L.A. Noire Addendum: True Life Stories

L.A. Noire is one of the more interesting video games I have ever played not simply because I enjoyed most of what the game’s development team put into the title, but because it brought to mind so many memories – not all of them pleasant – of experiences I have had during my journalism career.

This is not a second review. It’s more of a self-indulgent column about some ideas that came to mind while playing L.A. Noire. Take it for whatever you think it’s worth.

Playing and writing about L.A. Noire led me to wonder how my time as a
news reporter may have made my experiences with the game different from
those of other reviewers whose careers are more firmly rooted in the
gaming and entertainment media.

I have never been a full-time crime reporter – let alone worked in
law enforcement – but I have had at least a glimpse of the
grimier side of California life over the course my newspaper years.

What follows are some stories to explain why I found L.A. Noire to be more affecting on a personal level than other games I highly admire, such as those within the Legend of Zelda, Fallout and Mass Effect series.

For example, I still have a business card bearing the name of a once-popular
San Bernardino city recreation manager who confessed to child
molestation in March 2010. He was a well-respected man, however, before
his July 2008 arrest, and I even interviewed him about a new
recreational center a few days before he was placed into custody. As a
reporter for The Sun, I spent much of the next three months working with
then-colleague Robert Rogers to investigating problems within the city’s
recreational programs.

(We discovered that the program’s had been underfunded for several years, and
employees like Miller had been subject to lax discipline. I like to
think our work forced policymakers to pay more attention to the people
entrusted with San Bernardino’s children.)

I also still have a business card belonging to a former city treasurer
in the city of Redlands who pleaded guilty to illegally altering a
public document after first being charged with three felonies stemming from
the allegedly illegal transfer of $38,000. The San Bernardino County
District Attorney never presented evidence of outright theft, and the case
seemed to be more the result of a bad decision made to cover up a
problem in the city’s accounting. Nonetheless, the scandal cost the man his ability to serve in public office and qualified as a fairly significant news story.

A judge sentenced the child molester to 28 years in state prison and the
treasurer received three years probation. I hope to never see the first
guy again, but even though I broke the news that the Redlands official
was under investigation, I personally consider him to be a basically
decent person who made a mistake. If our paths ever cross, I wouldn’t
mind shaking his hand.

So what does this have to do with L.A. Noire? Playing the role of Detective Cole Phelps, players run into people who are simply bad, and others who run afoul of the law because they are scared or have made serious mistakes. Although I did not think the resolution of all of the game’s cases made sense, L.A. Noire’s storyline has enough moral complexity for players to question not only witnesses but their own motivations. During the course of playing the game, I woke up one morning wondering if I had charged the right person with a crime. I think that was a sign of the game’s developers effectively using their medium.

L.A. Noire’s developers also did well in capturing the
interview experience. Although the roles of a
detective and news reporter are very different, people in both
professions must learn how to hone their abilities to differentiate
between truths, half-truths and lies. They must learn to respect facts
and evidence over emotion. I enjoyed cross-checking characters’ statements with the evidence in my notebook, and appreciated that investigations don’t start over after a failed interview. Players must instead rethink their approach and seek additional facts, just as a real investigator would have to do.

I’ve never had to examine a murder victim the way a detective would.
I haven’t even been to a murder scene since I transferred from our
metro desk to the business desk about six months ago. Playing the game, however, called to mind such memories as the first
time I covered a homicide.

I was then a rookie reporter in Huntington Beach and the police arrested a man on suspicion of stabbing his mother to death. I had
no formal training in journalism and had no idea how to write about such a thing. I managed to write a short story even though I could not
find anyone to interview who could have shared their memories of the victim for the article.

The second murder I covered also happened in Huntington Beach. The
victim was a 19-year-old cashier at a 99 Cents Only store and I had a
very difficult time steeling myself to interview my family. I have
learned that the bereaved often witsh to share stories about their lost
loved ones, but I did not know this at the time and was worried
about coming off as a vulture. I was considerably relieved when the young woman’s mother told me she liked my article.

My point, at the risk of repeating myself, is that L.A. Noire effectively portrays what it is like to be at a crime scene, or to be around shady characters. This may be one too many anecdotes, but I once went to go visit a man running for the San Bernardino City Council to ask him about his domestic violence convictions. He answered the door with a sledge hammer in hand and invited me inside. I accepted the invitation, then immediately wondered if I had made a mistake and started looking for exit routes.

I didn’t need to worry. He ended up agreeing to an interview and offered me some iced tea. He came in last place on Election Night.

The upshot is that those who play L.A. Noire will end up in more shootouts than any real-life detective, but will also experience a fairly realistic simulation of what happens during an investigation,  and a chance to think seriously about topics that are rarely dealt with in a video game. Perhaps more than any game I’ve ever played, L.A. Noire asks players to imagine dead characters as real people whose lives had value. I cannot say the game is perfect, but for that, it definitely has my respect.