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.