Thursday, 1 August 2013

L.A. Noire: How You can Destroy your Game by Not Thinking About What it Says

Spoilers ahead.
There is a lot to disappoint in L.A. Noire: it was one of the most hyped games of 2011 after all. You could discuss the insecure vacillation between the linear adventure and sandbox forms; the problematic use of period depictions of racism and sexism in a game where the lead character is a cypher for 21st century values; or even the fact that it doesn't really feel like much like noir, despite the name on the box. Many players have taken the critical position that the core of the game, the investigation and interview mechanic, fails to achieve its stated aim. I too would agree with this happily, although I still enjoyed the game nevertheless. For my money it’s an efficient example of the inventory-management mystery-adventure genre, just with the addition of realistic gurning and facial tics, and I really liked the sense of methodically working a case that, at its best, the game luxuriates in.
So where is my problem? For me the way in which L.A. Noire disappoints most frustratingly, and most interestingly for the purposes of this blog, is in its introduction and use of mental illness within the story and how this unnecessarily impacts on not just that story but the gameplay itself. This is not to say that I wasn’t disappointed by the aspects mentioned above, and I will be touching on those in the following discussion to an extent as well. I will also be spoiling pretty much everything there is to spoil, so you have been warned.

There are two major threads of the story of L.A. Noire that directly encompass mental illness and madness. The first is introduced plainly at the start, although it is initially focused more on the moral arrogance of psychiatry. It is only at the end of the game that we get a simultaneously lurid and pathos-demanding reveal of any madness itself. The second thread is not flagged as an examination of mental illness, appearing and resolving suddenly (at least if you ignore the sledgehammer foreshadowing which, despite the intentions of the writers, does not actually come close to being plot development) and entirely as an example of the 'psycho' serial killer trope.
We'll look at the corrupt psychiatrist arc first, because although it is repeatedly problematic it is not fatal to the game in the same way that serial killer arc proves to be. Cole Phelps, L.A. Noire's protagonist for the majority of the game, was not originally a cop, but started off as an officer on the Pacific front of the Second World War. Whilst the game's procedural arc is in essence his rise and fall through the ranks of the police department the emotional arc is a reconciliation and a reckoning with Phelps' past. Through a series of flashbacks and cutaways the conduct of Phelps and his unit during the war are contrasted with their actions as civilians in peacetime, although it is only during the second half of the game that the cases directly follow this arc of the story.
Several of Phelps' old unit have, it turns out, stolen various army supplies, including narcotics and weaponry, on demob, and through this initially opportunistic crime have destabilised and become inextricably embroiled in the L.A. underworld. Their descent is facilitated by the creepy and corrupt psychiatrist Dr Harlan Fontaine whose ends are entirely his own and who represents the thin glamour of respectability pulled over the glitz and avarice of a city of sin.
On one level there is no problem with this. Fontaine is a clear and simple villain, manipulating people to his own ends and profiting off the naivety and suffering of others. Except that he is a mental health professional and we so often see those in fiction as either vain, venal or idiotic demagogues and much more rarely as caring and competent professionals. There are many reasons for this and some are more valid than others. When you have a rhetoric around mental illness that suggests it is invented or not really real it makes sense that a parallel rhetoric would exist suggesting that psychiatrists would be as hollow as the conditions they purport to treat.
There is also, complicating matters further, a whole host of fears regarding the very concept of psychiatry: that it is a form of oppression and agency for policing thought; that it has a shady history of unethical experimentation on and incarceration of the vulnerable; that it seeks to medicalise difference for its own financial gain. Add in a general distrust of doctors in fiction and you have a sense of why Fontaine represent not just himself.
The thing is, despite it being on some levels problematic, I was generally unoffended with the treatment of Fontaine as a villain. He does horrible things and he gets his comeuppance, and it is clear that what he does is done consciously; he is uncomplicated, a villain because he does villainous things. It's just that his presence colours the narrative and becomes a clear reference point in the case of the game's other villains, who in two cases are implied to do villainous deeds because they are mentally ill.
At the end of the game everything comes together when we discover that a mysterious arsonist who has been haunting the narrative is a trooper from Phelps' old unit. The trooper is unable to re-integrate into society after the war and suffers from PTSD following an atrocity he committed because Phelps botched his command. Since returning to the US he has then been manipulated into further atrocities by Fontaine, the very physician who should be helping him, as part of a conspiracy involving housing and land which is itself designed around the exploitation of returning soldiers.
Both stories, flashback and plot, highlight a deep distrust of authority. This should be a curious tendency in a game where the protagonist is an arm of the law, until you realise how stifled it feels by this setting: continually suggesting that the police are not to be trusted, undercutting itself (as we will see in the next section) and only really getting any sort of momentum (and a proper noir feel as well) in the final few cases. Here Phelps is left behind and the player instead controls a rogue insurance investigator and ex-soldier named Kelso who despite wanting nothing to do with the events is embroiled in them through bonds of honour and loyalty all the same*.
The problem with this treatment of PTSD is that it is all about weakness, directly equating both the actions of the soldier and his later mental degradation with a weakness of the mind that is not shared by his squadmates. Though they all fall in one way or another the plight of the arsonist, and the signifiers of that plight (requiring psychological help, living in squalor and being unable to control his actions) are directly contrasted with the fall of other squad members for whom the decay is moral (many get involved in the drug trade, Phelps leaves his wife in the most underwritten plotline in the game) but is otherwise reasoned and even seeded in ambitions or good intentions. The clear message is that the mentally ill are unable to control their own actions, that they are unable to desire anything outside the scope of and uncoloured by their illness, and that this is because they are weak.
