Cheats and Walkthroughs
L.A. Noire, like Heavy Rain, is an important step in the development of modern interactive drama, a genre we could define as utilizing dialogue as a game mechanic, rather than as content supplemental to or separate from traditional mechanics. This emerging genre presents us with the opportunity to interact with narrative like never before, by offering us choices that really matter.
Many of you might be too young to remember Choose Your Own Adventure Books. They were a series first published by Bantam Books in 1979. The stories are told in second-person, with the reader taking the “starring role.” At points in the narrative the reader has to make a decision as to what they should do next, and turn to page X for one choice, or page Y for another. Some of those choices could lead to the main character dying, or reaching some other sort of “fail” condition, at which point the reader was ostensibly meant to start the book over and make different choices the second time around.
I don’t know anyone who actually did that. It was far more likely that once they understood how the books worked, the reader would keep their thumb underneath the page where they made a decision. If they didn’t like the results of that decision, they would turn back to the previous page and make a different choice whose consequences they were happier with.
When video games don’t provide us the ability to save whenever we want, or if they have poor checkpoint systems, we notice very quickly. It’s frustrating to have to sit through a long dialogue sequence, immediately get killed in the difficult combat that follows, and then have to wade through the same dialogue again just to get another crack at the ensuing fight. We’d rather save after the dialogue and reload from there.
It can be maddening to battle our way through a running series of tough confrontations while we pray that a checkpoint is coming up so that we don’t have to go through them yet again, if we aren’t allowed to save anywhere we want along the way. For some players it is decidedly not fun to crank down the difficulty and lessen the challenge because the save architecture doesn’t let them take adequate breathers. They want that higher level of challenge, but need to be offered it in portions they can bite off and chew.
When we’re talking about games that revolve around traditional mechanics, our success or failure is tied to conditions we can understand, predict, and manipulate. We know that the B button makes us jump, and if we jump at the wrong time we’re going to fall into a pit, or off a ledge, or into the path of some bullets, and die. We clearly understand the challenges we’re facing and the tools at our disposal to beat them. Dialogue sequences, however, do not provide us with those same tools.
Dragon Age II, for example, often gave us vastly different lines of dialogue compared to what the choices in the dialogue wheel suggested. The results of those conversations had meaningful effects on the traditional mechanics, like potentially earning stat bonuses for the party. Players could also lose party members altogether if they made the “wrong” choices.
Dragon Age II also goes out of its way to encourage us to save often, so that we can undo these choices if we don’t like their results. The game lets us put our thumbs under the page before we make our choices. We don’t always get adequate warning that a dialogue sequence of import is coming up, but at least we have the tools to play extremely cautiously if we want, and make sure we have a plethora of save points, such that maybe we don’t have to replay too much of the game before we arrive at that dialogue sequence again.
Heavy Rain and L.A. Noire don’t give us that choice, however. They stick us with automatic saves rather than manual ones, and with checkpoints triggered at the end of sizeable portions of the story. What makes this galling is that not only are we dealing with narrative-as-gameplay sequences which are often very imprecise in regards to what we think our choices will result in versus what they actually deliver, but the cases in which these sequences take place can be extremely long to replay from beginning to end.
* (spoilers for L.A. Noire follow)
In the first case at the Traffic desk in L.A. Noire, “The Driver’s Seat,” Detective Phelps investigates an abandoned car. He then goes to the driver’s home to question his wife. She tells Phelps about a bar that her husband frequents, and when Phelps questions an associate of the driver at the bar, the detective discovers where the husband is hiding out.
The “Truth, Doubt, Lie” mechanic employed in questioning witnesses and interrogations can lead to some odd dialogue from Phelps. One of the pieces of evidence at the abandoned car is a bloody pipe, which we discover is part of an unfinished water heater installation outside the driver’s home. If the player chooses to doubt one of answers that the wife submits under questioning, Phelps launches into a tirade and accuses the wife of murdering her husband with said pipe.
At this point in the investigation, Phelps has absolutely no evidence to suggest that is true. Our heads might jerk backwards at the vehemence with which Phelps makes the accusation. His interview with the bar patron offers similar traps. We can’t re-do the interview with the wife or the bar patron using native save architecture, but people have figured out that if you quit out of the start menu and re-load the case, you pick up at the beginning of the last interview you conducted.
Players found a way to work around the problem, but the desire by so many gamers to figure out the solution reflects that this is an issue for designers to take seriously. Screwing up the interrogations can lead to rebuke at the end of a case, when we perform poorly as a result of those botched conversations. We have the option of replaying the entire case to correct the mistakes, but cases in L.A Noire can take a long time to get through.
It’s no wonder people figured out how to avoid this, but the solution is still a poor substitute for being able to save the game after investigating the abandoned car, and then after the interview with the wife, and again after the interview with the bar patron, to pick up the case wherever we might have screwed up and became dissatisfied with our performance.
Unlike Heavy Rain, L.A. Noire also presents us with more traditional game mechanics in addition to the dialogue sequences, and the save game architecture can prove inadequate to these conditions, as well. Players can pick up street crimes while driving from A to B to C in the course of investigating a case, but sometimes solving the case properly involves getting to those locations quickly.
There’s no warning given to the player that by taking on the street crime, they are missing the opportunity to catch the criminals red-handed. We don’t discover this until the end of the case, at which point our choices are to accept the results, or start the whole, bloody thing over again from the beginning, both of which may be a bitter pill. Why can’t we save the game before we get in the car to drive to the next location?
The idea of “choices that really matter” in video games isn’t a bad one, but this ought to be an option offered to the player rather than an absolute dictum. We are constantly faced with decisions in the real world that force us to make our best guess at the right answer, based on the facts in our possession and our instincts. Sometimes we make the right call and bask in the rewards. Other times we screw up and have to deal with the consequences.
While video games are certainly capable of providing us with deep, meaningful experiences that comment on the human condition like any other form of art, how many people play video games to reproduce the same conditions of their daily lives? Allow players the option to save the interactive drama wherever they like, and to enjoy the experience on their own terms.
This isn’t an argument against consequence in video games. Consequence is the logical extension of win/loss conditions, without which we could argue we’re not playing games. This is a suggestion that giving players the choice as to how much consequence their decisions hold is something that all game designers should strive for, in the interests of creating an experience that provides the most fun for everyone.
Nor is any criticism implied of anyone who wants their decisions in video games to be irrevocable. Some players of Heavy Rain might not give a damn whether they save Jason or not and want the cinematic experience the title provides for its own sake, no matter how the story winds up. Some players might not care if Cole Phelps puts numerous innocent people in jail and is a miserable failure of a detective by the end of L.A. Noire.
These might be the people who would be willing to re-read an entire Choose Your Own Adventure book from beginning to end after they “died” in the story, rather than keep their thumb on the page where they made their choice. That’s a perfectly legitimate way to tackle an interactive drama, and the option to do so should never be taken away from those players, but that’s not the only way an interactive drama has to work.
This is a genre whose growth we should encourage. Variety in gaming is good for everybody. But faced with wonky and frustrating save game architectures, some players may have to choose between beating their heads against the wall in frustration, or missing out on gaming experiences which could otherwise be interesting and enlightening. That’s not good for anybody.
Dennis Scimeca is a technologist and freelance writer from Boston, MA. Besides G4, he has also contributed to Gamasutra, GamePro, The Escapist, Joystick Division, and @Gamer magazine. He blogs at punchingsnakes.com, and has been known to drop a quip on Twitter.