Backseat Developers


The long reign of the current-gen consoles is almost over, and if you asked me to name my favorite games made over the past seven years, LA Noire would be close to the top. It’s an adventure game set in a sprawling 1940s Los Angeles, with an engaging story and production values that have never been seen in a genre that relies almost entirely on deduction (and probably won’t be seen again). I love it to pieces, but I’ll also be the first to explain how one design choice nearly ruins the whole shebang.

Nearly every aspect of the game is built to immerse, and for the most part, it succeeds. Questioning suspects is as bare-bones as it gets, allowing your eyes and intuition to read their faces and decide whether they’re telling the truth or stretching it. It’s possible to misread your subject, choose the wrong response and let crucial details slip through your fingers. Entire cases can go sour, prompting the police chief to chew you out before the plot moves along. Letting the player fail and move on is a bold choice, and it would have been successful, were it not for a certain piano in the background.

Three upbeat notes signal a successful choice. Four foreboding notes are the game’s way of saying “You screwed up, buddy!” Whenever those four notes of death played, my muscle reflexes kicked in; I paused, quit, and resumed. It didn’t matter if I had to restart interviews that I was halfway through, or fight my way through the same tedious shootout again and again. Those four notes were there, and I would not accept anything less than total perfection.


It's remarkably easy to find screenshots of characters making dumb faces in LA Noire, and that makes me very happy.
It’s remarkably easy to find screenshots of characters making dumb faces in LA Noire, and that makes me very happy.

Why did the developers feel the need to include this? The facial technology is so astounding that you can read suspects like an open book, and know when you’re getting somewhere by their responses to your needling. Success and failure are already naturally built into the way you interact with the environment; the musical cues for success and failure stick out like a sore thumb, patronizingly reminding you of what you can already see in front of your face. Worst of all, it accentuates the fact that this is a game, with stringent systems and win/lose conditions. All the elegance and grace of the presentation is undone by what amounts to design cowardice.

Yes, you heard that right. When a game feels the need to make pop-up announcements of game mechanics long after you’ve learned them, constantly badgering you with “Go here,” or “This looks important,” or “Clementine may remember that,” I can feel the developers leaning over my shoulder, backseat driving while I try to play their game. It’s wholly unnecessary and incredibly patronizing. The Far Cry 3 team should know we don’t need to be reminded every five minutes that there are still missions yet to be completed in the story. Why create environments rife for exploration if you won’t even trust me to explore it “properly?”

Maybe these games nag players because playtesters had a hard time learning where to go or what was important. In that case, these pop-ups are merely bandages for deeper design issues. There are ways to let levels silently speak for themselves, latching onto the brain’s responses to guide them from A to B. Valve is particularly adept at this, using extensive research to fuel game design that feels natural. Portal knows what makes you tick, and gives you the respect and room to figure things out for yourself. There’s no flashing box in the corner reminding you why you’re completing these tests or what the left and right mouse buttons do hours into the game.


I'm pretty sure that spamming me with the same objective reminder fits your definition of insanity.
I’m pretty sure that spamming me with the same objective reminder fits your definition of insanity.

Most of the egregious offenders have started to add toggles in their menus, allowing the player to switch off obnoxious “tells”. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? If I need extra assistance, I’d happily pause and turn a few knobs to push me in the right direction. I don’t want you to watch me die a few times and decide that I probably want your help or forgot what the trigger on my controller does. If you keep pestering me, I won’t want to finish your game.

Trust goes both ways, developers. If you want me to buy into the world you’ve created, it would be nice if you acknowledged that I’m smarter than a bag of frozen carrots. Until then, creeping up to my ear and hammering four loud failure notes on your grand piano will earn you nothing but scorn and disdain.