"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]

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