Cahiers du Jeux Vidéo is a series of posts comparing the narrative mechanisms of video games and movies with (hopefully) a bit more depth rigour than your average commentator breathlessly comparing Halo preorders to box office receipts. It’s named after foundational French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma , because I’m a pretentious prick.
So: the whole conceit of this series is that we’re comparing video games to movies, and one of the key differences we’ve hit upon between the two so far is that playing a game is an “active” engagement with a piece of media, while watching a film is more “passive”; not a value judgement, but an important distinction. There are plenty of 1:1 comparisons between the roles of game development teams and movie crews, however. Environmental artists are not unlike production designers and location scouts. Those who work on character models are like hair and makeup, the costume department and casting directors rolled into one. Each form uses writers, directors, composers, producers, even actors. But the latter’s work appears mainly in cutscenes where the player cedes control of what’s happening on screen — that’s when games are most like movies. The rest of the time, the player has a part in this ecosystem. I put it to you: when you play a game, you are “performing.” You’re the star of this movie!
I’m not talking necessarily about roleplaying games, either, although those made by Bioware or Bethesda are obviously more literal about asking you to inhabit a persona, and it’s certainly easier to grasp the idea of play-as-performance when you have had a hand in tailor-making your role using an in-depth character creation screen. On the other hand, audience identification in games is a great deal easier when you’ve got a blank slate to project onto, like the perpetually mute Link of Legend of Zelda or Gordon Freeman of Half-Life (in the latter’s case, when every single NPC is falling over themselves to praise your legendary adventures in Black Mesa during the sequel, you can’t help but catch some of the solipsistic glow; you controlled Gordon during that first game, so…they’re praising you, sort of, if you completed it?) Thanks to the restrictions on how you can interact with the world, what you can do and how you “inhabit” that character, you’re sort of penned into certain kinds of performance. Link isn’t allowed to go around murdering people. Gordon Freeman can’t hop back on that train and avoid all this interdimensional chaos. A path has already been decided for you, even as you take control of the protagonist.
With all of that in mind, LA Noire induces a peculiar, accidental kind of Brechtian alienation effect in many players. Team Bondi’s ambitious — perhaps to a fault — interactive detective story ploughed a great deal of its rumoured $50 million budget (which would make it one of the most expensive video games ever made) into 1. Hiring the majority of Mad Men’s supporting cast before the show blew up as one of the crown jewels of prestige TV, and 2. Subjecting those actors to a rigorous motion-capture process. From the moment the game boots up players are deeply entrenched in the uncanny valley, as a frowning Ken Cosgrove interrogates a litany of suspects whose bluffs are as obvious as the shady side-eye dog from the Mel Gibson episode of The Simpsons. Bondi were amongst the first to utilise a process called MotionScan, developed by tech company Depth Analysis, wherein the actors are surrounded by 32 cameras to capture facial expressions from every angle. The result is a highly-detailed human face mugging in a manner which is so unnatural it’s laughable.
In the case of LA Noire, it is not the motion-captured performances I want to dig into. Everyone involved acquits themselves as you’d expect professional actors with cable experience to act, given the quality of the material they have been handed and the unfortunate direction for those interrogation scenes. There is not a great deal of subtlety to the way the guilty interviewees refuse to make eye contact with the player-character, waggle their eyebrows like Roger Moore (RIP), or fidget like a kid in the early twentieth century awaiting the invention of some kind of spinner to settle their restlessness. It’s fun to recognise the Mad Men cast, even if they don’t look quite as they do when boozing around Madison Avenue. Much has been made of ludonarrative dissonance in recent years, but LA Noire has a peculiar case of player/character dissonance. When picking up the game, we are invited to inhabit the character under our control, as has been ever thus from Mario to Link to Gordon Freeman. They act as our avatar within this digital world. So it’s galling, even personally offensive, to discover the character you’ve been charged with bringing to life is an irredeemable fucking asshole.
