"This Is Essentially Night Trap, This Game."

"This Is Essentially Night Trap, This Game."

Is L.A. Noire—despite its running, gunning and vehicular cruising—essentially an elaboration on the point-and-click adventure game? Some critics and commenators have suggested that the title has more in common with Monkey Island than Grand Theft Auto IV, with the crucial difference being that L.A. Noire (unlike the adventure games of yesteryear) allows you to advance despite having made blunders.

On the most recent installment of Michael Abbott’s Brainy Gamer Podcast, guest Tom Bissell—author of Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter —suggests L.A. Noire may not even be a game at all, in the conventional sense.

At around the 24:00 mark, Bissell begins:

I see the story as a train—you’re on a train, and this train’s on a track. And there’s very little you can do. You can occasionally throw a switch that maybe shifts like, one track over; but you’re going to the same place. You can make tiny micro-adjustments to the story, and that’s really all they’re giving you. We don’t think that this is a video game. It’s probably not a video game in the terms that we’re thinking of it. In fact, 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand is by any common definition a better game than L.A. Noire. Is it anywhere as interesting as L.A. Noire? Is it anywhere near as thought-provoking or…did it stick in my head the way that L.A. Noire did? No.

I’m thinking that player agency is so far outside the parameters of what this game wants to do. This game is actually trying to tell a cinematic story within unbudgeable parameters, that you kind of have a weird amount of freedom to explore, but you have very little freedom to determine. Freedom and choice we think as gamers are the same thing. But they’re not. They’re very different.

…This game is actually sneaking in under the orthodoxies of game design something that’s rather more old-fashioned…one of these interactive films they made in the 1990s. This is essentially Night Trap, this game. And because it’s got a lot of production value, and terrific performances, and a lot of interesting things happening in it, I think this has revived the tradition that Night Trap very briefly exemplified. And it’s actually gone back to something that we all abandoned. That all game designers looked at and shrunk from in horror because it was so horrible the first time out…It’s gone back to that and said, you know what, there’s actually interesting things to do here. My belief is that this game is a completely new thing, that we don’t even have the name for yet.

I’d walked away from Rockstar’s last major release with an uncomfortable sense of irresolution. If Red Dead Redemption‘s John Marston was such a chivalrous, decent sort of guy—calling rancher Bonnie McFarlane “ma’am” and positively dripping with graciousness—how could I then command him to shoot innocent civilians, or slaughter his own horse? The game seemed to struggle with reconciling my agency as a player with Marston’s integrity as a character.

L.A. Noire came along as a sort of reply to my Red Dead misgivings—it privileged Cole Phelps’s claims as a predefined character over mine as the player operating him. But Bissell’s words make me wonder: when the character is more important than the player, is what we have still really a video game?

Brainy Gamer Podcast – Episode 34 [The Brainy Gamer]


  • I’m so tired of people obssessing over pigeon holing games into one category. If you want to consider L.A Noire a game-movie hybrid then I ask you this. Is that really an awful thing? There’s reasons we enjoy films.

    If every developer obsessed over having their game the epitome of interactivity, the industry would suffer. Just because games are capable of a higher level of audience control, it doesn’t mean they have to sacrifice everything else in order to achieve it.

    People seem to be oblivious to the disadvantages involved in designing a non-linear game. Do you think its a coincidence that some of the greatest non-linear stories have the tendency to make their most pivotal scenes unavoidable regardless of the player’s choices up to that point? Do you realise that designers would be able to do so much more with tuning boss battles if they know exactly what abilities the player will have access to?

    I don’t have anything against non-linearity but I do resent the extremely popular opinion that linearity only comes from poor designers. Linear vs non-linear should really be similar to the real-time vs turn-based debate. They each have their pros and cons and if we were to completely lose one the only result would be a decline of variety.

    • It doesn’t sound like Bissell’s trying to pigeonhole at all. It sounds like he’s expressing an interesting point of view about LA Noire’s innovation and the way it has managed to very subtly borrow from other oft-ignored eras of design.

  • Having only played a few hours so far of LA Noire, I agree with the major misgiving that many seem to share- even if I really butcher the interrogation, I somehow sneak in with a 3-star rating. If I miss a clue, it obviously hurts the questioning, by having to accuse without the relevent evidence. But it does seem rather tiresome reflexively clicking on every little bottle and cig packet after a buzz of the DualShock.

    As it is, it seems the only way to fail, is to die in a shootout or lose the suspect in a chase. I kinda wanted more of an asskicking if I poison a case with bad detective work. Perhaps thats the masochistic Catholic in me, needing an imbalanced Irishman to shout at me to get anything done. I guess I was expecting a little more sandbox to muddy the waters. So far it seems a little too formulaic: Call out to murder scene. Banter with partner. Crouch suggestively over naked corpse. Respond to vibrations for clues. Interrogate. Rinse & Repeat.

    Please tell me it gets more interesting. I havent really engaged with Phelps-he seems like a bit of a dick so far- as much as other characters, eg Marston. Perhaps I am not investing enough in the protagonist to care. At least he is not Niko, I suppose.

    Also, I agree about the linear/non-linear and game/movie debate. Even non-linear stories have to be driven by a central thread, funnelling our characters at bottlenecks throughout the story arc. Heavy Rain was a wonderful experience, but surely most ppl have not completed all the 20 different permutations for Platinum Trophy/100%. And again, there was a lot more purchase in EACH of the Heavy Rain characters. You couldnt help but get sucked into it. I just havent gotten that same feeling with Noire yet.

  • What is wrong with playing a character instead of a avatar?

    In L.A Noir your Cole Phelps not you and thus you must play/behave as the character of Cole would.

    On the other hand a game such as Fable or any MMORPG you play as a representation of yourself and are free to craft and meld that character into your own image.

  • I don’t really care to think about the game design/ mechanics as deeply as this.

    I just enjoyed a game that had some challenge but not 64 different endings because of a choice 24 cases ago. It has AN ending, and I get to it while having fun solving some pretty cool crimes. That’s really it.

  • LA Noire is really just a tech demo for the whole face capture thing. The next GTA will use it beautifully.

  • I guess Halo Reach is essentially just doom, and LA Noire is essentially just Zork with graphics added.
    It doesn’t really matter as far as the game itself goes, or if it is enjoyable etc. Asking if it is even a game is silly, people play it, enjoy it, interact with it, it is a game.

    I personally welcome the return of the ‘Adventure Game’ , I think it is an under-represented part of the Genre. Go back and play Bladerunner and it is a lot of fun. Books and movies are great as you get a well crafted, satisfying and intriguing story with a great, powerful ending. There is no reason that there shouldn’t be games that also do this. It would be wonderful if the story could truly go 24 different ways, with 24 great storylines and endings, all of which would be deep and enjoyable, but that is a massive ask.

    There has been a hole in the market for these kind of games for a while. In the past we had The 7th Guest, The Lucasart adventures, Myst, even things like Carmen Sandiego, all of which had a different take on the ‘explore the world along a strong narrative line’ kind of game. They can be wonderfully immersive and enjoyable, and a bit of a nice break from open world or FPS games. (Which I also love). I’d still love Rockstar to make an adventure that kids can play.

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