Constitutive, Operational, and Implicit Rules in L.A. Noire

Posted: February 9, 2013 by sdamle in Uncategorized

In my last entry, I explored the ways in which L.A. Noire presents choices to the gamer. As we discovered, the game uses a multiplicity of methods – including the phenomenal facial recognition software– to convey choices to the player in the context of the interview sequences. My goal today is to take a step back and look at the overriding architecture of rules that L.A. Noire employs in order to create the gaming environment that players exist within. Indeed, central to the success (or failure) of any game is the effectiveness of its rules and, moreover, its ability to negotiate the fine line between being too restrictive (fixed) or too loose (chaos).

Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman suggest that there are three types of rules in any game: operational, constitutive, and implicit rules. Just as with the “anatomy of choice” and choice in L.A. Noire, this typology is helpful in deconstructing rules in L.A. Noire. Let’s begin by examining the constitutive rules of L.A. Noire – or the rules that reflect underlying structures of the game that inform the operational rules. In L.A. Noire, the game is bounded by an expansive map of Los Angeles. Thus, the operational rules must consider the confines of this map. Additionally, the game is set up so the main protagonist is a police officer. This context will help us understand some of the operational rules described below.

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(Traversing the landscape of 1940s LA)

In the realm of operational rules, or the rules that most directly relate to a players interaction with the game, L.A. Noire is both wide open and relatively closed off. On the one hand, players have an incredibly detailed and expansive map of Los Angeles laid out in front of them, and they have substantial agency to explore the map via car without many restrictions (although, unlike the Grand Theft Auto franchise, little, if any, time exists to explore the map). On the other hand, however, operational rules become more restrictive when it comes to which buildings a player may enter. In almost every case, players can only enter buildings that a relevant to the games missions. Moreover, unlike many other open world games, player interaction with the games environment is limited; no “world” exists outside of game play and you cannot freely use your weapons. When you do use a weapon during an investigation to prematurely kill a suspect, this is the games response:

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In cases where you damage other people’s cars or harm pedestrians, your case fitness report is damaged. In sum, in terms of operational rules, L.A. Noire sits somewhere in the middle on a spectrum ranging from Grand Theft Auto to a sports game like FIFA. 

Finally, L.A. Noire has few of what we would consider to be the last type of rules – implicit rules, or the “unwritten rules” of games that are informed by social constructs. Because L.A. Noire is a single player game, no implicit rules exist as it relates to etiquette between two or more players. However, it would be considered bad sportsmanship to continuously quit the game and restart missions when a player seeks a better outcome.

Ultimately, L.A. Noire is a game that is bound by both restrictive and open game play vis-à-vis rules. While fair criticisms can be levied against the way in which the designers operationalize the games rules, the rules make sense within the context of the overall narrative of the game.

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