Note: if you have not played this game and plan to – do NOT read this post. There are many spoilers.
Rape culture is a way to think of the systemic means by which women are rendered powerless and subjected in particular contexts. Anne Kingston, senior writer at Maclean’s magazine (a Canadian weekly news periodical) accurately described rape culture as an ecosystem that enables rape to be normalized (e.g. women “deserve” to be raped if they act in certain ways). An ecosystem is such that the those who live in it are largely unaware of its processes, much like most of us take little notice of the bacteria that allow us to live, many are unaware of the cultural processes that shape and channel the way they think, fantasize, behave, and interact. Literary genres participate in creating a national ecosystem (or symbolic order) by narrativizing the paradigmatic myths that tell us who we are as national, racial, cultural, and political subjects. Genres map out how we should deal with certain social and rhetorical situations, so it should not be surprising that noir fiction and film has participated in the seamless functioning of rape culture by perpetuating ideologies of American gender and sexuality.
Like Foucault said (okay, he didn’t SAY the following, but he strongly implied it!), we need to trace the origins of the discourses in order to denaturalize them. As Herbert Marcuse explains, in a repressive and oppressive social order, technological and mass forms/artifacts serve the practical and ideological needs of that order (John Sanbonmatsu “Video Games and Machine Dreams of Domination“) In video game studies, there has consistently been a strong push to find new and improved ways to study video games, and this trajectory tends to foreclose on linking game narratives to the historical processes and contexts that engendered them. This is not to say that we shouldn’t follow what Alexander Galloway and Ian Bogost tells us in regard to privileging the computational processes from which games are fueled, but that we need to expose the ideologies, which are distinctly linked to game procedures. With all due respect to Surface Reading (a new and improved formalism), there are immersive technologies that require theoretical practice to expose the “wizard” behind the curtain, so to speak. This is not about hunting for meaning in a print text but gazing a critical eye at an instrumentalist form of reading that can be blinding.
The Red Lipstick Murders case starts in classic noir style with “unusual camera angles” and “chiaroscuro,” creating a decentred and unstable composition (Andrew Spicer Film Noir 313). We expect to see graphic violence in film noir, and this opening delivers with a woman being dragged from a car and then bludgeoned to death with a tire iron. We only see the killer’s feet and then the shadowy outline of him beating a woman to death: as spectators, we are certainly decentred (perhaps by our voyeuristic role and the expectation that we will be able to see the victim – a disturbing thought).
This is a cut scene so we are not positioned as player but as viewer, a position for which we have been trained via the culture industry. That is, we know how to watch a film and so we put these “reading” skills to use as we play. I realize there is some disagreement as to whether players actually watch cut scenes or not, but since complex video games like L.A. Noire use cut scenes as rewards for finding certain objects (pick up a newspaper, wear certain clothing, etc..), I think the point is that we are meant to do so. They certainly cost enough money to produce (meaning if they were not popular, why include them?), so I think the argument is moot and unhelpful. We need to see this cut scene to know what comes next, which is in the debriefing room at the station where Captain Donnelly fills us in on the case.
The modality of the scene changes from classic noir B&W to colour; from odd camera angles to a straight shot of the room, and we are positioned in with the other detectives as we transition from gazing as audience member to focalizing the narrative through Phelps. As Phelps, we enter and, to some extent, are controlled by a primarily male gaze. We have the power to investigate and demand answers to questions. We have access to knowledge and control. My biological features as a real person are not at stake; my ability to navigate this world is dependent on Phelps, who we follow and appear to make choices as this character, but these choices are largely decided by complex algorithms. No matter what choice I make as Phelps, he will not live up to his social designation as hard-boiled detective. He is a failed version of masculinity (more in this post). Phelps does not define ME but does influence my perception (if I allow him to). Through Phelp’s, I learn how a male-centred world operates and the price to be paid if one does not correctly perform masculinity. Video games are often called “masculinist,” but this is an overly simplified way to think about video games. Many (not all) games are really forms of social control for all genders and sexualities and most link to a decidedly American form of rugged masculinity and domesticity influenced via frontier narratives.
Through Phelp’s gaze we are introduced to a lengthy set of cases that reveal a serious threat to the American home and, therefore, nation. On this urban frontier, the threats are internal and not the external threats the frontiersman of the 18th and 19th century faced. However, one of the hallmarks of the classic frontiersman is to recognize evil in all its disguises. Hawkeye knows the difference between “good” and “bad” Indians and, similarly, our urban frontiersman/detective, Phelps, must also be able to gauge, through interrogation, who is “good” and who is “bad.” One of the twists of the noir genre is to diagnose an infection, but to be unable to excise that infection. The hard-boiled detective makes the urban frontier relatively safe, but the uncivilized element is never fully banished.
The infection in this particular section of the game exhumes a nineteenth and early twentieth century debate over temperance and sobriety that informed “the construction of whiteness and masculinity as definitional of both the public sphere in which they took place and the embodied subjects who embodied that space” (Hendler, Sentimental Men 128). This temperance discourse is remapped onto a post-collapse United States to make sense of why the collapse happened and how the U.S. can maintain its exceptionalism. The blame is cast on the the 1% (as inevitable, all-powerful, exceptional, and unbeatable – inviting political apathy as all Rockstar games do), but also on the intemperance of the nation, metonymically represented by murdered, fallen American women.
