Fiction is a Three-Edged Sword

Fiction, interactive fiction and narrative

LA Noire: Just One Doubt


I’m in the early stages of playing LA Noire, the new Rockstar game that takes their open-world approach and balances on top of it a tight, linear story-game about finding evidence and questioning suspects. It has the highest high-tech facial animation ever seen in real-time and makes this into a core mechanic: watching the character talking, the player is asked are they telling the truth or are they lying?

It’s a great idea for a game; the animation technology is actually up to the job; and the writing, art-direction, music all support the world to make the various suspect believable. So what a shame that the game design itself then comes and stomps on it all to turn a great game into an okay one.

Let’s be clear up-front. It is a good game, one of the best to come along for a long while. It’s got a nice collection of in-keeping core mechanics and it spreads them around with variety.

It leverages its open-world for flavour and atmosphere but without the slavishness of other sprawling games, that often force the player backwards and forwards across a map in real-time simply because it’s there. The 1940s LA grounds the game’s events (and reminded me a little, in a warm way, of Irene Callici’s excellent Dangerous Curves which you can play online, and is great).

The writing’s good, the acting’s good, the world-building is good.

In a way, LA Noire is a kind of sibling-work to last year’s Heavy Rain; it’s a similar genre, it’s similarly interested in character and story-telling, but where Rain was a story with game-like elements layered on top, LA Noire is the other way around. Anyone who’s played a GTA game will recognise the mixture of options – a little driving, a little shooting, a little running around – as well as the mission structure.

To that mix is adding investigating – which means wandering around a set searching for UI hotspots to interact with, much as in Rain – and conversation. But unlike a game like Mass Effect where conversation is a pacing and exposition device, or Oblivion, which simulated conversations via abstract minigames, LA Noire makes actualy conversation into a clear, solid, repeatable mechanic.

The protagonist is a policeman and he interviews suspects. During these interviews, the suspects make statements and the player is asked, based on what they’ve seen while investigating, and on the facial expressions of the character in front of them, to decide if that character is telling the truth or if they’re lying.

If they’re lying, the player must then back up that assertion with some fact or piece of evidence they’ve collected during the case.

The choices are neatly mapped onto the same buttons every time, so the player can get comfy with what does what, and so doesn’t need to read any conversation options. Conversation can flow more naturally. Players can even be asked to complete interrogations under pressure, such as persuading a non-distraught banker to jump.

And the evidence angle turns it into a crisp, tidy, collect-and-use mechanic. It encourages and rewards exploration, and allows for a little bit of creative thinking. Sometimes, you find yourself actually doing some deduction, which is simply remarkable. It’s even an obvious mechanic: it doesn’t require much tutorial, and it’s one I’ve heard people suggest in the IF community for years now (though I can’t quite think of any game that did it, exactly).

Except then they go and mess it all up. Because the player isn’t asked to decide “Truth or Lie?” They’re given three options. Truth, Lie, or Doubt. And as players, we know pretty quickly that this is a sticky point, because the tutorials don’t even explain what Doubt is for.

Is it emotional? Does it mean, I’m not going to be nice to you, but I’m also not going to shout at you? Is it strategic, designed to encourage the NPC to dig themselves further into an incriminating hole? Is it a play-it-safe card for players who are quite sure? Perhaps there’s a hidden 3-doubts and your out rule?

In the end, it’s none of these things (except occasionally when, by a designer’s whim, it is).  Most of the time doubt means I don’t believe you but I don’t have the evidence to prove it.

This is bad in two ways. Firstly, that’s not doubt. There’s nothing doubtful about that. That is foiled. It’s, I’ll get you next time. It’s I’m absolutely certain but my hands are tied by the rules of the game.

Secondly, and more importantly, it’s completely different than the other two choices.

The designers want us to look at the characters and read their faces. They want us to form opinions about them as people. That means they want us to be thinking emotionally. But then, at the same time, they want us to consider our evidence and make a rational, key-and-lock decision based on the facts, because if I don’t have the evidence, Lie is the wrong choice even if it’s right. (And it really is; the game will fail you the question, and possibly the case, if you declaim someone as lying when you can’t prove it).

I’m a computer-game player and the last thing I want to do is make a mistake, so guess which of these two directions wins out? Left brain or right brain? Empath, or puzzle-solver? If I play reactively, emotionally, then I make mistakes, so instead I turn off my empathy for the characters, stop listening to the actors, and start hunting through my notebook like it was a conversation tree to find the right thing to say. (Which, unlike the sword-fights in Monkey Island, won’t even make me laugh.)

(I can see why they thought a three-way choice would be more interesting than a binary one. That’s good design: rule of 3, right? But the only alternative to Truth or Lie is an I don’t know option, which no player will ever pick because unlike the other two it’s definitely wrong.)

