Chasing a fleeing, desperate man across a falling construction set, it dawns upon me:
"I've fucked up."
Virtual heart racing from sprinting, I'm relentlessly tracking down a man that I've, up until this moment, deduced was guilty of a horrifying crime. He killed someone.
He didn't, though. And as I catch up to him, it's clear there are no more locations to visit, no more suspects to talk to, no more pieces of evidence to string along. The end of the road is in sight. While I (the player) know I've bungled the case, I know the suspect's innocent, and there were five questions that I shouldawouldacould answered better if I'd thought about the whole thing longer, my evidence points to him.
Someone has to take the fall, right?
Someone's got to pay, even if that someone isn't actually the right one, so the papers and the bosses and the neighborhood (does the list ever ever end?) are happy, and as the case draws to a close and I'm assigned my two-star rating, all I can feel is bitter disappointment. It's not the kind of controller chucking misery you get from screwing up a boss battle for the upteenth time, but a real "aw, shucks" realization that I've done a truly bad thing and it just felt wrong.
More games should let you fail. It's less rewarding to be right every time; it's not how life is.
In L.A. Noire, failures are still "succeses." The case is "solved." You might curse the sometimes frustrating adventure game logic driving the interrogations, but I can't help but thumbs up experiences where the fail state isn't just a game over screen. It's why seeing the "you got caught" message during the stealth sections feels so out of place. The rest of the game goes so explicitly out of its way to push players into gray areas, while the action remains black and white.
I twitch every time someone on my Twitter feed curses that they've been awarded less than five stars on a case in L.A. Noire and begin the case from scratch. Give failure a chance, ya'll.
Believe me, I understand the impulse--I have it, too. What's powerful is saying no to it and seeing how you respond. As gamers, we've been trained to achieve perfection, whether it's navigating a sea of bullets or collecting some hidden items. We don't like second place, especially if it's preventable. That's boring. Why should it always go your way? We're constantly asking developers to create more emotional gaming experiences, and though I can't say the same for you, but my personal failures burn more than my successes. They're what drive me to be better.
I'm reminded of the spit-take reaction to Aeris in Final Fantasy VII. I'm convinced the developers wouldn't kill her if they made the game today; they'd have made resurrecting her some achievement, otherwise it would tick too many people off. I want to get pissed off, feel sad, experience regret and engage deeper than the latest macho power fantasy (which I like, too!).
Want to play something moving? Try Jordan Magnuson's The Killer. I want that on a large scale.
There was a similar moment in Grand Theft Auto IV that I wrote about, too, in a post titled "My Conscience, And How ‘Grand Theft Auto IV’ Made Me Feel Regret." I talked about when you're asked to kill Playboy X or Dwayne. Letting Playboy X live presents a cooler gameplay path, with the possibility to grab a larger apartment, while Dwayne, recently released from prison and seeking redemption, offers me nothing as a player, besides toying with my virtual compassion.
I killed Dwayne. Here's how I reacted back in 2008:
"It felt wrong, though. In my gut, I was killing someone with a second chance. Dwayne served his time. But in a dog-eat-dog virtual world, it was about me. Except it wasn’t. It was about me, the player. When Playboy X called me up after the deed was done and denounced our relationship — calling me 'cold' — he was right. There was a knot in my stomach over this. I made the wrong decision. It was too late; the auto save function had kicked in. Dwayne’s fate was signed, sealed, delivered. I have to live with that decision for the rest of the game."
If I could have done that moment over, reloaded a previous save, I might have. How tragic.
I want more moments like that, please. Don't you?