"This is essentially Night Trap, this game."

Illustration for article titled "This is essentially Night Trap, this game."

Is L.A. Noire—despite its running, gunning and vehicular cruising—essentially an elaboration on the point-and-click adventure game? Some critics and commenators have suggested that the title has more in common with Monkey Island than Grand Theft Auto IV, with the crucial difference being that L.A. Noire (unlike the adventure games of yesteryear) allows you to advance despite having made blunders.


On the most recent installment of Michael Abbott's Brainy Gamer Podcast, guest Tom Bissell—author of Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter —suggests L.A. Noire may not even be a game at all, in the conventional sense.

At around the 24:00 mark, Bissell begins:

I see the story as a train—you're on a train, and this train's on a track. And there's very little you can do. You can occasionally throw a switch that maybe shifts like, one track over; but you're going to the same place. You can make tiny micro-adjustments to the story, and that's really all they're giving you. We don't think that this is a video game. It's probably not a video game in the terms that we're thinking of it. In fact, 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand is by any common definition a better game than L.A. Noire. Is it anywhere as interesting as L.A. Noire? Is it anywhere near as thought-provoking or...did it stick in my head the way that L.A. Noire did? No.

I'm thinking that player agency is so far outside the parameters of what this game wants to do. This game is actually trying to tell a cinematic story within unbudgeable parameters, that you kind of have a weird amount of freedom to explore, but you have very little freedom to determine. Freedom and choice we think as gamers are the same thing. But they're not. They're very different.

...This game is actually sneaking in under the orthodoxies of game design something that's rather more old-fashioned...one of these interactive films they made in the 1990s. This is essentially Night Trap, this game. And because it's got a lot of production value, and terrific performances, and a lot of interesting things happening in it, I think this has revived the tradition that Night Trap very briefly exemplified. And it's actually gone back to something that we all abandoned. That all game designers looked at and shrunk from in horror because it was so horrible the first time out...It's gone back to that and said, you know what, there's actually interesting things to do here. My belief is that this game is a completely new thing, that we don't even have the name for yet.

I'd walked away from Rockstar's last major release with an uncomfortable sense of irresolution. If Red Dead Redemption's John Marston was such a chivalrous, decent sort of guy—calling rancher Bonnie McFarlane "ma'am" and positively dripping with graciousness—how could I then command him to shoot innocent civilians, or slaughter his own horse? The game seemed to struggle with reconciling my agency as a player with Marston's integrity as a character.

L.A. Noire came along as a sort of reply to my Red Dead misgivings—it privileged Cole Phelps's claims as a predefined character over mine as the player operating him. But Bissell's words make me wonder: when the character is more important than the player, is what we have still really a video game?


Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 34 [The Brainy Gamer]



At 9:17 pm we were cruising on 3rd and broadway when we got the call over the squawk box. My partner turned down the Ellington playing over the radio so we could hear the dispatch. A female vic at 6th and Figueroa, possible blunt-force trauma.

We hit the sirens and rolled down to the scene at seventy-five per, nearly clipping some dipshit in a Studebaker. Probably a juicer this time at night on a Thursday, soup to nuts said he had three fingers of bourbon in him and was going home to the wife. My partner, some straight arrow rookie born with a silver spoon in his mouth and a gold fork up his ass, wanted to call it in. I let it slide. You're dumb enough to drive a Studebaker, you're dumb enough to get caught eventually. Let the traffic boys get the conviction, the glory, and the paperwork.

At the scene was Carruthers, the coroner. I was glad to see he didn't have his protégé with him. Sometimes he'd let this Japanese kid called Tom Noguchi hang around. Said he was going to be the best one day. Word at the station was that Carruthers had gone queer for the Jap and was grooming him to be his replacement. Carruthers was a damn good coroner, I didn't care if his ass was a catcher's mitt, he had good instincts.

The alley was black as soot a yard up a chimney, and our flashlights pierced the darkness like bullets as he led us to the vic. Carruthers had parked his Ford nearby to let the headlights help deal with the night, and once I saw her I almost wished he hadn't.

This wasn't unplanned, someone had gone to town and had painted it red. There was enough O-Positive splattered all over the alley to slip and slide from here to mid-Wilshire. By the looks of her she was barely twenty five. If the perp had left her wearing clothes we would have taken her for a natural blonde, and if the perp had left her face alone we would have taken her for pretty. But no longer.

