Buying In 6

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.

Matthew Schanuel

About Matthew Schanuel

Matthew Schanuel lives in Boston, Mass. He's a beer aficionado, a game player (and designer!), an academic-in-exile, a DM, and, most recently, an employee of a financial non-profit. He draws the comic Embers at night over at

6 thoughts on “Buying In

  • Anne Winters

    I def­i­nite­ly think there is value in say­ing that you need to play a game a cer­tain way to get the most out of the expe­ri­ence. Just take a look at board games. Even Candy Land had a blurb on the back of the box on the rules and reg­u­la­tions. Just because a game sug­gests that you play it a cer­tain way, does­n’t mean that you have to play it like that; how­ev­er, that sug­ges­tion indi­cates, to me, that the cre­ators had a vision and a pur­pose in cre­at­ing the game.
    Keep on writ­ing! I like read­ing!

  • Matthew Schanuel

    Thanks for com­ment­ing, Anne!

    To some extent, games do limit the ways that one can inter­act with it, see­ing as they gen­er­ate a closed sys­tem of “rules” that a play­er inhab­its, and those rules some­times demand a cer­tain path through those rules (nar­ra­tive games do this, append­ing each encounter/experience one after anoth­er), but I’m also inter­est­ed in the way that a play­er approach­es the game; the expe­ri­ence with the game does not just occur in the game, after all, but in between the play­er and the game. The play­er thinks on the sit­u­a­tion the game presents, and reacts, and the game absorbs that reac­tion and alters, etc., and I think it makes sense for devel­op­ers to some­times sug­gest that a play­er approach a game in a cer­tain way, or sug­gest that a play­er seek cer­tain ends in a game with­out a clear “Win/Lose” con­di­tion, such as the non-puzzle por­tions of Catherine or L.A. Noire, which one can­not fail in out­side of gun­fights and car chas­es, or espe­cial­ly Heavy Rain, which absorbs play­er “fail­ure” and alters the nar­ra­tive accord­ing­ly.

  • chanteyrose

    Aren’t there many games that are of the “choose your own adven­ture” design to help with that desire to devi­ate from the script? With regards to your inter­est in see­ing how the play­er approach­es a game, I think the pri­ma­ry step is to con­sid­er which games they grav­i­tate toward (or away), and that’ll dis­cern between gamer types and pro­vide at least some begin­ning insight into the gamer per­son­al­i­ty demographics/player styles (when con­sid­er­ing the psy­chol­o­gy of the approach to cer­tain game setups). I think it has to do with the gam­ing com­mu­ni­ty being made up of sev­er­al dif­fer­ent types of gamers, and some­times the struc­ture is what peo­ple are look­ing for in a game, depend­ing on how rigid or fluid it is. I think that’s why MMO/RPGs have grown to be so large, with the myr­i­ad of pos­si­bil­i­ties of gain­ing rep­u­ta­tion points or build­ing char­ac­ter nuances — no game expe­ri­ence is ever entire­ly the same. I under­stand that while there are these options, there’s still a set pat­tern of behav­iors that the cre­ators and design­ers are antic­i­pat­ing and that sim­ply rein­forces a “prop­er way to play the game,” but there’s no real way to emu­late anar­chy with­in vir­tu­al real­i­ty, is there?

  • Matthew Schanuel

    I think that some of the indus­try is already doing what you sug­gest regard­ing play­er psych by look­ing into the way play­ers inter­act with cer­tain sit­u­a­tions, the way that they are like­ly to respond and how quick­ly they learn con­cepts; Valve’s exten­sive play-testing is a prime exam­ple.

    The gam­ing com­mu­ni­ty is indeed made up of peo­ple that have dif­fer­ent con­cerns, and they can be split up in prob­a­bly hun­dreds of dif­fer­ent ways. Just like fans of lit­er­a­ture, and film, and so on and so forth. This isn’t a prob­lem. And just like in any field, game design­ers can seek to appeal to one or many desires when design­ing a game; that may include gen­er­at­ing a world wide enough to allow for sig­nif­i­cant choic­es and con­trol, or gen­er­at­ing a very tight nar­ra­tive expe­ri­ence with no non-mechanical free­dom what­so­ev­er.

    But the game does­n’t just hap­pen “in the game”; it meets play­ers and is inter­pret­ed. And so when I’m talk­ing about a play­er’s “approach” to the game, I’m speak­ing less of the way they actu­al­ly play the game in a mechan­i­cal sense (though it does have a role, and can’t be ignored), and more in the way they think about the game; I speak of craft­ing play­er expec­ta­tion, or offer­ing a frame for a play­er to encounter an expe­ri­ence. To some extent this occurs in the attach­ment of genre; it indi­cates to a play­er what, rough­ly, they can expect from a game. But it’s a gross indi­ca­tion, hard­ly fine and hard­ly indica­tive of what, for instance, the play­er might encounter emo­tion­al­ly with­in the expe­ri­ence. Perhaps it will serve a sim­i­lar func­tion as a film direc­tor stat­ing that, “This is a film that I cre­at­ed to explore these themes. Look for them,” but I’d argue that it’s even more impor­tant to give the play­er an indi­ca­tion of what a game is explor­ing because a play­er is mak­ing choic­es in the game, even if the game does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly respond to those choic­es. I’m not con­vinced that I’m right about this, but I’d argue that pro­vid­ing a play­er with some sort of intro­duc­tion to a work that they’re going to con­tribute to is impor­tant, whether it occurs in an intro­duc­to­ry seg­ment in-game or even out-of-game.

  • Wombat of Doom

    On the sub­ject of the “actor/playwright” con­nec­tion, I men­tioned some time ago that, espe­cial­ly when con­nect­ed with “dance-like” games like Mirror’s Edge, the “musician/composer” model might be a bet­ter ana­logue for “developer/player” than most oth­ers. I think there are some seri­ous sim­i­lar­i­ties between “actor/playwright” and “musician/composer,” so on the off-chance the few para­graphs I wrote can be a decent resource, I’ve put a link to that dis­cus­sion here:


  • Matthew Schanuel

    Thanks, Bill! I remem­bered that you had writ­ten that, and was plan­ning on link­ing to it in my explo­ration of the topic next week, but you took care of it!

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