If I were on L.A.'s police force in the '40s, I'd have let my share of killers go and put a few innocents behind bars. I know this from playing the "The Silk Stocking Murder" case from L.A. Noire.
In 1947 Los Angeles, cops relied on intuition and the innate ability to read a suspect. L.A. Noire puts a large focus on reading the faces of those you interrogate, judging the inflection of their voice, noticing the slight shift in their gait as they speak -- and I stink at it.
Each interrogation in L.A. Noire features the same set-up, whether it's a person of interest or a potential witness. You pick from a list of possible questions, listen to the answer (watching your subject the entire time), and then decide if they're telling the truth, holding something back, or flat out lying. The interface lacks an imagination -- a matter-of-fact list hovering in the top left corner of the screen -- but the results are pretty spectacular. Catch someone in a lie and there's an instant sense of satisfaction you rarely get in video game conversations.
Even if the lie doesn't prove anyone's guilt or lead directly to a killer, that little ah-ha moment is priceless – a true "Gotcha, bitch!" Sure, Cole Phelps isn't quite so crude (though he sure can point a finger and accuse an old crone of being a "hag"), but I am. He might play it cool when he's got someone by the soft sack, but I like to gloat.
Conversely, mistakenly accusing someone of a lie is humbling. Sometimes failing at reading a person has little effect on the final outcome of the conversation, other times you can tell the suspect knows they have the upper hand. You never want to believe someone is telling the truth when they're holding something back and you don't want to doubt someone being genuine.
The trick is figuring out who to believe. If you haven't been following L.A. Noire, it uses a slick new MotionScan technology that renders an actor's face to perfection. Every furrowed brow, quivering lip, and shifting set of eyes is replayed during conversations, making for true performances on screen. That also means you aren't reading some animator's guess at how someone would act if lying -- you get a trained actor's interpretation of a character. If you've ever watched an episode of Law & Order and tried to figure out who was trying to pull the wool over Sam Waterston's eyes, it's pretty much the same feeling in L.A. Noire.
The good news is that even if you stink at reading someone's face, you won't get kicked off force or have to restart a chapter. You might make your job harder -- fail to cross names off your suspect list, miss clues that would keep you from trekking across town to another location -- but never impossible. You get a score after each interrogation letting you know how many choices you got correct. Even with my meager detective skills, I was right far more often than I was wrong. And being wrong showed me different reactions and allowed me to hear lines of dialogue I'd have missed if I was perfect in every conversation.
Lying to Cole Phelps makes him very angry.
Knowing when someone's lying in L.A.Noire isn't too hard. Whenever you accuse someone of a lie, you have to show evidence to back up the contradiction. This makes you more aware of the evidence jotted down in your notepad, so catching someone in a lie is more likely. The real trick is knowing when to believe someone and when to doubt their testimony. Nothing in your little notebook can help you here. It's just you and the suspect. Intuition plays a part. Mine sucks.
Maybe it's because everyone seems to have shifty eyes or I just assume everyone in L.A. has something to hide, but I had a hard time trusting any of the folks I spoke with during the Silk Stockings case. There are several indicators to determine if you should trust or doubt someone, but these aren't "game" things. There's no meter, no flashing button prompts. You actually have to study a character like you would a person. How do you know if someone isn't telling you something?
This makes L.A. Noire special. It's not that developer Team Bondi recreated a believable 1947 Los Angeles or that Rockstar has assisted in building a big open world to drive around in. It's not the side missions or the story or Cole Phelps' altruism. It's the fact that, really for the first time in a game, you have to view video game characters as if they were real people.