L.A. Noire Examines Death In All of Its Misery

Elizabeth Short was beaten, sliced lips to ears, forced to eat excrement and then cut in half and drained of blood.

Her gruesome death on Jan. 15, 1947 was never solved despite the efforts of LA's best police and worst journalists. Nicknamed The Black Dahlia, her case has been loosely linked to other serial killings and has been the subject of movies, books and, now, one video game.

In L.A. Noire detective Cole Phelps works his way through the detective bureau solving the crimes of a 1947, post-World War II Los Angeles. Finally promoted to murders, Phelps finds himself investigating a series of murders that he's convinced were committed by the person responsible for Short's brutal killing earlier that year.

Last week I visited Rockstar Games with Stephen Totilo to try my hand at solving one of those cases: The Silk Stocking Murder.

Before dropping into control of Phelps, we watched Rockstar play through a small section of a case entitled the Red Lipstick Murder. While we weren't introduced to all of the facts of the case, this was meant to give us a sense of the controls and mechanics of play, Lipstick did play an interesting role in the real history of The Black Dahlia Case.

At least one detective has said that he believed Short's murder was connected to three serial killings in Chicago dubbed the Lipstick murders. A 17-year-old was arrested in that case and he remains in jail, 64 years later, still serving his sentence.

In the game, we see the silhouette of a man in a trench coat and hat, beating a woman with, perhaps, a tire iron. Each blow to her crumbling form is backed with a deep bass chord.

The scene jumps to Phelps riding in a car with his partner, Rusty Galloway, as they make their way to the crime scene. Galloway explains to Phelps that murders are up in LA because soldiers are returning from the war.

"Ninety percent of murders are domestic," he says, "This will be the same."

L.A. Noire Examines Death In All of Its Misery

Reporters swarm the scene, they are obnoxious, heinous vultures who mock the victim until Phelps reminds them that she is someone's daughter, perhaps someone's mother. They scoff and leave.

At the scene the woman's naked body lays before you. It reminds me, on some level, of the first time I toured a morgue as a police reporter. Nudity in death strips the woman of dignity, but not humanity. It's a reminder that we are all the same in death.

In the background other officers call for a house-to-house canvas, sending police door-to-door to ask if anyone saw or heard anything. But Phelps remains focused on the body, as does his view. With the controller you can select four points on the body to examine: The arms, the head, the torso.

Once selected Phelps uses his hand to lift and gently shift the body part, something you have entire control over. He lift's the woman's arm, turns it slowly until the hand turns on the wrist. He's looking for clues.

Her head shows signs of blunt force trauma. Words are written on the torso in red lipstick.

Before we can get to the bottom of the case, Rockstar hands the controller over to us and jumps the game to the beginning of a new case: The Silk Stocking Murder.

We sit in a diner with a police captain, who tells us about a young Hispanic girl found in an alleyway. She is naked, she is mutilated. There are words written on her torso in liptstick.

When we arrive we discover the dead woman, half naked, lying in an alley. The words "Kiss the Blood. BD" scrawled across her body in lipstick.

Phelps thinks it's the work of The Black Dahlia killer, the Black Dahlia Avenger as he calls himself in the letters he wrote to newspapers. Galloway thinks it's the work of a copycat.

I move through the scene in a circle, starting with the body, the four points that you can manipulate and examine. Then I shift to the surrounding alley. As we near a clue the controller rumbles, the sound of a piano plays for a second. Moving outward, a rumble and piano music help us find what appears to be a blood trail. The trail leads to a ladder, then to a roof, then to a can of red paint, but also a clue. Someone, it appears, wanted us to be up here.

The dead girl has a name Antonia Maldonado, born on July 7, 1926. She also has an address, at a local boarding house.

L.A. Noire Examines Death In All of Its Misery

We visit the landlady, who is at first shocked, but later a bit reluctant to help out. After searching Maldonado's room I do my first interrogation.

