wrestle over the term for public relations aims rather than genuine insight. The traditional artist wants to distance himself from games because they're crass and juvenile, while the game designer seeks to bask in the reflected admiration of traditional arts through verbal association. These arguments rarely reveal anything besides what participants on each side want others to think about them.

While checking out LA Noire side-quests, I also discovered that I could only draw Phelps's weapon in specified scenarios. Apparently, Team Bondi had decided that it would break character too much if the player could just pull out a weapon anytime and start shooting stuff. My decision not to draw Phelps's handgun when I first played through L.A. Noire was real, but the freedom to do otherwise had been my misunderstanding. The illusion of agency is almost as powerful as the real thing and is often necessary in game narratives, but in this case I felt as though my role in the story had been cheapened just a little.

A determined player can still break the story: Phelps can run to every crime scene, drive along sidewalks and injure pedestrians, or accuse everyone of lying without exception. Team Bondi doesn't stop me doing any of these absurd things, but they do stop me from shooting out tires on passing cars. It's a seemingly random exception. Perhaps preventing players from drawing their gun is just easy; maybe Team Bondi would also prevent these other story breaking activities if it were more practical. But why bother thwarting the player at all?

I suggest that playing games can be something of an art itself. A problem is that gamers often see themselves as an audience of a play and refuse to take responsibility for their part in the production. Game narratives have a player-shaped hole in them. Too often, after gamers decide to shove that hole full of nonsequiturs, contradictions, and sociopathy, they then hold it against the game for not stopping them. To me, this is like objecting to a crossword puzzle because you're able to complete it by writing "boobs" in all the spaces. A videogame is unfinished until its player makes the final creative contribution: you can either attempt to realise the game's potential or vandalise it for miscreant kicks.

It's customary to talk about people being good or bad at videogames, but, normally, that just means someone's skill at beating the challenges games typically present. Maybe there is also another sense in which someone can be good at games. Some players are good at roleplaying, at subsuming themselves within a fiction, and at interpreting their part creatively. They are good at discovering the message intended by developers and creating meaning through their own decisions and acts; their talent allows them to become both the actor and the audience. Perhaps the art of a videogame can only be as good as the person playing it.

Interrogations are the backbone of L.A. Noire. They follow a simple formula: ask a question and decide whether to believe, doubt, or accuse the witness of lying. In the latter, evidence of deception must also be provided. Meanwhile, interrogations also present an opportunity for L.A. Noire to put to use its astonishing facial animation: three-dimensional captures of actors' performances are recreated in-game. Ultimately, shoe-horning all interrogations into the truth-doubt-lie formula leads to some rather contorted dialogue. They work well enough, but I often felt more inspired by their potential than impressed with their execution.

The wild card is Phelps himself; I never really knew what to expect. I'd often just wince and hope for the best. When "doubting" the aforementioned Mrs. Black's statement about her missing husband's glasses, Phelps erupts, "So you disposed of the new pair after you killed you husband? You made a mistake leaving the old pair behind." Excuse me? I selected "doubt," not "angry accusation." Sometimes I would select "truth," even though I knew it was the wrong response, just to make Phelps act a little less like a lunatic.

For the opening third of L.A. Noire, I didn't understand Phelps. I kept thinking I was doing something wrong. Normally, I play the good guy, or at least the cool anti-hero, and it took me a long time to realise that Phelps is just an arrogant prick. L.A. Noire became much more enjoyable after that. It wasn't my fault that Phelps was a human wrecking-ball; I just had to deal with it. But I was relieved when control switched to the far more agreeable Jack Kelso late in the story.

Team Bondi seem to be intentionally ambiguous about Phelps, perhaps thinking that slowly revealing his character through World War II flashbacks would be more narratively interesting. And maybe that'd be true for an audience, but I was both the audience and an actor on stage. I frequently had no idea what I was doing as a performer and it was ruining the show for me as a spectator. I wanted to cooperate with L.A. Noire to tell the best story possible, but Team Bondi refused to give me proper direction. The game was so preoccupied with emulating a movie that it overlooked much of what makes videogames unique as a storytelling medium.

I didn't audition for the part of Phelps; I didn't have to sell myself to Team Bondi to get the part. On the contrary, I bought L.A. Noire and Team Bondi's obligation was to sell me on Phelps. This was all the more important because Phelps is not a character I naturally wanted to roleplay; I wasn't going to slip into the role instinctively like I might another more charming and sympathetic protagonist. I had to come to terms with Phelps before I could begin properly enjoying L.A. Noire. Team Bondi, however, in a misguided attempt at dramatic restraint, frustrated my efforts to add my contribution to the story and fill the player-shaped hole they had left.

L.A. Noire is not the masterpiece that I had hoped when first seeing its dazzling prerelease trailer. It may, however, be the closest thing yet to a time machine. I spent hours just sightseeing in its wonderfully accurate recreation of post-war Los Angeles. The city might be little more than an elaborate set and, perhaps, a lot of unnecessary work for a rather narrow purpose, but it remains an extraordinary achievement. I admire L.A. Noire for what it is trying to be even when it falls short of those ambitions. This is a big-budget videogame where gunfights and car chases are only the side-dish. Deliberate and considered crime-scene investigations and interrogations are where the game plies its trade and that, at least, makes for an interesting change of pace. It would, however, be wrong to recommend L.A. Noire for what it is striving for rather than what it is, and it is, usually, merely competent.

