L.A. NOIRE: DEATH AND CONSEQUENCES
Computer games suffer from an image problem. The mainstream press treat games as either a curiosity or a threat, with the papers regularly bemused by the enormous sales figures of the Wii or outraged by the contagious immorality of Grand Theft Auto. To them, games are never intended for adults. On the one hand they are a quaint oddity, a kid’s trend that’s miraculously managed to snare an adult audience. On the other hand they’re a murder simulator being pushed to children by irresponsible developers. It’s the act of killing that prompts this reaction from outsiders. In computer games, killing is not only played for fun but is generally the means by which the player beats the game. Games then become a virtual manifestation of boys playing with toy guns, trying to “kill” one another and having fun while they do it. This playfulness is what journalists find bemusing about computer games, especially when adults start joining in. It’s also this same absence of consequence that outsiders find particularly troubling in video-games, particularly when violence is involved. Whereas most violent films generally pass comment on the atrocities they depict, games, by their very nature, are unable to. If killing
and violence are fun, as they so often are in games, how can they also be wrong? Itâ€™s this tension, between enjoyment and seriousness of tone that is keeping games alongside toys and novelties as far as the cultural consensus is concerned. Diversity is needed in violent games. Shooting and killing are generally the accepted means of overcoming problems in most games that include violence as a theme, but in order to push adult gaming as a mature form, more varied solutions need to be made available to the player and any violence that does occur needs to be contextualised and commented on.
A dead woman lies naked in an alley. Around her, crime scene detectives are pouring over every inch of her body, snapping dozens of photographs. The coroner has arrived and is making notes on the various wounds around her neck and wrists. Nearby, her shrieking neighbour is being told to stay back by a patrolman. Ignoring questions from bystanders, you stroll over to the body and begin your examination. Cradling the womanâ€™s chin, you tilt her head to the left and note the rope marks on her neck as being deep, probably caused with a great deal of force. Her ring finger on her left hand is severely damaged, as if her wedding ring has been pulled off. A torn library card tells you sheâ€™s
twenty one years old. There’s not much to go on so you head over to inform her husband. He’s distraught, but holds it in for the sake of his two young children. After some questioning, the coroner calls to inform you there’s no visible damage to the vaginal or anal cavities, nor any external signs of semen. Your partner drives you to your next destination as you think over the case. When you arrive, the suspect takes off running. In desperation, he grabs a young woman as a human shield and starts to threaten you with his .38 revolver. After several warnings you fire a single shot, striking him in the forehead and the woman runs off screaming. Your partner pats you on the back as the killer’s body is loaded into an ambulance. The look on your face says it all; I wish none of this had to have happened.
L.A. Noire isn’t a great game. It’s not even a good game. The invariably constrictive game-play constantly fails to unify the player’s experience with the advertised fantasy of being a detective. Evidence, rather than having to be detected by the player, is flagged up by the soundtrack. The interrogation sequences, touted as the game’s strongest feature, are more dependent on trial and error than the player’s own intuition. Essentially, L.A. Noire is a redundant next gen reimagining of the now defunct point and click genre, but regarding tone, it couldn’t be more progressive.
Team Bondi have crafted perhaps the first example of a truly mature computer game, where death and murder have moral implications outside of arbitrary game-play penalties. Although trigger happy players can expect a reduced “star rating” at the end of each case, the real commentary is on the faces of bereaved relatives and the corpses of their loved ones. Each murder has wide felt repercussions. Husbands lose wives, children lose parents, lovers lose lovers and L.A. Noire pulls no punches when it comes to the grisly particulars. This isn’t a game where the player spends hours chugging countless anonymous bots; it’s a game where every corpse has a name and a family, and every gunshot, stab wound and blunt force injury is discussed in meticulous detail. Death carries weight. Whereas GTA players can
gleefully bump off hundreds of cops, criminals and pedestrians without causing any major ripples, when someone dies in L.A. Noire, it’s a big deal. Huge chunks of the game revolve around a single death and you can generally count on cases being solved by an arrest rather than a shootout.
Gore plays a significant role. Lengthy sections of dialogue revolve around the specifics of blood patterns, rope burns and so on, lending gravity to violence virtually unheard of in other 18 rated games. Stabbing a prostitute to death in GTA leaves a limp, but visually unharmed character model lying face down in an alley. L.A. Noire picks up from there and shows you what you’ve done. You’re forced to get unnervingly close to dead bodies and pick over their wounds, noting any specifics that stand out as interesting. A stab wound doesn’t just activate a character’s ragdoll physics; it pierces the ribcage, just above the solar plexus, causing significant internal haemorrhaging.
However, L.A. Noire never indulges in its own grittiness. Gore and violence aren’t played up for kicks, as in other “mature” titles like Manhunt. Violence is consequential but never wallowed in, with characters discussing even the most disturbing murders with a disarmingly offhand frankness. There’s a frequent unwillingness in all of
the characters to discuss violence anymore than their profession demands. Inevitably, this aversion to killing spreads to the player, as more and more they are confronted with the consequences of murder. When L.A. Noire shows you an orphaned daughter, your decision to pull the trigger on a suspect later on becomes far more binary. It’s a game where violence creates more problems, rather than solving every single one. That alone sets L.A. Noire apart from almost everything else on the market.
