Narrative In L.A. Noire

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February 28, 2013 by trosen3

Taking inspiration from the stylized 1940s and 1950s Hollywood crime dramas of the film noir period, Rockstar Games’ and Team Bondi’s 2011 neo-noir game, L.A. Noire, presents the opportunity to play as a police officer named Cole Phelps in the corrupt and crime filled city of Los Angeles. The game blends investigating with fast-paced action sequences as the player works to solve cases throughout the city. L.A. Noire has an elaborate world and detailed environment that the player can explore and interact with, however the most important aspect of the game is the intricate narrative in which the player puts murderers behind bars, discovers government and police corruption, and rescues a kidnapped femme fatale. Because of this complex narrative and the way the game designers meticulously lead the player through it, the narratology approach is the most effective way to study this game.

Though the exact process of solving a case differs for every player, the story mode of L.A. Noire uses linear gameplay and an Aristotelian structure with each player solving a fixed sequence of cases with only one possible ending. It is actually nearly impossible for a player to fail a case through various mechanisms such as impassable cutscenes that inform the player of important clues around a crime scene and assistance from cast characters including various LAPD partners and the coroner. Case number 8, titled “The Red Lipstick Murder,” illustrates how the game clearly directs the player to an object or target they need to find to complete a mission. First, a cinematic cut scene of the murder takes place using a dark mise en scene similar to that of film noir. The player then watches a briefing by the police captain where they learn the details of the case thus far. They continue to drive to the crime scene in an interactive cutscene where the partner and player’s character engage in dialogue about the case and overall plot. There is another cutscene upon arriving at the location of the murder where the detectives who got there first brief the player and reveal things to examine at the scene. Yellow police signs mark all the clues essential to solving the case and when the player discovers something interactive, a prompt appears giving the option to examine it in the top left corner of the screen. The player is informed how many clues they have found and how many remain as they work through the crime scene. This process continues as the game informs the player of their objectives, points of interest and people who need to be interrogated until the case is eventually solved.

Furthermore, the player does not even have to complete the action sequences in the story mode. If the player fails one of these challenges three times, the game gives the option to skip past it. Meaning even if the player cannot move the analog stick to aim and shoot, they are still able to complete the narrative just by investigating. This shows how the game makers tried to appeal to cinematic fans that do not have hand-eye video game skills. All they have to do is try the action sequences a couple of times and fail. There is however a more complex scoring system where the player receives a “case report” at the end of each case. So while the player cannot fail, you can get zero interrogation questions right, rack up thousands of dollars in damage around the city, and never actually catch or kill the suspects which results in a poor “case report.” This causes Jesper Juul’s idea of outcome valorization rules in the game to become fairly simple when boiled down: the player will complete the narrative if they listen to the clear guidance even if they fail every other aspect of the case.

Other gameplay elements exist outside of the narrative in L.A. Noire, however they fall to the wayside of the complex and involved narrative. The game includes forty mini-narrative quests called “Street Crimes,” where the LAPD operator offers optional side-investigations that have no relation to the case the player working on.

There is also a Grand Theft Auto like extravagant and complicated world but there is little else to do besides drive around and shoot people.  Finally, the player can try to collect all the “newspapers” around the city with each one resulting in a short cutscene flashing back to one of Phelps’ war memories or a scene pertaining to the game’s overarching plot, however this fits more into the game’s narrative then its other gameplay activities. In this way, L.A. Noire’s narrative, as shown by the decisions by the game designer to essentially push the player through the story and leave little to do outside the story mode, is what drives the game.

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2 thoughts on “Narrative In L.A. Noire

  1. samfilm373 says:

    You have some compelling points for L.A. Noire as a narrative game, but it seems a little obvious. It would have been really interesting to see you use your points to counter more claims that hardcore ludologists tend to take.
    The point that struck me the most was that the focuses on cinematics and story take precedence over gameplay. You could have taken this one step further and stated that this showed evidence that the developers intent was to create a narrative game.

  2. trosen3 says:

    I agree with your suggestion about countering ludologist points more but it is difficult to do that in a peper of this length so I only briefly addressed it.

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