How ‘L.A. Noire’ Created the Illusion of an Autistic Protagonist
Detective Cole Phelps became a cipher for my Asperger's issues, but in the end left me feeling cheated.
The suspect is sweating away in the interview room, lies hanging in the air as thick as cigarette smoke. This is Cole Phelps' big chance to solve the Studio Secretary Murder, and he's damned if he's going to screw it up now. He has risen haphazardly through the ranks, all the way to this last case. He's been dragged through tar pits, the Los Angeles Public Library, the Hall of Records. He knows this is the murderer.
"You were in the war?" Phelps utters, confused. "You told us before that you had never been in trouble with the police, you never told us about the petty theft."
Something isn't quite right.
"Petty theft isn't violence, detective. Surely that's the most pertinent part?"
Phelps frowns. I frown. "That seems reasonable," we muse, in unison.
MISSION FAILED slices across my screen. It's not the first time I've been cut down in the middle of an interrogation and, unless I stick to a walkthrough next time, it's unlikely to be the last.
I have Asperger syndrome, a type of autism disorder that means I have trouble with social interaction and non-verbal communication. Although police officers rely on social nuance, it's the non-verbal communication problems that make me an awful detective in Rockstar Games' 2011 title L.A. Noire. It boasts impressive-for-the-time facial animation, with a full cast of motion-captured actors trying to trick and deceive you in a variety of subtle ways, but playing with Aspergers turns one of the game's most intriguing features into an unsophisticated multiple-choice test.
The eighth annual autism awareness day is today, the 2nd of April 2015, and with the growing awareness of the autistic spectrum and a growing number of gamers diagnosed with the condition, it's becoming increasingly important to recognise that there are a minority of players out there who aren't able to fully appreciate some of the more social games. While I can't speak for everyone with the condition, I found myself particularly struggling with L.A. Noire's deception.
Dishonesty in games isn't a new thing, but the deceit usually involves humans lying to other humans. I lie through my teeth every time I roam the wastes of Chernarus in DayZ; some games, like The Ship and Spy Party, see us trying to convince humans that we're actually AI. These kind of scenarios suit me well: noticing patterns is another thing "we" are good at, and one step out of place is enough for me to spot your umbrella-wielding assassination attempt.
L.A. Noire is different. The "AI" is a pre-recorded actor working from a script, and it's so convincing that the obvious tells – clues to help you separate truth from lies – really aren't that obvious to someone with Asperger syndrome. I found myself combing crime scenes for every piece of information, because the only way to reliably interrogate a suspect was to wave contradictory evidence in their face while triumphantly gurning at the television. I think Phelps would have approved.
The human face is one of the last mountains to climb for graphics programmers, with the "uncanny valley" weirding out even the most seasoned of gamers. Trying to imitate the nuances of a human face is incredibly difficult, and for every gem like The Witcher 2 we get horror shows like The Elder Scrolls' special brand of rubber-faced androids. Certain people might be creeped out by Mario's plasticky cuteness, while Mass Effect manages to get things close enough to set people on edge.
L.A. Noire's faces don't even look that great, but by motion capturing the live performances Rockstar managed to bring over just enough of what makes them human to utterly confuse those of us with Aspergers. The subtle little animations that can bring a performance to life are enough to make it hell for us when we're trying to decipher what's happening in the games' pivotal station interviews.
During my third attempt at trying to finish this damn game, something clicked with me. With a walkthrough, and a little trial and error, Phelps didn't have to turn in his gun and badge. He rubbed a few people the wrong way, missed some subtle hints and was often on the back foot in conversations, but that meant I felt a stronger connection with the socially inept detective. In a game where everyone was a liar, the guide in my web browser was a phial of sodium thiopental. For emergencies, you understand.
A few games have explored Asperger syndrome before, with To the Moon and Borderlands being the only two that seem to explicitly approach it, albeit very differently. Borderlands gives Patricia Tannis a realistic set of Asperger traits, but uses them to make her inherently untrustworthy and a little unlikable. To the Moon heads the other way, romanticising the condition. Neither presentation sat well with me.
By contrast, Phelps felt like the most realistic individual "with" Asperger's ever portrayed in a video game. By guiding him through his toughest cases, I was lending him my traits: a disrespect for speed limits, an eye for clues and a crippling inability to work out motives. In spite of this, Phelps was getting his hands dirty and trying to solve every single crime this wretched city had to offer. My situation was an accident of game mechanics, but it birthed a completely relatable character.
Yet what the game had actually given me was a playable cipher. I had been projecting my own issues onto Phelps: what I'd thought of as a character shaped by my own experiences and condition was just a mix of poor plotting and inadequate characterisation. My unique experience was still touching, but when I shared my experiences with friends who didn't have Asperger syndrome they reported their Phelps was as non-verbally clueless as mine, with the same tendency to scream in the face of innocent witnesses.
I'd cheered my way through case after case, but playing with the walkthrough had cheated me. The game wanted to celebrate my ability to recognise emotions, but, in the end, it could never teach me how.