Carruthers was wiping off his thermometer, and I tried not to think about where he'd put it. Said her temperature was close to normal, put the time of death at around 7 pm. I stooped down and inspected the body. The bruise on the back of the head meant it had been quick, but the post-mortem wounds meant that then he'd taken his time.

No skin under the fingernails, no defensive wounds whatsoever. I could smell scotch over the drying blood, and told a patrolman to canvas the nearby bars. My partner found a lead pipe in a trashcan, smeared with red. The perp had had the sense to wipe off his prints. This wasn't going to be easy. A dumb killer was a case, a smart killer was a pain in the ass. And I'm not talking about the coroner's thermometer.

Shit. My shift was due to end at ten. After a long day I was looking forward to a short pint. I thought about the bottle of rye I kept in the glove compartment, but it looked like I was going to get overtime instead.

The patrolman came back and said there was a dive a block down called the Green Cat, and the temp bartender had said a blonde gone blotto had stumbled out at 7:15 with a patron. We went over on foot to case the joint.

The Green Cat was a dump, and the regulars, spooked by the patrolman, had fled for warmer climes. The temp behind the bar said the woman went there often, name of Jane Hamilton. A juicer who'd run up a tab, then turn working girl with whomever would pay to bring the balance back down to an acceptable level so she could still get her Johnnie Walker. I asked him about the suspect Jane had left with. He said he didn't know anything. His laugh skittered around the room like rats behind the wainscoting. I looked at the way his eyes moved to the right, and I knew better.

I may not be a coroner or a medical examiner, but I know what a supraorbital arch is, and so does my sap. I pulled out the ten ounces of lead shot wrapped in leather and swung it, hitting the temp just above his left eyesocket.

That let him know who was in charge, and the swing to his jaw let him know who was candy. He spat out a mouthful of molars and fessed up.

The suspect was some jazz musician, played bebop in South Central. The temp, mewling like a kitten through his broken teeth, copped that the hep cat peddled a little reefer on the side in the bar, would slip him a fin or two to keep schtum. I asked if he had an address, and the bartender gave us a name:

Larry Sarabian. The Indigo Lounge.

I knew of it. Back when I'd worked Vice, I spent the better part of two years in there on one case or another. The place reeked of cheap hooch fallen off the back of a truck, the sour sting of reefer, and that particular brand of body odor that could only mean junkies. They kept a sawed-off under the bar, and they often had to use it. Indigo and scarlet made for an ugly color combination.

We sped over to Hollywood, my partner giving me the silent treatment for the way I'd handled the temp for giving us the silent treatment. He drove while I loaded a fresh clip for my .45, the odor of gun oil filling the sedan despite the cool breeze of a scirocco blowing away the L.A. smog on an Autumn night.

Larry Sarabian. Great, an Armenian. Just what I need, a crooked Coptic Christian diamond merchant turned sax player for the Negro Set, now a suspect in the brutal homicide of a young girl who'd probably moved out here with stars in her eyes and had turned pro the moment the casting couch had dried up. Armenians are clannish, all bets were on him having backup.

At Highland and Sunset we pulled up to the Indigo room. Just as I'd remembered it, a shithole for hopheads looking to score and movie stars looking to slum. The bartender made us the moment we walked in, recognized me a moment later. I flashed my tin anyway, more for the clientele than him. He smiled, but his eyes didn't crinkle at the corners.

I asked him about Sarabian. He pointed to the stage, and there he was, honking out what could have passed for Dizzy Gillespie if you were tone deaf and out of your gourd. He was swaying in time to what he thought was the beat, but was really the sound of a dope fiend on the nod. Then the bartender told us his set had started at 8.

Shit… Time of death had been around seven, the killer had to have spent at least fifteen to twenty cutting up the vic, no way he could have made it from Downtown to Hollywood in less than fifteen minutes. Ten o'clock and the case was growing colder than a corpse on a slab.

The set ended. Some clapped, some snapped their fingers and hollered. I could see Bob Mitchum in the corner, eyes heavy lidded, arm around a brunette young enough to be his niece. And over nearby I could see Fred Otash, keeping watch on the actor. That meant the brunette was probably Hughes' private property. Howard liked them young and stupid, kept in gilded-caged fuck pads all over town while he tried to play RKO like a fiddle while his airplane empire burned to the ground. Put Otash, detective to the stars, on the payroll to minder the barely legal trim he felt he owned. Whatever Bob, I thought as we stepped to the stage, it's your funeral. We'll see how your career pans out.

