Over recent years there has been a trend within the design of game user interfaces towards representing information required by the player in a more diegetic way, in other words incorporating the user interface into the game-world. In this paper I will examine the means by which L.A. Noire (Team Bondi, Rockstar Games, 2011) achieved this with the “detective’s notebook” menu system.
L.A.Noire, the product of 7 years of work (McMillen, 2011) on the part of developers Team Bondi was received to critical acclaim in receiving a Metacritic (CBS Interactive) score of 89, ranking it 12th and 15th as game of 2011 for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 respectively (Dietz, 2011).
L.A. Noire (Team Bondi, Rockstar Games, 2011) is an adventure game as defined by Bateman & Boon’s (Bateman & Boon, 2006) theory of definition by genre nucleation which states that a genre term arises when a significant amount of games of a similar type appear to warrant an umbrella term, usually ascribed by the gaming press.
The narrative of L.A. Noire as the title may suggest, is set within the 1940’s in the titular Los Angeles, Carolyn Petit’s review for Gamespot describing it as “drenched in so much authentic late-’40s style that you’ll practically be able to smell the acrid mix of glamour and corruption in the air.” (Petit, 2011).
The game shares a lot of stylistic similarities with the more modern, neo noir take on the film noir genre leaning heavily on films such as Chinatown (Polanski, 1974) and L.A. Confidential (Hanson, 1997) as detailed in Zero Punctuation’s review of the title: “Cole’s character is best equated to Guy Peirce’s character from the film L.A. Confidential and while you’re equating you might as well equate a few other things from that film too, like the setting, time period, large chunks of the plot, a police department containing more assholes than a donkey in an iron maiden, and both of them start with the letters L.A. which I don’t think can be a coincidence” (Croshaw, 2011)
What is a user interface?
At a fundamental level, the user interface (UI) is any and all way in which the player is able to gain information and interact with the game. Llanos & Jørgenson explicate UI as “any and all features that provide information or assist the player in interacting with the game. In this sense, it includes both hardware features such as controllers and screen, and software features such as the audiovisual features of the game.” (LLanos & Jørgenson, 2011)
Game designers and authors Braithwaite and Schreiber define the user interface (UI) as “how the players communicate their chosen actions to the game (the “input”, usually referred to as the controls), and how the game displays the results of those actions to the player (the “output”, such as the screen display and controller vibration).” (Braithwaite & Schreiber, 2009, p. 215)
Jesse Schell builds on this with his own theory, taking the physical input/output model as described by Braithwaite and Schreiber and adds additional layer, “a conceptual layer that exists between the physical input/output and the game world. This layer is usually called the virtual interface, and has both input elements (such as a virtual menu where the player makes a selection) and output elements (such as a score display” (Schell, 2010).
It is this virtual interface which I will examine in this paper, in particular the detective’s notepad menu system used to incorporate the user interface into the diegesis of the game world of L.A. Noire, in particular the Virtual Interface to World (read game world) and World to Virtual Interface as defined by Schell.
Establishing a critical approach
For the purposes of this paper and to clarify the games as culture, I will be using Aarseth’s subdivision of games as outlined in “Playing Research: Methodological approaches to game analysis” (Aarseth, 2003), where he states “games, unlike traditional games or sports, consist of non-ephemeral, artistic content (stored words, sounds and images), which places the games much closer to the ideal object of the Humanities, the work of art. Thus, they become visible and textualizable for the aesthetic observer, in a way the previous phenomena were not.”
Konzack also supports this view of games as culture; “it is important to understand the basic nature of game, play and culture. According to Johan Huizinga’s theory, play and game are the origins of culture. Playing and games are culture in themselves, and culture will expand and prosper by freely exploring them.” (Konzack, 2002)
Within this paper I want to focus specifically the area that Aarseth defines as Game-world, covering elements such as “fictional content, topology/level design, textures etc” under such perspectives as “Art, aesthetics, history, cultural/media studies” with respect to the user interface of L.A. Noire.
I will be undertaking this study using Aarseth’s second and third methods, reading reports and reviews and playing the game myself as “what takes place on the screen is only partly representative of what the player experiences” (Aarseth, 2003). While this can be argued as a result to be a subjective interpretation of the user interface, “phenomena such as aesthetic experience, emotion, expressiveness, and sociability – in many ways have no straightforward factual, material, or external existence; if they can be said to exist at all, they do so within subjectivity” (Bardzell, 2011)