I’m interrogating a murder suspect. It’s going well, and I’m about to get a confession as I press the man (who looks suspiciously like Greg Grunberg) about his alibi. He claims he was at home the night his wife was murdered. I have three options: Trust, Doubt, and Lie.
I check my notes. I know he’s lying, because I have evidence — a testimony from his grade-school daughter saying he didn’t pick up when she called. I press Δ to call him out on his lie, then X to charge him with murder. Case closed.
This is one of many interrogation scenes from LA Noire, a new videogame from Rockstar Games. But unlike the studio’s most famous titles in the Grand Theft Auto series, in this game you commit fewer crimes (by which I mean none). Even taking cars and shooting bad guys is kept to a minimum (although there is some). Instead, you do a lot of talking.
Sure, as Detective Cole Phelps you’ll comb crime scenes for clues and explore 1940s Los Angeles, but LA Noire’s most intriguing feature is chatting up witnesses and suspects. Unlike dialogue systems in other games, LA Noire is less about giving the right response and more about interpreting what’s being said. You decide if characters are to be trusted, doubted, or called out on a lie, based on the evidence you’ve collected and the way they react. When characters lie, they usually have a tell, like a nervous twitch or a refusal to make eye contact. LA Noire makes you feel like you’re talking to real people, thanks to the well-written dialogue, great voice acting, and a new technology developed for the game called MotionScan that captures the intricacies of the actors’ facial expressions.
But LA Noire has its flaws. The interrogations can become difficult and unpredictable, and while I enjoyed most of the dialogue (and recognizing the faces of many faces of Mad Men cast members throughout the game), I sometimes felt like I was blindly choosing between Trust, Doubt, and Lie. The game lets you accumulate Intuition Points, which can be used to eliminate dialogue options and even grants an Ask the Audience-type hint that tells you what choices other players made, but it feels less like an aid and more like an admission to the game’s shortcomings.
So why are LA Noire‘s interrogations still so compelling?
Dialogue mechanics have suffered from the same frustrations since the early days of adventure gaming, and no matter how much sophistication or depth LA Noire adds to the experience, when conversations can be won, it’s simply about saying the right thing at the right time.
I have a lot of nostalgic fondness for the adventure games that inspired LA Noire, but they haven’t aged gracefully. Last year, I played partway through an updated version of The Secret of Monkey Island, a pun-filled classic released in 1990. I often found it irritating, the greatest offender being one of the game’s most famous puzzles, insult swordfighting — a funny but ultimately broken game mechanic where you engage other pirates in a dialogue-based duel of wits/corny one-liners. (Fun fact: all of The Secret of Monkey Island’s insults were penned by sci-fi author Orson Scott Card.) Basically, it’s about picking the right comeback; unfortunately, the only way to learn the correct responses to a line like “You fight like a diary farmer” is to hear the right answer first: “How appropriate. You fight like a cow.”
You’re forced to fail a great deal of sword fights until you’ve accumulated all the right answers. This sort of senseless trial and error impresses a linearity that threatens to break the entire experience of playing. Games are, after all, about the meaningful interactions that give players a sense of agency.
And yet interactive dialogue has yet to evolve past that sort of linearity. In LA Noire, you can pick a wrong answer (the game lets you know when you do), but they don’t have any real effect on your ability to solve a case. The only consequence is a little more running around to find extra clues and a lower detective ranking at the case summary screen.
Even in games where dialogue choices affect the “morality” of your character, the repercussions are none. In the sci-fi RPG Mass Effect 2, your character is presented with ethical dilemmas that put you on the path to becoming a “Paragon” or “Renegade,” but as Jonathan previously pointed out, it’s a meaningless choice. The dialogue in Mass Effect 2 is easy. Being nice makes you a Paragon; being an asshole makes you a Renegade. These options are even highlighted in separate colors, in case it’s not already obvious enough.
But the truth is that in any game with moral dialogue choices, I choose the “good” option. In Mass Effect 2, I always picked the Paragon lines. In Fallout, I had good karma. In every Star Wars game, I choose to be a Jedi over a Sith Lord. And perhaps this is the reason I’m personally willing to overlook LA Noire’s weaknesses. I’d like to think that in every situation, I can make a good decision — to say the right thing.
I’m having a long phone conversation with my girlfriend about our relationship. It’s going as well as these kinds of things can go, which is to say not very. She says something, and I have no idea how to respond.
I take a step back and consider my options. What are the consequences of what I might say? Even though LA Noire and Mass Effect 2 try to emulate real-life dialogue, this conversation reminds me a lot more of insult swordfighting. I try to conjure up the right response, only to realize that maybe I haven’t learned what that is yet. Maybe there isn’t one. I can’t think of anything to say, so I go silent. My girlfriend asks me if I’m still there, and I make a grunting sound, like I’m thinking really hard about it. But the truth is that the only thing worse than saying the wrong thing is to say nothing at all. How appropriate. I fight like a cow.