My partner and I walked over to Sarabian and braced him. Sure enough, he had a cousin who was the drummer, who vouched for him. Said he'd picked him up in an alleyway off of Figueroa at 7 pm, pissed he hadn't gotten a taste from the blonde they left behind. Sarabian said Jane Hamilton had promised him a knee-trembler in the alleyway if he'd spring for the whiskey, and then had backed out of the deal. Said she'd ran away before he could teach her a lesson.

I looked at his eyes, pissholes in the snow. He'd probably been too strung out to get it up, no bruises on his knuckles, and his shirt was white and clean. I asked him if he'd seen anyone else sniffing around Hamilton at the Green Cat, and he looked away.

And then he swung.

When I was in the Air Corps, we dropped the incendiaries on Dresden. I remembered how we'd run a phalanx of Kraut fighters and a wall of ack-ack, my bombardier glued to the Norden until he'd placed the target and released the payload, and how when he had had the controls I would pucker and try not to shit my pants. But once he'd done his duty and dumped the bombs, that meant the controls were mine again and I could take the plane back up. I remembered how time would seem to slow down to a crawl, the tracers inching up towards us as I'd feather the props, up the pitch and try and get us out alive.

It was like that when Sarabian swung at me. His cousin the drummer was getting a Gene Krupa staccato beat on him by my partner's fists as I tried to dodge the blows Larry was laying on me. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Mitchum escorting his date out of the club, Otash keeping a distance behind as he followed. A woman screamed as I pulled out my .45 and laid it to the side of the Armenian's forehead. Holding it by the barrel, I clubbed him with it and tried not to think about the fact I had one in the chamber, and wondered if his skull was hard enough to trigger the firing pin.

But it wasn't. My lucky day.

His cousin was on the ground, gurgling through what I hoped was a crushed windpipe, and Sarabian went limp. I smacked him a couple of times, open palm to revive him, backhand to remind him of the trouble he was in. So doped up he could hardly feel it anyway.

He said he didn't know anything. Another backhand and he suddenly remembered some guy at the Green Cat, dressed kind of funny. Said the man had been talking all kinds of weird until the bartender had thrown him out for trying to use funny-looking greenbacks.

I went to the bar to use the house phone, the bartender already putting it on the counter, the sawed-off back underneath. I called dispatch and asked for a black and white to come pick up the Armenians, then checked for messages.

Dispatch said there was a man down at the station picked up near the alleyway, dressed oddly and with blood on him. They had him in an interview room, letting him sweat until we could get there and brace him.

Again, my lucky day.

No Spade Cooley on the radio, Bob Wills only a rumor on the airwaves, but we managed to find a station playing Billie Holliday as we sped over to Downtown Station. The honey-voiced tones emanating from the speakers, a harsh duet with our sirens.

Through the one way mirror of the interview room I could see the suspect. He looked… soft. Too soft to be a back-alley butcher. The arresting officer showed me the wallet he'd had on him. That was when things took a turn for the strange.

All he had were what looked like twenty dollar bills, except the ink was bright green instead of dark, and there were purple and red marks on it. Like no American money I'd ever seen. In the billfold was something stranger. It said it was a driver's license, made out to a guy called Tom Bissell. Except it wasn't black and white. It was in color. It even had a photograph on it, of the soft weirdo in the interview room. I'd never seen anything like it.

Suddenly it wasn't my lucky day anymore.

We walked in and braced Tom Bissell. And it all went south from there.

"I want to speak with my lawyer." He started to say, and I gave him a backhand to shut him up.

"Mr. Bissell, you're under arrest for suspicion of the murder of Jane Hamilton. And we need to ask you some questions, and you'd better be on the level or there's more of that where that came from." I replied.

"Arrest?" The softie whimpered, "What about my rights? You haven't read me my Miranda rights!"

"Moiranda?" My partner asked, leaning in close and breathing a mixture of Pall Malls and Benzedrine into his frightened little face, "Who the fuck is Moiranda? Is she another one of your victims?"