We have to assume that Cole Phelps was not conceived of, written, designed, performed, to be an irredeemable fucking asshole. It would be quite the radical game which explicitly made the player character so odious, which held the player themselves to account for the way they interacted with the digital world (and radical Spec-Ops: The Line remains). He is supposed to be a hero. We’re supposed to be right there with him, rising through the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department from beat cop through the desks of Traffic, Homicide, Vice and Arson to proper detective man. Published by Rockstar, the game has the apparently-mandatory open world through which you are able to traverse, but to which there is little benefit. There are no side missions, no reason to get up to GTA-style mischief (even a couple of innocent fender-benders, thanks to a vehicle control scheme ported over without tweaking from a game designed to cause as much automotive destruction as possible, can result in a demotion and consequent knocking back of the player’s progress through the game), nothing to see. Just rotating lines of NPC dialogue that’s wholly focussed on the escapades you get up to in the scripted missions, and an apparently spot-on recreation of 1947 Los Angeles.
You are given little choice in playing Phelps in any way other than the one the game wants you to. Whilst the design choices of every game, as mentioned earlier, in some way limit the way you can “perform” your character, there is at least an illusion of some kind of choice. For all that the player is able to stray from the path laid out to them by the developers, LA Noire might as well be an on-rails shooter. There are the customary dialogue options during each conversation, something which is used in the likes of Mass Effect or Kentucky Route Zero to allow you some autonomy over the way the player-protagonist is characterised. In those games, whether there are “morality” systems in place or not, the personality of your character can be affected by your inputs. The dialogue options offer differences in tone, in approach, in the questions and conversational topics you’re willing to pose depending on how you want your character to come across. You perform those characters. LA Noire is just a matter of choosing every option until you win, bruteforcing your way through menus and missions before reaching a conclusion your actions ultimately had very little bearing on.
In his oft-cited review of the game for Killscreen, Kirk Hamilton described how he experienced “what I can only call a paranoid existential videogame freakout” from how tightly-controlled player interaction with — and effect on — the world is.
Any single-player game presents an artificial world that revolves entirely around the player character. Open-world games are no different. But there is an important illusion that open-world games often maintain: that the game world is fully independent and chugs along on its own disinterested momentum. Niko Bellic and John Marston may have been the stars of their respective stories, but the worlds those men occupied didn’t appear to give a whit one way or another.
The flipside of this is that when a player chooses to actively engage with the world, it feels momentous, electric. The world was moving along on its own, but for a moment, I changed it.
Not so with LA Noire. This world exists for one purpose: to observe and—at limited, specific times—to react to Cole Phelps. I started to ask, who are these people around me? Why are they watching me? Why do they await my every action so patiently?
The more I played LA Noire, the less I was able to accept the identity I had been given. My early accomplishments led to a swift promotion from street cop to traffic investigator to homicide detective. I learned the ins and outs of the game’s truth-doubt-lie interrogation system, and I put a half-dozen men in jail. No one questioned my meteoric rise through the force; no one pointed out how strange it was that every time a case needed solving, I found the perfect evidence, almost as though it had been placed there just for me. No one wondered why, regardless of the lines of questioning I chose, I always wound up putting someone away.
Obviously, there is not an option to have Phelps resign from the LAPD (much as everyone would be better off if he did), just as it is near-impossible to play GTA non-lethally. Those games are designed to be played in certain ways. LA Noire goes further, though. It asks you to be Cole Phelps, whilst offering little tangible effect on the character from your controlling him. Without interacting, he wouldn’t move, admittedly; just sit in the passenger’s side of his cruiser, stand in a doorway, whatever.
When we talk about performance in a cinematic context, we’re talking about an artform whose roots are in theatre. Acting on the stage is different from on camera, although there is continuity and similarity between the two. Different actors can essay the same role in different stagings of the same play, and each will bring variations to the part. Lines will be delivered with different emphases, their countenance will change either consciously or not, they will simply look like different people. Yet each is working from the same text, nominally playing the same character. That’s how I view the way different players play the same games, how different people end up sharing the same digital avatars at different times. Each will likely go through the same set of levels, missions, whatever trials necessary to reach the endgame. Each will often come up with similar solutions to those trials. But their approaches will vary, however minutely. Their performance as Link, or Gordon Freeman, or Commander Shepard, or Conway, will be different, even though they’re all working from the same pre-programmed “script.”
