Warning: The following includes spoilers for L.A. Noire, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Chinatown, and Double Indemnity.
I once heard that videogames embody the very essence of noir storytelling, perfecting the genre’s constricting narrative voice. In filtering the audience to a narrow, singularly focalized perspective, videogames evoke the joy of noir storytelling and its deft ability to hold back narrative information through a first-person point of view. An omnipresent camera makes us privy to the intimate affectations and actions of a single character. We follow Commander Shepard in Mass Effect from start to finish, sharing both the knowledge he gains throughout his campaign and the informational holes that drive his endless pursuit of truth. Obviously, there exist counterexamples in which audiences’ experiences aren’t focalized through a limited, single perspective. Games like Final Fantasy XIII or Grand Theft Auto V provide a myriad of viewpoints in the service of broadening the audiences’ narrative scope and understanding of the world. But the particular ability of videogame storytelling centering around a single character remains the most interesting tool in the medium’s arsenal. Curtailing information conveyed to the player by virtue of a finite perspective keeps audiences guessing about the duplicity of characters and the indeterminate circumstances of protagonists locked in constant danger.
So why then, don’t videogames capitalize enough on the potential narrative ambiguities afforded by this noir-ish, claustrophobic mode of narration? More often than not, videogame stories involve flawless character arcs with protagonists constantly escaping out of harm’s way, winning the love of a romantic flame, and saving the day. Even if we fail, we can always start over again in the name of consistent victory in spite of immeasurable odds stacked against the player. This faultlessness strikes me as paradoxical to the limited perspective offered by videogames. Noir supplies crucial narrative models as vital correctives, relaying the far more nuanced trajectories when artists take full advantage of a limited narrative mode. Take for example the devastating finale of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown when the deplorable criminal Noah Cross covers the eyes of the young Katherine, whisking away the girl into impenetrable darkness while the protagonist Jake Gittes stands helpless amidst his own tragic failings brought about by a limited point of view. The film initially presents Gittes as cocksure and full of loquacious wit, giving little reason to doubt his narrative control while quietly binding audiences within the narrow parameters of his vision. Thus, Chinatown’s ending unravels a sobering glimpse thematically consistent in a landscape in which omnipresent and powerful forces lurk just out of view, dictating our sight and what information we can attain.
Or what about a noir like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, a film that eases audiences in the comfort of a single protagonist holding the audiences’ hand throughout the story? We assume the invincibility of the charismatic, outwardly confident protagonist Walter Neff and unquestioningly follow along his narrative trajectory without the shadow of a doubt. The film discourages any consideration of other alternative narrative avenues or the potential treachery by his femme fatale accomplice Phyllis Dietrichson because it so thoroughly limits our perspective to that of Neff. His sentiments towards others and the narrative information he collects become our own, all in real time. When Chinatown and Double Indemnity ultimately undercut their own narrative voices, they cleverly frustrate audience expectations and deliver memorable stories reliant on our own restricted point of view. The characters of both films fall victim to the limitations of their own confined line of sight. By virtue of videogames’ design, the medium ought to deter granting too much narrative agency and a player-centric ethos, following in the similar narrative mode of noir storytelling. Rather than saviors of the realm in full control over the ultimate direction of the game, why not provide more unreliable narrators who may not have full grasp of the truth, and in turn, players who lack full control over their own situations? Enough with the countless champions unimpeded by any obstacle despite their limited perspectives, everywhere from the absurdly powerful and all-knowing Gordon Freeman of Half-Life 2 or the goober-like personality of the Dragonborn in Skyrim and the ludicrous importance attached to every narrative decision you make. Rather, videogames should take a page from the shadowy world of noir, lifting the kinds of characters left wanting of agency and potentially dispossessed of ultimate truth.
Noir itself exemplifies a losing game, one in which the dice are loaded and the outcome is fixed from the start. The game-like attributes of noir stories are apparent in the kinds of characters and setups that populate the genre. Detective stories that hopelessly search for truth in shadowy, labyrinthine worlds resemble the adventure game structure of puzzle solving and employing tools from one’s inventory in navigating complex problems. The language of adventure games translates plainly onto videogame detective stories, everywhere from L.A. Noire to The Wolf Among Us and Murdered: Soul Suspect to Professor Layton. These games offer obscured narratives, constantly holding back key information because the characters you follow lack access to all the facts. Herein lies noir’s seductive alchemy; spinning hard-boiled storylines and lurid imagery in opaque, smoky milieus, or through the beguiling allure of enigmatic characters bound in existential pursuit, noir ropes us into the darkest city streets in search of greater truth. But truth in noir stories occupies a slippery slope, always falling away from our grasp. Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown. Noir delivers messy endings with cynical worldviews, undermining its heroes vainly trying to save the day. Why are videogames so fascinated with undying heroism and spotless endings? The most compelling works rebel against the mold, directing us to lose. The metaphorical “Game Over” shouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing; it makes for stunning, devastating endings.
L.A. Noire understands the virtue of cynical defeat, mining from the narrative vein of Chinatown and L.A. Confidential and reaffirming the storytelling potentials of a narrow point of view. We’re partially complicit for the downfall of Cole Phelps, and the game cunningly undercuts our naïve assumptions that videogame characters can do no wrong. The presence of slippery truths and narrators less reliable than they seem make for compelling stories that challenge and subvert our expectations of singular videogame protagonists. Even Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare boasts a willingness to frustrate ingrained assumptions about videogame characters, killing off a playable character’s narrative arc like Alfred Hitchcock killing off Marion Crane in Psycho just midway through the film. Humor me for a second: just how much tension really exists in Mass Effect 2 when Commander Shepard seemingly dies in its opening sequence? Is this a series where a flagship playable character can die without warning? Videogames infrequently mislead the player because of the medium’s player-centric narrative mode, encouraging flawless actions and successful conclusions. Any attempts deceiving the player prove scant and inconsequential; more often than not, players triumphantly save the day and so the cycle repeats with nearly every videogame story.
The need for disobedient videogame authorship and untidy narrative beats combats the easy trappings of redundancy in a gaming landscape proliferating with unassailable protagonists. Games like L.A. Noire adopt the noir spirit not only in surface style but also in its cynical worldview, exhibiting complex, duplicitous truths and a willingness to destabilize our suspicions. Noir stories display a confident readiness and artistic dexterity to wander from expected trajectories towards tangential routes, rousing ambiguous questions with moral certitudes corroding from within. Why not undermine videogames’ disposition for first-person narrative perspectives, conjuring similar conclusions like Chinatown’s wordless incomprehension amidst failure? The nihilistic drive of noir suggests the kind of drama videogame stories ought to encourage, adding significant complexity to singular protagonists always in the right. Unreliable narrators and incomplete information blur moralities and render identities liquid. Stories gain considerable intrigue when we realize that maybe we’re not playing as a triumphant hero at all, but slowly come to realize the real treachery in our actions, that we’re playing a losing game. Something like a noir world: black and white but drenched in expressive greys.