The softie suddenly seemed to straighten up. "Oh that's right…" he said to himself "You guys didn't have Miranda Rights back then. It didn't happen until the sixties…"

"Listen, Bissell and listen good!" I snarled "I've got a dead B-girl carved up like the bird on thanksgiving! I've got you at the bar she was at! I've got you at the scene of the crime, and I've got you with blood on your shirt. So spill it, creep!"

Bissell put his head in his hands and started to whisper to himself. "This can't be happening. This can't be happening. This can't be happening…"

I nodded to my partner and he switched on the desk lamp and swung it around so we could give Bissell the 100-watt glare dead in the face.

"This is happening, Mr. Bissell. Right now. So come clean. Tell us why you have blood on you!"

He looked up. He looked lost. He looked frightened, and he looked…. innocent.

"I…. I was looking for clues." He said.

"What are you talking about, Bissell?"

"To the murder of Jane Hamilton. I was looking for clues!" The softie started to whimper. "Don't you understand? This is a game! And I was playing it! And now… And now I'm in the game!"

My partner and I looked at each other. Insanity conviction is still a conviction, but the D.A. would be pissed he wouldn't be able to put this guy in the gas chamber.

"Don't you get it?" blubbered the creep, "This is a video game! When I was playing it I thought to myself how it was a completely different kind of game, a game we didn't have a name for, but now… but now…. Oh God…"

This was going nowhere. Somewhere my wife was already putting out leftovers for me, the kids were already in bed, and here I was, talking to a crazy person.

"Come on Bissell, what do you mean this is a game? We've got a dead body on our hands and her blood is all over yours!"

"None of this is real! Here, I'll prove it! It's 1947, right? So say the word N——-."

My partner leaned in some more.

"You in the Klan, Bissell? It's OK if you are. My first partner was in the Klan. It's how he made Captain while I barely made Sergeant..."

"See?" Bissell moaned "You can't say it! The ESRB won't let you. Even though it's 1947 and Civil Rights hasn't even happened yet, you still can't say it! That proves it! This is all a construct! A digital matrix, and somehow, I'm in it!"

"What are you talking about, Bissell?"

"In this game, the one we're in right now. There are rules! Things you can't do! You have the illusion of freedom, but you're not free! Have you ever run over a pedestrian?"

I shook my head.

"I'm a cop, Bissell. Not some thrill seeking joy-rider."

"Yes, I know! But have you ever been on a high-speed chase and driven up on the curb? Have you ever noticed how even if you're doing ninety miles an hour the NPCs, I mean, the pedestrians, always seem to jump out of the way? That's because they're not real, and you can't kill them because you're the good guy! And you're not real! And I'm here now which means…."

His eyes suddenly widened like a drowning man going down for the last time.

"…Which means I'm not real either… Anymore…"

All of a sudden he started to laugh, a high-pitched laugh like a junkie with a fresh hit of sunshine flowing through his veins.

My partner looked at me and shook his head. I shook mine.

"Tom Bissell, I'm charging you with the murder of Jane Hamilton. You're obviously nuts, so you won't get the chamber. But you're going to spend the rest of your life in an institution for the criminally insane. May God have mercy on your soul."

And with that we walked out, Bissell blubbering and laughing all at the same time. It flat-out gave me the creeps.

I knew that back at home any meatloaf left out for me had already gone cold, and my wife by now had gone even colder. I knew if I wanted to save my marriage I was going to have to transfer to day shifts. Overtime still running, a call came over the squawk box of a double homicide, Wilshire and Vernon, possible domestic violence.

Again we hit the sirens and I inched the odometer up to eighty and thought about the poor, deluded madman right now being booked into Central Processing until he could be transferred to the funny farm, spending the rest of his life in a Thorazine daze, shuffling around in a bathrobe, playing pinochle with retards and syphilitics.

And what he had said…

And that's when I swung onto the curb…

Funny how that night worked out. Funny how every single person jumped out of the way of my patrol car. Funny how I'd be driving down the street, and see a Cord 180 Soft Top cruising down the street, a car you don't see every day, and then I'd see nothing but Cord 180 Soft Tops. Funny how I knew that back at home there was cold meatloaf waiting for me but that I couldn't remember what my wife and kids looked like or if I'd ever eaten anything in my life.


I won't lie to you. I know Tom Bissell was insane. I know that I'm a cop, a good one. I know that this is Los Angeles, and it's 1947.

But that night? A little piece of me died inside, and it was a closed casket funeral….