LA Noire is lousy with honest-to-goodness Hollywood actors, captured in all their high-polygon glory, but very little in the way of performance. Performance in games happens on the hands of the player, in unison with the developer, quite apart from the “performances” of any actors, voice or motion captured or otherwise. Because of the direct, rather than passive, interaction with a game, players are simultaneously the principal star and the audience (although livestreaming services like Twitch perhaps complicate that reading) of these stories, where the separation is far clearer on film. Many narrative games — especially interactive fiction — are criticised for being more like movies, for not being “interactive” enough, but LA Noire to me is the most damning example of this.
Let’s loop back around to an earlier point: Cole Phelps is an irredeemable fucking asshole. Even discounting any existing opinions you have about the police before coming to the game, or any of the narrative twists and turns which come later on in the game (he is eventually fired from the force for an extramarital affair, and you control a completely different, but no less objectionable, former army buddy of his for the remainder of the story), he’s just such a drip. An absolute melt. From the very off, he’s so by-the-book and po-faced that you think that such personality vacuums absolutely cannot exist in real life. And indeed they don’t — although some people I’ve worked with in crappy office jobs came close — because Phelps is simultaneously supposed to be a cipher for the player, and a heavily-scripted in-game character who utilises extensive and expensive motion capture work by actor Aaron Staton, and those two things are diametrically opposed to each other, and it simply doesn’t work.
There are actors who have had awful times on film sets, with antagonistic relationships with their directors, who have nonetheless delivered fantastic performances. Bjork’s star turn in Lars von Trier’s characteristically-devastating musical Dancer in the Dark is superb, although by all accounts director and actor absolutely despised each other. The audience still benefited. By that metric, the same push-pull relationship here is between the player and the game (and the people who made it). The problem is that, while von Trier and Bjork walked away with sour feelings towards each other, the end result was great. When the audience and the performer are one and the same, as is the case in video games, nobody’s happy. We have to sit there, controller in hand, believing that we’re in control of Cole Phelps but unable to stop him from acting like he has the proverbial joystick up his arse. The character is clearly modelled on the emotionally distant and rule-abiding character played by Guy Pearce in LA Confidential, except he lacks the benefit of being written by Curtis Hanson, Brian Helgeland, and James Ellroy, and so comes off as nothing more than an irritating square. Who wants to play that?
Not enough people, apparently, since Team Bondi went under shortly following LA Noire’s release. I don’t have any kind of inside scoop to suggest a commercial failure, or any way of proving a causal link between that and how restrictive its capacity for player performance was; the game sold well, and reviewed well, and it might have simply been the huge budget and consequent failure to put together another project (itself perhaps not helped by accusations of poor working conditions from embattled Bondi employees) that sunk the Australian developer. It was a noble experiment, one which shot for the stars, but it’s not Heaven’s Gate, not Ishtar, an expensive box office failure whose reputation as an unqualified failure is nonetheless unfair. Cole Phelps is an awful player-character, and LA Noire is an awful game, and to my mind a great deal of that is down to how much player-performance autonomy is absent.
The first post in this series, on Mafia III (a game with extensive motion capture performances and scripted cut scenes with a black protagonist in a period setting which did not alienate me, a scrawny English white boy, the way controlling Phelps did), was largely positive in exploring its relationship to cinematic editing. As we reach the end of this largely critical analysis of LA Noire hampering player performance whilst being stuffed to the gills with motion-captured performances from professional actors, can I suggest games where that is not the case? What are the games which offer good examples of the player-as-actor, where your performance in a digital set is essential? Honestly, it’s basically anything but this.