So instead, let’s make that first choice clear, and binary, and emotive. And then after that choice – Truth or Lie! – let’s have the second choice: what evidence to present to back up the accusation. And if the player doesn’t have any evidence – because they’ve failed to find it, or because it’s a minor detail that’s not that important anyway – that’s when the player clicks the No Evidence option that’s so flagrantly not there in the game I’m playing.

The final result is the same decisions about the same content, except that I get to repeatedly make a purely emotional choice and punch the Lie! button when I feel it, even if I have to backpedal one screen later, instead of having to watch the suspect’s face, read my notebook of clues, make a decision, and then read my notebook again when the time comes to present evidence.

And that’s it. More later, maybe, if the long flow proves interesting. If not, it’s still worth a spin because it works pretty well, and better than you might expect.


Author: joningold

Jon Ingold is a writer and games designer from Cambridge, UK. He is co-founder of inkle, a company specialising in interactive narrative for mobile devices. He has written prose, plays, short films as well as interactive fiction, both in hypertext and parser-based systems. His short stories have appeared in Interzone magazine and his IF works have won competitions and awards.

8 thoughts on “LA Noire: Just One Doubt

  1. I can see how convincing a distraught banker not to jump would be time pressured, but how is convincing a non-distraught banker to jump something that inherently involve time pressure?

  2. The way I’ve been playing is to try whenever possible to stick to the evidence, but, like any good gumshoe, to listen to my gut when the character seems shifty about something I otherwise have no reason to doubt.

    “[i]f I don’t have the evidence, Lie is the wrong choice even if it’s right.”

    I think the key thing to remember is that you’re not answering a quiz set by the game, but choosing how you react to the characters. Actually coming out and accusing someone of lying is a big step, and if you can’t back it up, people – *especially* those who really are lying – will throw it back in your face.

    And the way I see it, the three options do present a nice continuum – not of how well you understand the case, but how accusatory you want to be towards the character (truth to get them to tell you more of the same; doubt to force them to defend their statement; lie to prove their statement incorrect).

    • It’s the “choosing how you react” that I feel I can’t do as fluidly as I’d like: I want to express myself quickly and clearly, and then “fill in” the detail of the evidence, rather than having to do it all in one big, cumbersome turn.

      And confusingly, the way you’ve described doubt in the continuum – which I like as a description – does make it sound more like a kind of “truth” rather than a subset of “lie”: “defend that,” rather than “pull the other one!” The doubt concept covers both, I guess, but it’s yet another usage of it.

      Because the fact is, I am answering a quiz set by the game, and I’m also choosing how Cole reacts. All at the same time. With the truth option, the two are in synch so you don’t notice, but with the lie option there’s a clear two-stage process. And I think doubt would play better slotted into two steps and not one.

  3. I love the game, but I agree that the interrogation mechanism isn’t perfect. The most confusing aspect is that sometimes you don’t know which lie you should prove wrong.

    To make up an example, the suspect might say “I didn’t even know the victim.” You have something to prove him wrong, but when you choose the “lie” option the PC continues “That’s a lie! I know you visited him the night of the murder!” If I have proof of the visit too, which one should I present? There are two lies and I can only use one piece of evidence, and the game doesn’t make it clear which one it expects me to prove wrong.

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  5. I’ve played LA Noire and I think it’s a game of the year candidate. Like Heavy Rain, there is a deep story, maybe not as deep but farther than most console games of any year. It’s still the exception not the rule to delve past the superficial cut scenes and framing narrative that provides little more to the player than character descriptions and setting the locale. My thoughts on the interrogations are that you’re right, the player should not be going back and forth to their notebook like they are checking the achievement list. But isn’t that the point of the game? It seems to me that the developers are trying to get us to immerse ourselves in the story and become Cole Phelps. To have us use our instincts like any gumshoe and lock those clues away in our photographic memory so that just like on CSI or Law and Order, the minute the crook slips you recognize it and pounce in to take them down. And maybe the notebook is there as a aid for those whose photographic memories are not as good as they used to be.

    I found myself by the end of the game becoming more observant of the surroundings, noticing clues not as an item to check off but something that just seemed out of place in the scene. And maybe that was a goal of the developer as well. If we didn’t start out naturally with detective instincts that we would develop over the course of the game, like a rookie cop in training. I grew up as an LAPD officer almost as Cole did. Learning to trust my instincts and listen to what the clues were telling me. I immersed myself into this game just as much as I did Alan Wake (another story driven thriller) and in both more than any game I’ve ever played. Which is saying a lot since I’ve been playing games for most of my 42 years.

    In the end, I felt as though I’d gone through something with Cole. And maybe above all, that was the goal too…


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