Taylor C. Hadden — Game Designer

Archives for September, 2012

Caring About Your Character — What L.A. Noire did Wrong

I don’t finish most of the games that I play. I play a lot of games, and the vast majority don’t hold my interest for the time it takes to pull through to the end. So, when I actually do finish a game, it’s generally been a testament to how much I enjoyed it. However, L.A. Noire was not one of those games. In fact, I found myself trudging through the game with the distinct goal of making the whole thing go away.

While I played through L.A. Noire, I found that I quite enjoyed the process of searching around a crime scene, examining evidence, and slowly discovering the connections between clues and my suspects. And, while the interrogation options sometimes felt a little ambiguous, they easily made me feel as though I were playing out a detective show. The mechanics worked; it was Cole that was the problem.

Detective Cole Phelps first comes across as a by-the-book, stiff-backed, upstanding war veteran who is trying to bring justice to what he discovers to be a rather slimy city. He responds to cops with questionable morals and dirty men that slip by the system with slight indignation and annoyance, but he never does anything about it. What he does, and thus what the player does, is exactly by the book.

And yet, there’s a disconnect. Cole does exhibit passion, but at very odd times. Yelling at suspects that the player has already surmised to be innocent for example. He accuses obviously hapless witnesses of horrid crimes and then turns around and tries to comfort them in the same conversation.

The disjointedness of Cole’s interactions with other characters continues through to the entire plot, if you can call it that. The game is structured like a standard cop show, and like a cop show, individual “episodes” (cases) are distributed through various “seasons” (desks), and while those seasons may have individual story arcs, nothing really travels through to the next section of the game. The end of the Homicide desk is actually a lot of fun, and ends on a rather intense note. But then Cole is transferred to Vice to be partnered with a cop we already didn’t like, and the energy is completely sucked out of the game to start once again at zero.

To make matters worse, Cole dramatically fails to grow as a character throughout this rather arduous ordeal. The one moment weakness (and if you haven’t played the game by now, no you don’t get to chastise me for spoilers), when he suddenly decides that he doesn’t love his wife (who we’ve never met) and instead starts an affair with a singer (who was only briefly featured beforehand). My reaction to that whole thing was: “Wait, what? Why?” In all instances of cops practicing infidelity, Cole would scold them. He appeared to hold honor to the highest regard. In fact it was the only defining aspect of his character, and his sudden and seemingly random betrayal of what the player was told were his core principals totally ruin any limited connection felt with Cole up to that point.

The truly unfortunate part of the game is that as soon as Cole steps out, and his former squad mate, Jack Kelso, steps into the main roll for the last few hours of the game. Instead of stiff-backed, “morally superior” and randomly shouting Cole, Kelso’s stint as detective actually has an arc that feels believable. He uncovers a plot to defraud war vets, digs into it, gets attacked, fights back, and all the while he’s getting more and more frustrated and angry with the characters that he’s finding. His moral outrage feel real, where Cole’s felt hollow.

Though Kelso only had a fraction of the screen time that Cole did, he was far more relatable, and I care about him more. I cared because the way he reacted to the situations and characters he encountered felt real, and felt like they came from real emotions and motivations. The character and writing of Cole Phelps utterly failed to grasp that.