L.A. Noire: Interactive short stories vs interactive novels

I’m very much enjoying L.A. Noire at the moment, and one of the most interesting things for me is the way the game structures its story.  Most story-focused games are like novels or movies in that the game has a single main story. The game might be divided into chapters or missions, but these function like the chapters in a novel, each one adding dramatic beats to the main story rather than standing alone.

Playing L.A. Noire, it struck me that the game felt like a collection of linked short stories rather than like a novel. (Or, if you prefer, like an episodic TV series rather than like a movie.) Each case is a self-contained story, with its own cast of characters and its own beginning, middle, and ending.

I think that this short-story-like approach might be a better way of structuring non-linear, story-based games than the more common novelistic approach. Developers can give the player plenty of different paths to take through the story without it getting unwieldy, because the branches will all be cut and the player put back in place at the start of the next mission.

It also makes the prospect of replaying the mission and making different choices more attractive. Each case is short enough to easily play through in one sitting (again like a short story as opposed to a novel), so I’m not put off by the length of time it would take to replay them. I don’t have to invest multiple sessions playing from the start in order to make a different choice half way through the game.

L.A. Noire’s missions aren’t actually as self-contained as they first appear. There is an overarching story (I’m only half way through, but it’s not hard to see where it’s going), and there are story arcs covering smaller groups of missions. Still, it feels like a collection of short stories with a plot thread running through them, or like a TV series with a myth arc running through mostly stand-alone episodes, rather than like a novel or film. The distinction between games with self-contained missions and those with single overall stories is a sliding scale, but L.A. Noire comes in closer to the short story end of the scale than any other game I’ve played recently.

Thinking about it, it would be possible for a game to go much further towards the short story end than L.A. Noire has. A game could be a compilation of stories, built on the same game engine and with the same game mechanics, but each with its own self-contained story, with its own main character and perhaps its own setting. (It might be easier on the graphics budget for them to all take place in the same city and time period.) The stories could be linked by theme rather than being part of the same plot. The player basically gets a compilation of small games, but doesn’t have to learn new game mechanics each time, so can focus on them as interactive stories.

That sort of game could lend itself to storytelling possibilities that aren’t being explored in many current games, just as short stories are a different sort of beast from novels. The question would be whether there would be a market for short-story-anthology games. I think there would, but a limited one, and the games would probably have to ride on the coat-tails of more conventional story-based games from the same studio. (To stretch my analogy further, there’s also a smaller market for short stories than for novels, and an author isn’t likely to get a short story anthology published until they’ve had a few novel sales first.)

I’ll see how many self-contained stories there are in the second half of L.A. Noire, and here’s hoping that other games explore the short story model in future.


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