A man in a corner is never going to shut up. If he shuts up, if he says what I knew I should say, "Call my lawyer," then he's going to the station, he's going to get booked, he's going to court. For a guy in a jam, there's only one way out, to keep explaining, hoping that somehow bullsh*t buys liberty. – Mack Malloy, Pleading Guilty by Scott Turow
Interrogation is the heart of L.A. Noire, and it is broken. It employs a flawed model of interrogation, and each step in the process drives wedges between what the player intended, what the game interprets, and what Det. Cole Phelps actually does. Eventually, like Phelps himself, you might start to accommodate the corrupt system within which you must work, but it remains a bad system.
L.A. Noire presents interrogation as a game of distinguishing truth from lies. The suspect or witness shares a piece of information, and you are presented with three possible reactions. They are: Truth, Doubt, and Lie. Truth signifies that you believe the subject is being truthful, and Lie indicates that you believe the statement is false and you have information that proves it. For instance: You're talking to a freshly-minted widower, and he says that he never had a problem with his murdered wife. Except his daughter told you that he bought his wife a gift as a way of saying, "Sorry for ending our last argument by belting you." So now you've caught him in a lie, and he comes clean. Doubt means you do not believe the statement, but you don't have evidence to back that up. After you select one of these reactions, Phelps responds to the interview subject.
These mechanics always feel artificial and disjointed. Your goal is to keep the conversation going, to respond in a way that makes the suspect give up information that they tried to withhold. But the only way to keep them talking is to decide whether or not they are lying. The decision you have to make is not really related to your goal.
The problem for L.A. Noire is that its audience knows the rules of the police procedural, even if sweating a suspect isn't something most people have done outside the confines of marriage and child-rearing. We know that the trick is to force liars to add to their lies, to adjust them on the fly, using bits and pieces of the truth to frame new falsehoods. Hostile interrogation is about entrapment and manipulation. Whether someone is being honest or not is almost immaterial. If you have evidence, you force them explain it or you withhold it until you can hang them with it. If you don't have evidence, you let the instinct to keep explaining work its magic, until eventually the constructed story snaps under its own weight. We have read and and watched the scenes that L.A. Noire attempts to translate into a game, and we know the translation is hopelessly flawed. The object of the game is to make someone tell you something they didn't want to. L.A. Noire presents it as a multiple choice mind-reading test.
Even if you grant that this is a contrivance necessary to spin gameplay out of interrogation (although couldn't your choice be one of attitude: good cop, bad cop, professionally detached cop?), the three possible reactions are coarse-grained and unclear. L.A. Noire presents you with one "edge case" after another that confounds the limited selection of reactions. For instance, how should you respond to someone who is telling the truth, but not all of it? Remember, two of the possible responses involve accusing people of lying, so do you really want to do that with a material witness who might just be reticent, not deceitful?
An example: In one case, Phelps is interviewing a victim's landlady. She's not in the frame for the murder. Phelps questions her about where the victim spent her time outside the boarding house, and the landlady says that she doesn't really know, that the victim never really confided in her. Now, this makes perfect sense, but maybe the landlady knows more than she is telling. Does that make her a liar? Obviously not, but what is going to happen if you select Truth? Phelps might effectively abandon that line of questioning, or he might suggest that surely the landlady has some idea of what her boarders get up to. If you select Doubt, there is a very good chance that Phelps will effectively badger her, and she might tell him to go to hell. Or Phelps might find a way of cajoling more info. The correct reaction to this woman is a mixture of belief and doubt. She has more information, and she even wants to be helpful. How to get her to tell you more?
The nuclear option is to accuse her of lying. You have the victim's library card, for instance. Phelps could tell the landlady he knows she's lying and brandish the library card to prove ... what, exactly? That you know the victim used the L.A. library system, so the landlady must know something? Obviously it's a ridiculous idea, but in the strange logic of L.A. Noire, it just might work. In cases like this, you're shooting in the dark. You want the landlady to tell you whatever she has internally dismissed as irrelevant or unkind about the victim, but your options suggest nothing about how you will accomplish that.
Which brings us to Phelps, and his bizarre, seemingly out-of-context reactions. In order to justify why getting the "Truth or Lie" questions wrong will result in giving up on important lines of questioning, Phelps has to make the most ghastly gaffes you can imagine. Whether it's chewing out a teenage rape victim while she lies in her hospital bed, or threatening an obviously grieving friend about what you'll do to him if he doesn't start talking, Phelps is all about inappropriate confrontation.
In Team Bondi's defense, Phelps is not a likable person. He is lacking in empathy and gets along poorly with most people. It makes sense that he has a limited interrogation repertoire. But there are too many times when actor Aaron Staton's line readings bear no relationship to what has just transpired in the game. Perhaps he heard the same words, but he missed the tone, and so his response seems spliced-in from another conversation. It's a consistent annoyance, but it is outrageous in the interviews, because Phelps is clearly behaving stupidly just to punish the player for having an incorrect reaction. "Listen kid! If you don't come clean about your murdered mother and help us send your dad to the gas chamber, I'm going to throw your ass in jail!" As a little girl bursts into tears, you can only stare in slack-jawed shock at a detective who thought that was an appropriate follow-up.
My problem isn't with failure, but with failing because the game gave me no way to express my mixed reactions to a witness's behavior, or my intentions in questioning. I could handle the flawed interrogation mechanics if the ways of controlling them were exact and consistent, but they are not. At least, not in a way that is convincing.
I will admit here that I have become much better at this aspect of the game, and my interrogations have become more rewarding, but only because I have learned to compensate for this strange conversation system by ignoring my intuition and trusting what the suspects' overdone body language tells me. Even that fails me at some crucial junctures, but perhaps that's what really makes this game noir. Like any classic noir hero, I am trying to play a rigged game according to rules that I don't understand.