Over at Grantland.com, Tom Bissell recently put up an interesting review of L.A. Noire that is worth checking out; you can do so here. He also brings up some interesting ideas that I want to talk about regarding the experience of games, specifically the notion of “buying in” to a game’s structure, narrative, and central conceits. I encourage you to read the article, but it’s pretty lengthy, so I’m going to touch on the most important points that he brings up on the topic.
His introduction to the topic is here:
The story of L.A. Noire concerns a psychopathic cop named Cole Phelps, a man who inappropriately commandeers cars from civilians, steals outright any car that is left unattended, frequently destroys private property, and enjoys running over civilians. Despite his recklessness, Phelps becomes the most speedily promoted police officer in constabulary history.
At least, that is what L.A. Noire’s story can be about, if the player allows it, which nicely nutshells the problem of open-world games that give players a large amount of behavioral freedom while simultaneously trying to tell a coherent, linear story.
Video games can do a lot of things other storytelling mediums cannot. Their penance, however, is to have to deal with things foreign to other storytelling mediums, one of which is a uniquely damaging form of audience disruption. Just about every storytelling game employs various masking systems that attempt to anticipate internally disruptive player behavior.
At first blush, L.A. Noire would have you believe that Phelps is not an antihero. He is a cop and a war hero — an all-around “good man.” How good? Phelps cannot shoot his gun out in the open, which is probably the most significant safeguard the game’s creators have placed on players determined to let Phelps go psycho. It is not much of a safeguard. But there is something admirable about how little L.A. Noire’s makers appear to have worried about asshole players. A lot of games go to such lengths to anticipate asshole players that they sometimes feel like a pool that has been preemptively overchlorinated to frustrate the one kid determined to pee in it. Well-conceived masking systems can be things of real beauty, but they also squander precious development time that could be spent on other things, such as making more interesting games.
I eventually restarted the game once I had fooled around enough, but while playing through the rest of L.A. Noire the following question was never far from my mind: How big of a problem is it that players can effectively screw up video-game stories? It is a question that is never far from my mind when I am playing any game whose fiction works in tandem with my decisions to create something thematically unified and dramatically satisfying. So, how big of a problem is it? One answer to this question is: There is no answer to this question. Another answer is: Strong interactive fiction will compel players to behave in ways roughly analogous to how the interactive fiction’s author intends them to behave. Another answer is: The whole purpose of interactive fiction is to encourage this type of crisis. Another answer is: This is precisely why the video-game medium is incompatible with authored forms of storytelling. In the past few years, I have thought about this question a lot — maybe more than any other question, in fact. None of the above answers satisfies me.
Bissell identifies the difficulties that come with trying to tell a coherent, linear story inside a video game with player freedom, pointing specifically to L.A. Noire, where the player’s desires to run folks over with a vintage car might hijack the narrative. This is an interesting point. Cole, as the narrative presents him, would not go on a murderous vehicular rampage, but the player, when he or she has control of Cole’s behavior, can choose to do things that Cole would not do, generating inconsistencies and, Bissell thinks, harming the experience.
Is this an actual problem? Bissell’s ultimate conclusion is that player freedom makes a traditional narrative an impossible choice for good video game art; narrative consistency is too vital to the enterprise of traditional narratives, he seems to argue. But I wonder if Bissell is underselling the ability of players to smooth over such hiccups on their own.
Dungeon Masters have been dealing with this problem since the beginning of role-playing games. Most everybody who has run a game has encountered at least one trouble maker who follows his or her whims instead of contributing to the groups experience. Their Phelps might be a wanton murderer of pedestrians, just as their sorcerer is likely to burn orphanages and steal the magistrate’s hat. And as any DM will tell you, if you’re trying to run a compelling, meaningful D&D game, you kick that player out of your group or convince him or her to shape up. What you don’t do is spend time worrying about their inane actions, and figuring out ways to mitigate or rationalize their behavior. I’m not convinced that video games should waste effort on those ends, either, and Bissell does refer to Noire’s assumption that the player won’t misbehave as “admirable.” Masking, as Bissell points out, is used by designers to smooth over narrative discrepancies; you may be able to shoot your essential ally, but you cannot kill her. This is a somewhat flippant response, though. The fact is that, since there is a thinking organism in the narrator’s seat, any and all of the player’s behaviors can be adequately responded to, or stopped when the DM asks, “Are you sure you want to do that?”, “Is that what your character would do?”, or “No. Stop it or leave.”
