So the Palette Swaps Crew united on Saturday afternoon to celebrate our mutual love of video games (especially video games with stories) and fancy-shmancy cocktails. We also recorded it, which was pretty awesome. One of our viewers described us as “like L.A. Noire with less-funny Riff Trax”. Thanks!
We played this game for about three hours, and you can watch our playthrough on my justin.tv page or, hopefully, my YouTube. Of course, the game isn’t meant to be played by five people in various stages of drunkenness as an Internet-broadcasted spectacle. But we did, so don’t get all huffy if I end up hating on your Game Of The Year 2011. Because I’m just going to ignore it.
Anyway, I was hyped for L.A. Noire. So hyped that I performed an act of Inception upon Nate to buy it so we could do a Palette Swaps Let’s Play of the first three hours. After all, it’s a crime drama set in 1940s L.A.–pretty much the exact opposite of any standard video game setting you could ever think of. What’s more, I loved Phoenix Wright, and my girlfriend loves all sorts of crime shows, so I figured L.A. Noire had potential for a Couples’ Game (the last one was don’t take it personally, babe).
Much to my dismay, I think I’ll like L.A. Noire, and I’ll probably try to get The Lady to play it with me, but there are a few things keeping it strictly in the “play this when it comes on GameFly some time in the next year or so” rather than the “buy this now” group.
The game basically plays like a Grand Theft Auto mission pack with some basic Phoenix Wright scenes grafted on to it. That is to say, you start out with a car, and you drive it (poorly) around L.A. looking for crimes to solve. The game is organized into major storyline cases and more-or-less random, optional, seemingly insignificant crimes that serve to give you extra experience points (which can come into play during the investigation and interrogating phases) and build the world. So while you’re off investigating a suspicious hit-and-run, you can stop halfway in-between to shoot up a bunch of Mexican guys with guns, or stop a bank robber, or chase a crazy guy, or what have you. Many of these missions boil down to “chase the guy through town for five minutes, then get to the point in the mission where you’re allowed to shoot him”. Wrap that up, get your props from the commissioner, and move on to the next Real Case, where you look for evidence, talk to a witness, and try to resolve the case satisfactorily.
I’m going to avoid rehashing the central game mechanics–you can watch our video, or anyone else’s video, to see what L.A. Noire looks and plays like. Most of the game feels like an unremarkable GTA mod–very pretty to look at, and splendid for the game’s atmosphere. What I’m hung up on is how L.A. Noire tries to avoid The Phoenix Wright Problem, and ends up feeling like less of a Video Game as a result.
The Phoenix Wright Problem: Each segment of each case is written out a certain way. The gameplay consists of figuring out how each segment is supposed to be played (“Hey, I know this lady is lying about _____, this is the segment where I prove it by showing her this evidence!”), and playing it. When you do it right, you feel like an Ace Attorney. When you do it less-than-right, you feel like you’re stuck in a fucking terrible Choose Your Own Adventure novel that was never properly play-tested, leaving you in an awful infinite loop of disappointing endings. Basically, if you’re bad at Phoenix Wright, it’s an incredibly frustrating experience because you don’t really think it’s your fault that you aren’t thinking the way the writers are. I adore Phoenix Wright to death, but the problem is that it’s really a game of figuring out how the writers think, not how to prove your client’s innocence.
So you play through the game trying to figure out each case, and when a particular part is difficult, you end up brute-forcing the game to continue (or look at a FAQ). If you’re stuck on an evidence-gathering mission, you click on everything. If you’re stuck in a conversation or cross-examination, you just try every possible option, saving and reloading as necessary, until you get the answer, and it’s fucking terrible.
L.A. Noire has similar game phases–you wander around crime scenes looking at evidence, then you talk to someone. Depending on whether you have the right evidence (to catch your suspect/witness/person of interest in a lie) and/or the right intuition about whether they’re telling the truth or lying, you’ll be able to solve a case to a varying degree of accuracy. In fact, after each case, you’ll see a scoring screen rating you on various aspects of your performance (property damage, questions successfully answered, etc.) which will also give you a suggestion for how you could have solved the case better–maybe you got the murderous business partner, but not the conniving lover who was also involved.
The Phoenix Wright problem is that you can’t advance unless you Do The Right Thing. L.A. Noire circumvents that by letting you solve cases well or poorly based on how you’re playing the game. I imagine that this game dynamic can be used for all kinds of cool stuff–drastically branching storylines, for example. However, since you get instant feedback on most of your game actions (like how many questions you’ve successfully answered), you know exactly what you fucked up–which often feels just like you misread the writer’s intent, similar to Phoenix Wright) so you want to save, reload, and do it again The Right Way. I bet most people probably do this, except I think L.A. Noire makes you reload from the beginning of the case. If that is how it works (I don’t know), then props to the devs for trying to punish the natural Perfectionist Gamer approach (saving and reloading ad nauseum) but I don’t think it’ll stop people from doing it.
We wanted to avoid this during our playthrough, so we didn’t allow ourselves to save and reload at all. In some ways, this made for a more emotionally engaging game experience. We felt the elation at an almost-perfectly solved case, and (more often) the disappointment of a Job Less Than Well Done. Which, if you think about it, is something you probably don’t experience all that often in a real-world job–how many people who are shitty at their jobs actually know this about themselves? How many people who suck actually get that kind of instant feedback about it? But since this is a video game, most people will probably just do what it takes to get one perfect playthrough instead of playing through it multiple times with varying degrees of success and satisfaction–which means that despite a different approach to the Phoenix Wright Problem, you end up with a similar outcome overall.
I would have loved to play a version of L.A. Noire with no saving, just loading based on when you quit the game last. Instead of going through the dialogue one question at a time, let the player fully explore each topic tree before they’re forced to commit to a Truth/Doubt/Lie play (like Phoenix Wright does). Do that while leaving in the Intuition gimmick (complete with the Eliminate One/Audience Poll “lifelines” ripped from Who Wants To Be A Millionaire currently available in L.A. Noire), and I think I’d have liked it more.