L.A. Noire was featured at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. It was an honour never before bestowed on a videogame. To nongamers, L.A. Noire must appear the closest videogames have come to art, but, I think, it is just closest to the kind of art familiar to nongamers. The ways that L.A. Noire tries to succeed as a movie are often the ways that it fails as a videogame; it treats its players too much like a audience and not enough like fellow artists. Then again, Perhaps I am just being pretentious. Maybe the detractors are right: videogames cannot be art. Whatever. Perhaps videogames aren't "art," but then so much the worse for "art."


  1. Sorry in advance for this long comment, it turn out longer than expected…
    “Perhaps the art of a videogame can only be as good as the person playing it.”
    That’s an interesting idea, but I’m not sure I can agree. If a game offers me some kind of freedom, a sandbox form or any kind of morality choice, or a narrative with multiple paths, this freedom must be meaningful in itself, the designers can’t wash their hands and give all the creative input to the player.

    Let’s go back to Red Dead Redemption: gamewise, the freedom given is meaningful. I’m a cowboy in the Wild West, I can make the law or break it, the tension between unlawful liberty and the emergence of a society, with all the rules and regulations that civilization implies, is an essential theme of any western. On a gameplay level, a sandbox is the perfect frame (or absence of frame) to adapt the western into a videogame. The problem is, I’m not any cowboy, I’m John Marston, and this John Marston is a pre-defined character. Sure, I can honor him, I can play the good guy trying to get away from some stupid past mistakes, but then, where is my freedom? The story of Red Dead Redemption gets in the way of the game, the existence of John Marston negates any kind of meaning I can get from interacting with this world, because this meaning has been predetermined by Rockstar.

    In your last paragraph, you write that “The ways that L.A. Noire tries to succeed as a movie are often the ways that it fails as a videogame; it treats its players too much like a audience and not enough like fellow artist.” Ironically, if I play Red Dead Redemption like you suggest, by being cooperative with Rockstar, by playing Marston by following the character they have written for me, then my experience with this game has nothing to do with a game, and is very close to a movie. By playing this game the “right” way, I’m following the guidelines given to me by Rockstar, and I don’t see much difference between this and the low interactivity of a game like Uncharted. At least Uncharted is consistent, it never gives me any illusion that I’m in control, I’m always aware that Nathan Drake is the hero, not me. Interactivity is essential to every art: a movie is as good as his best audience, there is no art without interpretation. Rockstar denies my interpretation of their universe, there is only one way to live their West, and it is through Marston.

    To take a well-known and recent example: the last shot of Inception is an obvious choice offer to the viewer, but the choice is meaningful in itself, it doesn’t matter if that top falls or not, the meaning lies in the very ambiguity of the shot. In a game, the relation between designer and player should always be of that sort: the artist designs a choice for me, but he has to make sure, first, that the very fact of choosing will be meaningful for me. If not, my participation in the game is trivial.
    (to be continued...)

  2. So...

    The problem is worse in L.A. Noire, that big illusion of a game with this completely useless sandbox and that dreadful interrogation system. First of all, the thrill of a police investigation lies in the ambiguity, in the not-knowing, especially in the noir genre, so I don’t want to know if my interrogations are shitty, if I’m the most inapt detective ever. The score system completely contradicts the noir genre and the mood the designers want to establish. But the main problem is the incoherence of Phelps in these sequences: when I get every question right, then the conversation is smooth, it seems to flow naturally, and I do get the feel of a mostly good-written interrogation scene. But if I miss something, Phelps can go in all kind of direction, I can’t understand how he reacts, and the scene just doesn’t work. It’s as if Team Bondi were congratulating me when I’m “good” by throwing me a coherent sequence. In the end, I wasn’t trying to be a good detective anymore, I was working to get the most coherent narration possible. In Red Dead, it was still possible as a player to disconnect the story and the game, but not so with L.A. Noire: you have to play the game as intended, or else… well, you get a bad movie instead of a mediocre one. Again, it’s like Uncharted (although Naughty Dogs would make a better movie), but Team Bondi is nagging you with a promise of freedom and by hiding that you’re not in control of Phelps. It’s one of the most ill-design game I can think off, as if they were consciously doing everything wrong.

    And to conclude, the flattering part: I love you’re blog.

  3. sylvain,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment(s).

    I tried to anticipate your objections with the player-as-actor metaphor. Two actors can read from the same script and yet interpret their parts very differently.

    My Marston was a poker player, preferred pistols to rifles, took down opponents non-lethally when practical, usually wore the "duster outfit," and his favourite horse was the Hungarian purebred. What side-quests did you indulge in and why? Did you purchase any property and, if so, what? I captured Javier Eacuella alive, but did you? While Marston's character does set boundaries on the player (before their actions begin breaking the story), he is not entirely determined by Rockstar. Each of us could have very different interpretations of Marston while still honouring the story.