Action is regularly the focal point of computer games but L.A. Noire constantly plays it down. Most gunfights and car chases occur in optional side missions which appear in the form of distress calls from central dispatch. These are usually botched robberies, muggings or auto thefts and, in far more traditional computer game style, the answer is normally to start plugging away with your .45. However, even during these completely innocuous spurts of action, killing isn’t made simple. Take a look at Cole Phelps’ face when he finishes clearing out a bank full of armed robbers and his expression says it all. He isn’t satisfied or even relieved; he’s disappointed. Phelps will shout “that’s it...that’s all of them” once the player has dropped the last bad guy, taking no pleasure in the violence that has just ensued and instead acknowledging it as a regrettable last resort. Even then, a brief cut-scene plays out, showing the bodies of the criminals being wheeled into a hearse, leaving the player with a niggling feeling in the back of their mind that the entire scenario could have worked out differently. The problem of course is that it couldn’t. L.A. Noire is still a thoroughly rigid game, where the lack of violence is enforced by game-play restrictions rather than from the player’s own sense of morality. More often than not, the player is simply not allowed to use their weapon, so whether or not L.A. Noire’s discussion on the futility of violence actually has a direct influence on the player’s behaviour is difficult to say. If the player were given more choice as to when to resort to their gun, the message would be all the more potent, but, as with every other aspect of L.A. Noire, rigidity prevents players from fully expressing themselves. What is clear is that the game never facilitates violence and never invites the player to think of it as a solution. Each dead body creates problems that need to be solved, and
when Phelps has to put down a criminal with his gun, he does so with visible signs of regret.
It’d be difficult for anybody to look at this game and describe its treatment of violence as immature. The lack of consequence that reactionary parents and journalists find so threatening is almost wholly absent from L.A. Noire, a game where every dead body throws up dozens of problems and grieving relatives. Death is not only consequential but abhorrent, prompting stunted responses from each of the game’s central characters. The game’s repulsion toward violence is best illustrated by a short stem of music that creeps in every time the player is tasked with picking over a murder scene. Bill Elms’ and Woody Jackson’s eerie tones constantly threaten to overwhelm the player with a foreboding sense of delirium, exemplified by the track “Looking for Evidence”, one of the most impressive works of music in recent computer gaming. As in Red Dead Redemption, Elms and Jackson capture the sensations of playing with pitch perfection. Crime scenes sound as sickening as they look. For most of L.A. Noire, there’s a remarkable aural/visual harmony that constantly hits home Bondi’s aversion to violence, but in the final act, this completely breaks apart. Rather than solve the game’s biggest case with the perp behind bars, someone at Team Bondi presumably lost faith in the game’s ability to entertain and threw in a climactic shootout. These final levels could not be more at odds with the rest of L.A .Noire, which until this point has been a plodding, talky drama laced with anti-violence sentiments. To conclude the game with death en masse almost erases all of Team Bondi’s good work in the earlier missions. Frankly, it almost feels like a different game, complete with a substitution of main character.
However, this anomaly aside, L.A. Noire is an outstanding shift in the attitudes towards violence in computer games. Rarely is this a game where killing is the answer, nor is it a game where killing is the crux of the experience. If anything, L.A. Noire is the polar opposite, a game which awards the player for caring about the consequences of murder. More considerate players, who drive carefully to avoid injuring pedestrians and spend time going over crime scenes with precision, determined to punish the killer, are awarded higher scores. Far removed from the original Grand Theft Auto, which threw money at players for flattening pedestrians with a taxi, L.A. Noire awards the player for not killing and for thinking about killing as wrong. Even those whose only relationship with computer games is through the tabloids would struggle to pick fault here.
Death matters in L.A. Noire. Thereâ€™s no glee in seeing it or bringing it, only complications and misery. The pleasures and rewards in this game stem from preventing murder and punishing those who commit it. Rarely is the player invited to enjoy violence and, on the rare occasions they are asked to partake in it, L.A. Noire always pauses for thought afterwards. This isnâ€™t a sanitised family game that avoids dealing with
violence altogether, nor is it a hyperbolic gamification of serious issues; L.A. Noire is a balance, a considerate, thoughtful treatise on the implications of murder that cannot be fully appreciated by a non-adult audience. As a general rule, any game that picks up violence as a theme uses it for careless splatterhouse fun. The only games that don’t treat violence with dumb immaturity are those that don’t include it at all. L.A. Noire is the first game to include murder as a major theme without turning into the object of the game. It’s nowhere near perfect, but L.A. Noire is a genuine revolution, both technologically and tonally. Hopefully, the future will see more developers picking up not only the facial scanning technology, but also the idea that games don’t always need to end with a high body count.
- Ed Smith