The game then compounds this by making the one moment of mental strength the arsonist is allowed, at the game’s denouement, the moment at which he decides to die. I shouldn’t need to say this, but I probably do: suggesting that self-inflicted death is a strong, in fact a desirable, response to mental turmoil; that it is in fact the only true escape from that turmoil is a profoundly damaging and discounting thing to say about the mentally ill. The message is that the ill life is not worth living.
This is not to say that this is a theme that should be anathema to art, because a lot of art is about the very question of what sort of life is in fact worth living, but it is certain that L.A. Noire bungles this question by providing the arsonist’s death with a teleological certainty; by providing no question or discussion of an alternative and finally by closing off the only escape route it offers. The only healing option is Fontaine and he is distorted by villainy, providing only a false and bitter hope.
And yet this need not necessarily be fatal to the game as a game, merely to the possibility of the story as a nuanced and valid piece of work, but it is compounded by some frankly terrible gameplay decisions. These decisions not only reinforce the negative depictions of mental illness, but simultaneously undermine player agency, sacrificing the idea of the story told through play at the altar of the story imposed by the author - essentially mistaking the structure of a game for that of a book or a film, an endemic problem in the current paradigm of gaming.
This decision is the main element of the second story thread I mentioned, although it is mirrored in the story of the arsonist. In the second segment of the game Phelps is promoted to the murder desk and starts to investigate, appropriately, a series of murders. it becomes fairly obvious to the player very early on in this sequence that none of the suspects in any of the investigations is the actual murderer, and yet you are able to convict them every time; in fact you are forced to do so. This is distinctly frustrating, not least because you are given fairly big clues that the real culprit is a serial killer supposedly put away years ago, but you are not able to act on them. There is an argument that the game here is simulating the corruption of a results-first police force and the frustration of being stuck between bureaucracy and a street-smart killer, but I would argue that this is the wrong game to do that in. The core of the gameplay is in the amassing of evidence and the outsmarting of criminals and to subvert this not just once but for almost a third of the game (as I mentioned before, the arson investigation similarly, and fairly obviously given what happens on the murder desk, comes down to a choice between innocent suspects) is just demoralising. The point gets lost and you just stop having fun.
When the true killer is revealed, and revealed to be a psychopath - because really, apparently, all the interesting motives of the previous suspects is nowhere near as exciting and schlocky as a maniac! - the game actually changes. No longer a sequence of evidence collection and interview it becomes a tired series of riddles and action sequences followed by a shoot-out. The message is clear: you cannot understand the mind of the madman, only chase after the crazy connections he makes, attempting to outsmart him in his own twisted game. And you cannot reason with him (or arrest them), only destroy him. This is explicit and implicit in that it is is the only available response within the game, driven by mechanical necessity, despite every other case having multiple choices about how and who you convict.
By abandoning the normal structure of the game, and doing so again in the final sequence involving the search for the arsonist, the game reinforces the idea that madness is a thing apart from the every day, that it requires a different set of responses. It compounds this by forcing that response to be one of violence and death - effectively positing that the mad do not belong alive, that they cannot exist alongside the sane without catastrophic consequences and that the needs of the sane are, by might or by morality, of paramount importance.
Simultaneously, by presenting a series of murders with realistic, gritty and challenging motives before essentially turning around and shouting 'fooled you! it was a psycho all along,' the game makes the implicit case that murder is what mad people do. This is an insidious trend, and one which is not unique to L.A. Noire by a long shot but is prevalent across the media landscape. Despite the fact that in real life the mentally ill are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators in fiction this situation is reversed. And it is all the worse a trend for the fact that it contributes to the idea that evil acts, like murder, cannot be understood and cannot be rational decisions. Still further complicating this distaste towards the mentally ill is the earlier tendency we noted to discount the role of psychiatrists and mental health professionals in their care, compounding the game's already hard-coded procedural message that the only way to deal with madness is to destroy it, either with sadness or with fury, but destroy it nonetheless.
All this is not to say that I think Team Bondi or Rockstar deliberately set out to make a game about how the mentally ill need to die, knowingly sabotaging the core mechanic as they did so in order to make their point. I do however think that, as with many other of the criticisms one could make of the game, they got seduced by the idea that they were making an epic and tried to put too much in. They larded the basic gumshoe framework with more narrative weight than it could handle: wanting to do both an evidence sifting investigation and a tense serial killer chase and a story about police corruption and incompetence and not realising that you really need to pick just one.
What's more, they were seduced by the easy framework of modern thriller fiction, which unlike classic noir (or even the Great American Novel, which I think is another archetype that the game is reaching for), is not interested in the complex motivations of morally ambiguous individuals. Rather it requires a sense of black and white, of good and evil, in its characters; a moral certainty to justify the death of the villain and a lack of background to keep the pages turning. This is a role which the trope of the psychotic killer fills perfectly, as his entire teleology is unknowable death, even if his very existence is a damaging lie. And ultimately this is disappointing because L.A. Noire shows promise: flashes of moral ambivalence that it just doesn't have the courage to follow through with. Because ultimately it is harder to live in a world where you can understand why people, both ill and well, do horrible things than it is to live in a world where you can ascribe horrible deeds to madness and be done with it.
*I think the game would have been much better overall if Kelso had been either the main or an equal player character from the start. He just seemed a much more interesting and honest character than Phelps.

No comments:

Post a Comment