Still, I am not convinced that pouring time into masking systems makes much sense. Though Bissell seems to think that they are, to some extent, necessary (and I might agree with him to a short extent), I don’t think that inability to mask a character’s foolish behavior is a dire problem. And I think this for many reasons.
1. It’s a private encounter with the work in question, and discounts the ability to partition an experience with a work of art.
In role-playing games, totally subverting the tone of the game is a problem because it harms the experience for everybody else at the table. In video games, the only experience you’re harming is your own; and once the player realizes that an unsupported behavior is not a part of the experience that the game offers, he or she can get right back to exploring the experience that the game is meant to offer.
Moreover, I think that Bissell fails to account for the ability of a player to generate their own interludes within a piece of art. Just as somebody reading a novel might close the book to daydream about where the book is headed, or imagine how a character might deal with a hypothetical situation, or someone watching a film might pause it to tell her friend how excellent it would be if Captain America were ALSO in this film, and wouldn’t that be hilarious, I’m not convinced that the experience of a video game is necessarily harmed by a player taking a break from the narrative by doing things that the game’s narrative might not support. Perhaps the player is capable of partitioning the experience of wanton murder, separating it from the story he or she is otherwise quite involved with. In fact, the game’s failure to respond to such behavior might even reinforce the notion that the player’s choices are outside the intended boundaries of the experience the game intends.
2. Not all player approaches need be supported.
When a player comes to a game like L.A. Noire and immediately wants to run rampant through the streets, then they are doing something wrong. To a greater or lesser extent, L.A. Noire is designed to offer up a specific experience. (That L.A. Noire also tries to offer up a more traditional Rockstar Games experience is a bit of a problem, but that’s outside the scope of this discussion). L.A. Noire should not be faulted for failing to adequately support experiences outside of what it intends. All possible player actions need not be anticipated; only viable options. This does cut down on player choice in the middle of a narrative (specifically by removing the choice to go insane and start murdering folks, become a thief or businessman, etc. etc.), but to some extent these choices might not belong to the player at all, but rather to the character, both to keep that character consistent and to keep the narrative focused on a particular sort of experience.
I also think that it’s perfectly alright to declare that there is a “right” way to play a game, so long as the developers don’t pretend like alternative methods of play are viable options. Some games are not good at this, and even L.A. Noire has issues in that it makes vague motions toward being an open-world game but offers relatively little of interest in that massive world. That the game indicates to the player that it is offering a different experience than it ought to and does is problematic, and for that L.A. Noire should be faulted, but I’m not convinced that a player’s choice to deliberately sabotage the narrative should be held against a game.
3. Art can demand that a participant/viewer approach and experience it a certain way.
For a bit, I was wondering whether it was okay for a game to demand that its audience approach it in a certain way (with a certain mindset, for instance) in order to experience it in the way that the designers intended. I initially thought that such an approach might demand too much, or at least might be seen as demanding too much; a quick comparison with visual art, or performance art, made it seem presumptuous on the part of the artist, to demand that a viewer engage with it in a specific way.
But truly, most art demands a specific sort of engagement, especially when art requires participants, as games do. Paintings in a gallery require that you encounter them from a distance, and predominantly through sight and not, say, touch. Plays offer a much better example; the script provides a base-line, but generally speaking the actor who is participant with the writer of the script does not have completely free reign to interpret those lines however he may like, or deliver them however he may like. And if he does exercise such gross freedom with the script, then people will begin to question his merits as an actor and wish that it had been performed differently.
Is there value in seeing the player’s role in gaming as similar to that of an actor’s in the performance of a play? Certainly, the work does not exist without the player giving it life (in both cases). Is there also value, then, in a game providing some sort of direction to players, indicating certain tried-and-true methods of interacting with an experience? Would it be useful for L.A. Noire to say, at the beginning, “We encourage you to play Cole as a sane, sympathetic war-hero, as this will give you the best possible experience”? That isn’t the best example, but perhaps in games that get a bit more complicated, this might be a worthy cause. This need not be overt, of course; a game can quietly point the player toward playing a game a certain way, of coming to it with a particular mind-set. Especially in cases where a game just works better if the player approaches it a certain way, or as a certain sort of game, this approach could be valuable.
What do you think? Is there any value in delineating the “proper” way to approach a game? Do you think developers might benefit from thinking of games in such a light? I’m mostly just throwing this concept into the light; I’d love to hear your thoughts about it, readers.