Whose Story Is It Anyway?: Film, Video Games, and the Mystery Genre in L.A. Noire and Heavy Rain
Donning my digital fedora and pinstriped suit, I strode down the finish line at Sunset Blvd. and finished the Team Bondi and Rockstar Games title L.A. Noire (2011, written and directed by Brendan McNamara) this past week. As a film noir buff, gamer, and Los Angelino, I generally found Noire an engrossing experience, a welcome change of pace in the context of an industry saturated with sports titles and first person shooters. However, much like the inexplicably gender altered title (it's Noir, not Noire, as it is Los Angeles, not Las Angeles), I found myself scratching my head at certain problematic decisions made about the game's structure that, upon reflection, are generally problematic of another "cinematic" mystery game, Heavy Rain (2010). So, if you're a fan of video games, film, and the mystery genre in particular, I urge you to read on. Beware, however, that certain story points will be revealed with regard to both titles.
Allow me to preface with the obligatory value judgment. I enjoyed Heavy Rain and L.A. Noire a great deal. In general, the exploration of core game mechanics embraced by both titles were incredibly refreshing to this gamer who, despite his love of the Call of Duty franchise, had gotten really burned out on tried and true formulas. L.A. Noire, on its surface, looks a lot of like other Rockstar titles (Grand Theft Auto IV and the perfect Red Dead Redemption): a sandbox game that embraces a traditional film genre, only to offer some critical and unique commentary on it. Noire is set in 1947 Los Angeles. Your avatar is Cole Phelps ("Mad Men"'s Aaron Staton), a former World War II vet who, fresh from combat, joins the L.A.P.D. as a beat cop. The bulk of the game is structured around case files. A brief, objective, account is offered of a crime in progress: a woman murdered, a man pushed in front of an oncoming car, etc. The player then takes control of Cole who, when introduced to the crime scene, must dig around in bushes and dresser drawers for clues. Once the player feels confident they have enough evidence to question a witness, they can trigger a Q&A session with witnesses, victims, and suspects.
This is where Noire becomes especially unique. Combining software and hardware, the game presents players with characters who are "performed" by many notable character actors, the level of detail in these digital performances is quite amazing. Players are essentially prompted to follow the questioned character's bodily movements (eyes darting back and forth, restless hands, etc.) to decide whether or not the person is telling the truth, hiding something, or lying (you have three responses: truth, doubt, and lie). If you select truth, that puts an end to the line of questioning. If you select doubt, you may either gain more or less information and if you select lie, well, you'd better hope you have evidence from your investigation to back it up.
Heavy Rain is cosmetically similar to Noire in so far as they are both games that are attempting to investigate the awkward binary between cinema and video games and that realistic performance capture has lent the game's aesthetic an incredibly engrossing form of characterization. The game mechanic of Heavy Rain is also somewhat similar. Playing as a range of characters, the player is asked to solve a rash of disappearances and murders at the hands of a serial killer known as the Origami Killer. The main difference with Heavy Rain is that the game play is gestural (it relies on players to mimic the movements of the character, it's Se7en meets Dance Dance Revolution, which frustrated as many players as it hypnotized) and that the game has a greater "ripple" effect narrative: the game has multiple endings that vary depending on the choices the player makes, which is not really an overwhelming feature of Noire. In the latter, there is one ending, and the only narrative gray zone involves missed clues that may make or break a case.
That said, both games borrow liberally from the mystery genre and, before going any further, allow me to warn you once again that spoilers are ahead as is an analysis that involves some film terminology: plot (the events in a story), narrative (the way in which the events are structured by the director for the consumer), and narration (an aspect of narrative that essentially accounts for who is telling the story and how much they know). Essentially, my critique of both games is that they are sloppily structured with regard to narrative and especially through their use of narration. I may love both titles with regard to their objectives, but they (and game designers) could certainly stand to learn some lessons from film narrative/narration.
Beginning with Noire, the narration is an odd blend of first-person subjective and third-person limited. We spend the bulk of the game in Cole's shoes. That's normally how a mystery film or novel works and limited narration is what makes the events a mystery to the consumer. Yet, Noire is structured haphazardly. There is a disembodied voice over during the first couple of cases, not attributed to any in game character, that disappears after about an hour or two of play. Moreover, as the cases progress, McNamara intertwines omniscient flashbacks to Phelps's time in WWII and omniscient cinematics of other events going on in town, normally triggered by Cole Phelps picking up a newspaper. There are several problems with this. First, the newspapers only topically relate to the cinematics they prompt. The headline might be "NEW HOUSING BEING CONSTRUCTED FOR RETURNING VETS" and yet the cinematic depicts the underlying rot in Los Angeles. How do we/Cole know this from the newspaper? If the newspaper article disclosed this info, the town would fall apart. Why are the game's designers robbing the player of their role as a real investigator?
More problematically is that the player, despite playing as Cole and experiencing his narrative first hand, never gets a full grasp of his character. At the end of the game's first act, there is a throw away line to him having a wife and kid, who we never see. At the end of act two, it is revealed that Cole is having an affair, which comes as a complete surprise to the player, even though they are Cole. The odd disconnect between first person narration, which is often used to bring us closer to the character, and third-person limited narration makes empathy for Cole nearly impossible and robs the game of some rich mystery fare. The game really biffs the landing in the third act, when the player must inexplicably play as another character, making us further alienated. Now, alienation is key to the noir genre. The lack guideposts with regard to morals and plot are part of the genre. However, it is misused and sloppy here due to the inconsistency and a lack of rationale. Essentially, the game plays fast and loose with narration in order to undermine some mysteries while revealing others.
This latter aspect becomes an issue when the player reaches the homicide desk cases. Cases are often structured as being segregated from other cases. For instance, a murder may occur and the player will be forced to make a conviction, even if the evidence doesn't completely stack up. Then, a few cases down the line, we find out that the convictions sent the wrong people to jail and we must further unravel the mystery. If Cole is a great investigator, is feels forced to shoehorn the player into making a decision based on this decision for segregated case files. Essentially, I wanted more freedom and less contrivance. More mystery for the player to uncover, less for the odd third-person cinematics to spoil.
Heavy Rain has similar problems. The character plays as multiple protagonists, including Ethan Mars, whose son has been kidnapped by the Origami Killer. Ethan has dreams that may or may not link him to the killings, but they are just left hanging in the game and never explained. More significant in a glaring issue is that the player discovers in the third act that one of the playable characters is, in fact, the killer. If, once again, we are playing as a character, encountering his narrative from a first-person point of view, how do we not know that the character is the killer? Granted, this could have been addressed if say, the character had a psychological disorder or had amnesia, which has been used in other mysteries and noir films. Yet, as it stands, it's a jarring revelation, a narrative cheat.
Playing Heavy Rain is like watching Se7en (1995) but from the point of view of John Doe and then being asked to be surprised that he's the killer. It doesn't make much sense. L.A. Noire is akin to watching L.A. Confidential (1997) and then finding out Guy Pearce's character, despite romancing Kim Basinger, is gay. Both games betray the narrative/narrational roots of the mystery in order to throw us a plot curve ball. Do the very real glitches of these games make them absolute failures? No. I'd still love to replay the both of them and I treasure the hours of my life I devoted to their completion. However, there is as much to learn from failure as there is from experimentation and much can come from video game designers who work to integrate the talents of film personnel, if the project warrants it. Like a bad film, a script with bad structure can ruin a video game; performing a few revisions on these titles could have made them masterpieces instead of really good curios in the vast wasteland of gaming.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, and Senses of Cinema. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.