It is crucial to understand that the Red Lipstick Murders are loosely based on the Lipstick Murders in Chicago and the gruesome Black Dahlia murder in Los Angeles. In both cases, women and one small girl, were brutally attacked, mutilated, and murdered (not necessarily in that order). This link between actual murders and the fictitious world of the game is not only a convention of genres with frontier heritage but also of American literature. The link between fact and fiction (or “fact-tion”) is often blurred in American literature. Of course, these blurred lines (pardon the wordplay here) are part and parcel of nation building in the U.S. Therefore, it is not surprising that the game writers/developers drew from these famous cases, with the Black Dahlia case figuring most predominantly.
Of particular interest is the mention of the Black Dahlia by Phelp’s crusty new partner, Rusty Galloway in the cut scene where they travel to the crime scene. The killer is dubbed the “werewolf” in the game, likely due to the brutality of the killings. Galloway surmises that this case has nothing to do with the Dahlia murders, explaining that “90% of murders are domestic.” Phelps asks why so many women are being murdered at this particular point in time, to which Galloway responds, “‘Cause of the war. You should know that. Guy gets to kill people every day in combat, comes home, and he’s expected to take lip from his wife? What do you think is going to happen?” Phelps is skeptical. What Galloway’s comments reveal is an incredibly important part of the domestic and rape culture ecosystem: men can’t help it. If a woman “gives lip” to a traumatized male, then she can expect to be murdered. Chilling.
Of course, linking these cases to the Dahlia murder is more than simply sensationalizing: Elizabeth Short, nicknamed the Black Dahlia by the press, was characterized as a loose woman, who drank and caroused (James Ellroy, My Dark Places). The name “Black Dahlia” gave her an air of mystery and eroticism (not to mention the metaphorical connotations between the vagina and flowers). Often described as an “struggling” and “aspiring” actress, Short is implicitly linked to the perversity and intemperance that has defined the underbelly of Hollywood. The Red Lipstick Murder is only the first in the series of cases involving murdered intemperate women that Phelps investigates: in each case, the victims, like Short, are characterized as “loose women” – they either drink or spend too much money. They are promiscuous or drifters; therefore, the game makes the case that they were destined to end badly.
The Victim: Celine Henry
When we approach the crime scene, we are given a brief aerial shot of the victim (Celine Henry, but we do not learn her name until later). She is naked and mutilated. As part of the game mechanics, we have to straddle her, which is disturbing to say the least. Positioned just below the vagina, we look at the body over Phelp’s shoulder. The killer has written on the body the initials “BD,” which might mean, according to the coroner, “Black Dahlia.” We check the victims hands and discover that a ring on the right hand is missing.
We discover a lighter from a local club, The Bamba, at the crime scene, and soon we are on our way to discover the identity of the victim and unpack her narrative. Phelps has the power to speak for Henry, who could have easily been portrayed and even played in flashbacks, but that’s not part of the genre convention, and so it is not part of the game procedure. When we question the bartender, we learn that the victim is likely Celine Henry, and she frequents the club most nights. Her intemperance has been established.
As Phelps, we interrogate the club owner McColl, who paints a picture of Celine as a “lovely woman” but also as a heavy drinker who had “quite a head start” before she met up with a man at the bar. He mentions Celine’s husband, who then becomes a “POI” (Person of Interest), which pops up at the bottom of the screen. This little notation (in typewriter style font to add to the high modality of the game) about clues, locations, and possible suspects operates as a kind of computational internal narrator, directing us to think in certain ways, such as defining characters as innocent or guilty. As a member of what Louis Althusser called the Repressive State Apparatus, Phelps is invested with a state sanctioned mastery of official language and can demand answers from suspects. We learn that Celine does not have mastery of language, and she is a linguistic deviant because she “tells stories” to attract male attention.Celine is postioned as unreliable and unable to control language, the opposite of Phelps, even though she is educated and is also a “flier.” We later learn that Celine was a pioneering female pilot, all of which is overshadowed by her alcoholism and infidelity. In other words, her accomplishments in the public sphere are meaningless in the face of her domestic transgressions.
Phelps asks McColl about Celine’s missing ring, which is not her wedding ring, and is described as “on the large side, larger than life, like Celine herself.” Through pressing the correct assessment of McColl’s truthfulness (doubt is the right answer), the game procedures here position Phelps as the subject-supposed-to-know and McColl as the subordinated male subject, we learn that McColl bought Celine the ring, indicating infidelity on Celine’s part. Another nail in her coffin.
McColl tells Phelps that he tried to call Celine’s husband Jacob to pick her up, as he had done many times before. Jacob refuses and Celine leaves with her killer.
When we investigate the house, we learn that the house has been “creeped,” (already searched) according to Galloway (love that slang!). As we investigate, we find a note on the fridge left by Jacob for Celine stating that if she “sobers up” she can find him at a particular address. Here is our next destination, which is kept in a note book that we consult to choose clues, intuition, and also a location to travel to. The notebook is a symbol of official language – a virtual space that collects transgressions of gender and national performance, which we, as Phelps, then use to interrogate and arrest suspects.
