LA Noire & The Case of Moral Dissonance

7 Aug

FPS ModI borrowed LA Noire from a friend the other day and I’ve been enjoying it for the most part. The performances are impressive, graphics nice, and the procedural investigation is a change-up from the usual mindless warmongering video games mainly consist of. It reminds me of an old point-and-click adventure game, but updated for a CSI-watching generation like us. The structure of the cases, so far, has been this: Cutscene of Cole Phelps (the main character and Ken Cosgrove on Mad Men) in WWII showing some aspect of his character, cutscene of the crime in question happening, drive to the crime scene, investigate by picking up random objects, drive to suspect’s house, badger them about the crime, drive to other suspect’s house or have a chase scene with prior suspect, and then finally end the case with a shoot-out in downtown LA. Now I’m stereotyping a bit, but that’s been the general structure for the 8 cases I’ve played so far.

Like I said, I have enjoyed the game, so don’t misunderstand that. There’s just one thing I really find issue with: the ridiculous shoot-outs. Now I know that this is 2011 and a game without action probably won’t top the sales charts of the second month it’s available. The gunfights felt extraneous to me though. They didn’t play out in a way that was interesting and they kind of disturbed me to a small degree. Interestingly enough, I believe that last point is the fault of the game’s writers. So in the game to break up the monotony of paying attention to a single case at a time, there are random “street crimes.” These pop-up occasionally on the way to an objective asking you to drive somewhere else and act as executioner for a couple of minutes. These play-out with you receiving a message from the dispatch, driving to the destination, watching a short cutscene of the criminals, and then shooting them in the head. I thought, “OK, I guess this is a good distraction. I’m waaaayyyy too ADD to focus on one case at a time anyway.” Then something strange happened during one of the earlier main cases (**SEMI-SPOILERS?**): a fleeing suspect took a lady hostage and naturally I capped him in the head and saved the day. A cutscene immediately played informing me of my success and proceeded to show Cole as shaken by having to kill a man. This struck me as confusing. That was the first and last time I’ve heard him offer any remorse to killing at any period in this game and I’ve been mowing down bank robbers, cop-killers, and other petty criminals without hesitation for quite a few hours now.

This got me to thinking about why I’ve never felt this confusion before. I’m sure my virtual bodycount is at Death Star levels of genocide, but I’ve never stopped and considered the theoretical mental toll this should be taking on the avatar I’m controlling. Sure Cole Phelps/Aaron Staton acted like shooting that criminal was hard, but the game sure didn’t make it feel hard. Part of me sort of wishes video games of this nature didn’t make mowing down hundreds of villains so run-of-the-mill. In this day and age, video game characters can be as nuanced and deep as film and literature characters in non-interactive cutscenes. However, once the player is in control, this happy-go-lucky, wiseacre becomes a mass murderer. Another example of this apparent moral dissonance was the game Uncharted 2. In that game you play as a fun-loving treasure hunter with a heart of gold. At the beginning of the game’s story you are tasked with breaking into a Turkish museum with a friend to steal Marco Polo’s oil lamp. Because the guards are civilians and not evil pirates you are given a tranquilizer gun to non-lethally dispose of them. However, at one point you’re on the roof and you pull a guard off of the edge. He falls about 400 feet, presumably to his death. Elsewhere throughout the game you’ll be chatting it up with your pals one minute and mowing down evil treasure hunters the next. Once again this creates a weird divide between story Nathan Drake and player-controlled avatar Nathan Drake.

I don’t pretend to have any good ideas for how game writers and developers could rectify this divide, but I really would like to see them try. Now that video games are legally protected expressions of speech, some of them should have the burden of exploring morality in a more mature fashion within the actual gameplay. That isn’t to say some games haven’t tried or that all games should, but I wish they could avoid shoe-horning needless gunfights in there for the sake of more sales. Especially in games that are meant to be story-driven. Of course I suppose that’s the nature of any entertainment industry; the mass-market determines what sells and the mass-market LOVES Call of Duty. I can always hope though, and thankfully there are plenty of independent developers out there that are willing to experiment with new things.

Anyway, leave a comment if you have any extra thoughts or criticisms. As always, remember to follow me on Twitter @coltdixon, Facebook at www.facebook.com/drwaffles, and Google+ at gplus.to/ColtDixon.

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One Response to “LA Noire & The Case of Moral Dissonance”

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