    Some games offer more or less freedom in this regard: more or less room for the player to creatively contribute to the story. For example, like many others, I started playing Skyrim yesterday, and it leaves lots of room for player creativity. Bethesda establish some basic facts about the player-character, but less than Rockstar enforce on Marston and almost nothing compared to what Naughty Dog dictate about Nathan Drake.

    Sometimes, in a movie, a director knows exactly what he wants, and the actor just has to do what he is told. If the actor deviates in any small way, then the director yells "Cut!" and they repeat the scene until it matches the original vision. This is like Uncharted. The actor's freedom to exercise his own creativity is severely constrained; there is little room for him to practice his art.

    In Red Dead Redemption, the director is less dictatorial. He tolerates the actor bringing his own interpretation to Marston, but there are limits which cannot be crossed without compromising the narrative. Unfortunately, he doesn't have a lot of spare film and cannot keep cutting and starting again. Even if the player deviates -- maybe by shooting up the town of Armadillo -- it may get left in the final cut anyway. This demands more work by the actor and makes him more responsible for the story.

    The extreme case is Skyrim: the director only yells "Cut!" when the player dies. The story and main character and only very roughly determined, and the rest is improved by the actor. It's no surprise to me, that people try again and again in games like this to create a better character, a better story, because it's hard.

    Does this make any more sense?

  4. Well, I mostly agree with your metaphor, but I think you downplay the role of the director/designer when you write something like "A videogame is unfinished until its player makes the final creative contribution: you can either attempt to realise the game's potential or vandalise it for miscreant kicks." Yes, a game is unfinished until the player comes along, but it should not be possible for a player to vandalise a game: everything the player can do should have a meaning. If I can shoot everybody down in Armadillo, then Rockstar better find a way to make this action meaningful. There is some room to manoeuvre in Red Dead Redemption, with the sidequests and how you handle certain situations, there are some ambiguities in the character that the player can use to customize "his" Marston, but some things I can do are just not consistent with the character I'm given.

    On the other hand, there's Elder Scrolls and the total freedom Bethesda offers. Haven't played Skyrim yet, but I hated Oblivion with a passion. Big open-world, but what a bland artistic design, an atrocious writing and acting, plus the combat is dull and hollow, there's nothing interesting to do in this world. I'm an actor, but I can't put some creativity when there is none in the first place.

    The artistic part in a videogame lies precisely in what kind of choice (in a large sense, not just in the narration) the director/designer offers to the actor/player. These choices (or more precisely gameplay) have to be meaningful whatever I decide to do with them. The art comes from the interactivity, the dialogue between the game and the player, but the game has to answer me, I can't be discussing alone. Red Dead Redemption has no answer if I kill every passerby; every answer Oblivion give me is uninteresting.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Well, lookee here. Spoiler Kelly done got himself a badge. How much it cost ya?

    This comment is a bit late, but you might be interested in Clint Hocking's recent post on the subject of who is responsible for the art in a game:

    Hocking argues that the view of game designers as artists plays to a broadcast culture which is now becoming outdated, and advocates instead for a comparison of games with sport, a recognition of games as belonging to a different paradigm from books and TV.

    "We will come to recognize," he says, "that the stuff in games that speaks deeply to us, that resonates, that makes us weep and rejoice does not come from what the Artist Hath Wrought but comes leaping, unforged, naked and honest from the masterfully conducted runtime, often as much a delight to its coders as to its players."

    Later, he concludes: "when I take stock of the most beautiful things in the games I have worked on; a cold-blooded execution of an Andre Hippolyte; an amateur guard blasted down an elevator shaft; a wounded mercenary immolated in grassy field, I have to admit that I am not the person who created those things."

  7. (cont)

    As it happens, I disagree. Designers ordained, modellers built and programmers forged the graphics engine that made any of the player's actions possible - and created the choices that are available to them. Developers can create beautiful and meaningful phase-space. Still, Hocking's argument is interesting and speaks to what you write here.

    It's certainly possible to play a game beautifully. Speedrunners, Starcraft pros, roleplayers and who knows who else are able to do amazing things with the games they play. But I would argue one of the closest available comparisons (for a medium where all comparisons to what has gone before are fraught with problems) is to classical music, where we venerate the composer alongside the conductor and the musician. The capacity for player virtuosity is one thing that can make a videogame great.

    PS: I agree with you on the player's responsibility to work in unison with the designer. To say a game is flawed because somebody can spend all their time jumping up and down and executing civilians is like saying Inglorious Bastards is flawed because some people manage to read it (perversely) as endorsing and promoting revenge violence. It's simply unfair. If the game opens itself up to and incentivises the player to render its meaning incoherent, on the other hand - or if a film is strikingly and avoidably susceptible to perverse readings - that is a different matter.

  8. Has this blog been abandoned? I enjoyed it while it lasted..

  9. Natalie,

    I'll start writing again tomorrow. I got busy with other stuff, and I've had a hard time remembering how to write ever since. Hopefully, I'll update the blog by Friday.