After talking with a neighbour, Jennifer Horoan, we learn that Celine was very drunk by 10:00 pm, and Jacob may have given her a black eye (Galloway says in the house that if his wife drank that much, he’d give her a smack, so domestic violence is shown a common way to deal with wild wives in this historical representation of 1940’s America). Jennifer calls Jacob “long suffering” and tells Phelps that Celine drove very drunk, a cardinal sin, lowering Celine’s ethos even more.
When we find Jacob, he claims to know nothing of Celine’s death but Phelps finds a notebook and as Phelps, we rub the notebook with a pencil and find a secret note. This particular interaction, renders us (so to speak) as a demysitifiers – this little immersive scene is a meta-narrative for the detective’s function: only he can reveal hidden meaning and make structure out of chaos. As Catherine Belsey so saliently notes in “Constructing the Subject; Deconstructing the Text,” the detective makes all mysteries accountable to reason (which is not the hard-boiled detective way, so Phelps will pay for this misrecognition of his national role). That comes later, in this particular case, Phelps makes the world easily readable through the binary lens of gender performance. This particular clue makes Galloway accuse Jacob of murdering his wife, but Jacob insists he only wanted to commit her to a sanitorium for treatment of alcoholism. At this point, a fight ensues, Galloway is slugged, and we subdue Jacob. By clicking the right buttons, we violently regain control of the situation.
When we call in for a squad car to pick up Jacobs and take him to the station, we learn that Celine was not killed by blunt force trauma to the head. Her death was sexually violent and gruesome; over the phone, Carruthers, the coroner, tells us the horrific details:
Death was from hemmorage; the shock from the fractured ribs; and multiple injuries caused by stomping…He’s [the killer] some kind of sex fiend. The tissues of the anus were bruised about an 1/8th, but no trace of semen in the anus, vagina, or stomach.
Jacob is taken to the police station, and we get a call from dispatch that the license plate number matches a car belonging to one Alonzo Mendez, which means that Jacob is likely innocent. The Captain does not care; as far as he is concerned, Jacob was a browbeaten husband, which means that he was pushed to murder his wife.
In the interrogation session, Jacob denies everything, and we know he is likely innocent but the marriage pact as a microcosm of the nation will not bear Jacob being anything other than a “sob sister,” who was “pushed around by his wife.” Captain Donnelly’s authority and control are clear: he will dictate the narrative of this marriage, which is driven by national ideal of rugged masculinity and domesticity. There can be no queerness or changing of roles. Jacob’s failure as a husband must rest in his inability to control his wife’s alcoholism and promiscuity through violence and not his apparently passive attempt to send her for treatment. Of course, he should support her and help her to be sober, but this is a violation of genre protocol. He is not the civilizer but the protector or civilization, even if that protection is violent. “Civilizers” are American women who control the homefront.
The interrogation session is also part of the game procedure and its rhetoric is designed to support these ideologies of sex and gender. When Phelps (us) accuses Jacobs of lying, we do it in the most vociferous and insulting way imaginable, we call Celine a “drunken whore” who treated Jacob “like shit.” We call Jacob a “weak sister” for stomping on Celine and mutilating her, but we know that this is not the case. Paradoxically, the Captain’s fiction that Phelps perpetuates is exactly what makes Jacob more of a man for punishing Celine, whose sexual and alcoholic intemperance renders her the bad wife and mother: the worst crime an American middle class white woman can commit.
Phelps plays into the system despite knowing the truth – and if we agree with Jacob, we will fail to win more points and gain what are called “intution points.” These points are invaluable to gain access to answers and finding important clues, sometimes within a time limit. Again, a game’s procedures are set up to encourage the player to win but in the case of game narrative what do we win? We win by ideologically positioning ourselves correctly. We know the truth but we will not jeopardize our careers or our success to save another from injustice. When we consider the powerful combination of genre and video game mechanics, then this is a powerful lesson, isn’t it? Stay quiet and endure – don’t fight back. Much like we see in other Rockstar Games, such as Red Dead Redemption, don’t fight the power, endure the power, and do what you are told. Those who break those boundaries pay a terrible price.
Jacob admits to “killing her [Celine’s] dreams” by only being able to offer “security” for Celine, who wanted to pursue her goal of being a pilot. In 2011, the idea of security has multiple meanings for U.S. citizens, playing on ideas of financial security (which was and is still an impossibility for a large swath of the American population) and also national security. Jacob describes his social and class mobility from his life as a tenant farmer to his current middle class status, rendering Celine’s aviation dreams as wasteful, extravagant, and intemperate.
The person who is finally arrested is the Mexican American, Mendez whose ethnicity renders him available to frame in this racist gamescape. They find the murder weapon in plain site and surrounded by blood in a cardboard box in the middle of his bedroom. Again, Phelps knows better and questions the placement of the murder weapon, but when Mendez arrives, we follow the game code and arrest him.
You can read more in my forthcoming book Manifest Destiny 2.0: Genre Trouble in Video Games.