When talking to a witness or suspect you have to react to every statement they make. So you need to go in armed with clues, with notions. Once a person tells you something you can decide you want to believe them, not believe them or call them out on a lie. If you say they're lying you need to select evidence you've gathered to back up your claim. You can also earn intuition points which can be used to make your questioning and clue matching easier.

The system works, though it does sometimes leave me wishing for a bit more control, an ability to decide how to shape my questions and which path to pursue in getting information out of someone. Trickier, playing to a person's ego, good cop, bad cop, none of that comes up in these relatively automated interviews. Instead all of your effort is put into reaction.

The interview goes well and we come up with our first suspect, Maldonado's soon-to-be ex-husband. We also learn that the woman headed out to a local bar the night of her murder.

We're left with a choice: Interview the husband or go to the bar. We choose the bar. There we run across another witness, a bartender who tells us about divorce papers. We also spot a local fruit shop delivery guy and a suspiciously large shipment of lemons to the bar. The bartender tell us he told the murder victim to use the phone near the fruit store to call a cab.

Off to the husband's house, we get into a fight with Angel Maldonado and his brother. The controls are fairly straight forward, ending the fight with both men in custody. In the home we find a bloody shirt as well as a crate from the same fruit stand that delivers to the bar. Inside are bottles of alcohol.

An urgent dispatch sends us back to police headquarters where we're told a new letter from the Black Dahlia Avenger has been delivered. But it seems unrelated to our case. We question the husband, using the clues we find, and finally discover that the fruit salesman may have had a thing for the murder victim.

Finally, at the fruit market we find the mother lode. First, in the back we discover that the market was a front for after-hours alcohol sales. But we also discover a bloodied scalpel, and the murder victim's jewelry box and charms.

L.A. Noire Examines Death In All of Its Misery

Clem the fruit seller makes a run for it, forcing a high-speed pursuit through the city and ending in his arrest.

The short case gives us a taste of the mechanics of the game, the way that Team Bondi and Rockstar have tried to turn the nuance of police investigation into something comprehensible, intellectually stimulating and entertaining.

But the nature of murder investigations is hard to replicate in a video game. It involves a detective's innate ability to view the world through a filter. A filter that separates on some sub-conscious level, the unimportant debris and litter found in every alley, on ever street corner, in every crime scene, from the relevant clues. Every cigarette butt, every scrap of paper, every mark in the silt of an emptied room could be the one thing needed to deliver justice in a case of rape, murder, assault.

Look around where you sit, you are most likely awash in a sea of hundreds, perhaps thousands of potential clues. Walk through your house and you'll find more.

The thing that separates a good detective from a great one is that ability to know, to feel what matters most in a crime scene. To be able to detect not only what happened, but how it happened through and examination of the sediment of daily life.

For those detectives it might be a hunch, or a keen intellect, but I'm pretty certain it's not a rumble in their hands or the telltale sound of tinkling piano keys.

I'd have to play more cases in the game to know if L.A. Noire find the right balance between too much easy information and not enough hand-holding. For now, for me, it feels a bit too simple. But I'm sure cases grow increasingly complex as you play.

L.A. Noire Examines Death In All of Its Misery

The need for clues is an important, necessary part of the game, but I wish there was a way to bluff your way to a confession. Those amazing facial animations, the ones that not only deliver startlingly real performances, but also obvious tells if you know what to look for in a liar's face, aren't as powerful when you need proof to back up your allegations. You're not a lawyer, you're a detective, the game should, hopefully will, be able to recognize the difference.

I was pleasantly surprised to find myself, at the end of my first case in L.A. Noire, confused. The reality of police work is that not all questions are answered, not all cases solved. In L.A. Noire it's obvious that the developers are intertwining a nest of cases to help form the evidence, the background and facts of the much larger Black Dahlia murder.

L.A. Noire Examines Death In All of Its Misery

The notion that I will have to remember things from old cases, pick through them to see which has greater meaning, is a wonderful design decision.

L.A. Noire may be a bit ham-handed at times in its overly-helpful handling of crime scene investigation, and its narrow approach to interrogation, but it still has me intrigued. I want to play this game, not just to intellectually challenge myself, but to find out what happened and whodunit.