LA Noire and the Tragedy of Cole Phelps

L.A. Noire broke new ground in the history of game design. Released in 2011, L.A. Noiretransported the player to 1947 Los Angeles, seen through the eyes of Detective Cole Phelps. Mixing investigation and interviews with traditional combat and chase sequences, the game charges the player with solving myriad crimes across Los Angeles, culminating in the massive conspiracy that runs the length of the game.

Los Angeles of 1947 is a glittering city riding the post-war boom. The economy is growing, jobs and houses and classes are in abundance for returning veterans, and an infectious optimism has seeped into society. But peel away the gilded mask and you’ll find the seedy undercurrent running through the city. Corruption is rampant, drug use is through the roof, and a serial murderer haunts the streets. As with every good mystery story, every criminal has a believable motivation: rage, lust, greed, or just plain insanity.

Everyone except Cole Phelps.

The Fall of the Avenging Angel

Cole Phelps is a strict, by-the-book cop who efficiently and dispassionately enforces the law and dispenses justice on the streets of Los Angeles. Educated yet humble, he treats everyone fairly, displaying no sign of prejudice or bias. During the Second World War, he served as a Marine in the Okinawa campaign, and won the Silver Star at the battle for Sugar Loaf Hill. As an investigator he is intelligent and methodical, and when called upon to subdue criminals he is fearless and decisive. During his meteoric rise through the ranks of the LAPD, he prowls the streets like an avenging angel, protecting the innocent and bringing evildoers to justice. His superiors love him, his partners respect him, civilians treat him like a celebrity, he has a wife and two daughters, and his future seems bright.

And he throws everything away in a moment of human frailty.

One fateful evening, he is introduced to Elsa Lichtmann, a displaced German singer who works at the Blue Room jazz club. Enraptured by her, he visits the club regularly. Then, one fateful evening, he follows her home and begins an affair, leading to his fall from grace.

At least, that’s how the story is supposed to go.

In-game, Phelps is only seen at the Blue Room once when he’s off-duty. There is no chemistry between himself and Elsa, and when he questions her in a case, she is evasive and suspicious. She doesn’t try to seduce him, she doesn’t flirt with him, or indeed, she doesn’t even show any sign of interest in him. Yet somehow, when he follows her home, she welcomes him inside.

This was the moment L.A. Noire fell apart for me.

Hiding the Mechanics

Let’s step back and analyze what makes the game work. L.A. Noire‘s core gameplay is built upon four pillars: discovering and interacting with clues, interviewing persons of interest, chasing criminals, and fighting them. As the player grows more comfortable with the gameplay mechanics, it’s only natural to ramp up the difficulty to present a greater challenge and keep the player invested.

However, the game doesn’t have a difficulty setting. Indeed, it can be seen as too easy. Even if you bumble your way through every case, so long as you get a few clues and a few correct answers to your questions, you’ll reach some kind of resolution. If you have difficulty with an action scene, the game lets you skip them. Thus, to keep the game interesting and challenging, the developer must play tricks with the four gameplay pillars.

Increasing the combat difficulty is easy: just throw in more bad guys with big guns and place gunfights in novel locations, forcing the player to make full use of tactics and the terrain to prevail. Likewise, increasing the chase difficulty is simply a matter of routing the chase through intricate turns, and adding more enemies and obstacles.

Raising the bar for the other two pillars requires more creativity. To make clue-hunting more difficult, the devs either hid them in messy crime scenes or reduced the number of clues and made them hard to find. The devs also included puzzle minigames to break up the monotony.

The devs’ solution for escalating the difficulty of interviews wasn’t quite as elegant. In early cases Phelps deals with regular Joes and poor liars, all of whom have overly-exaggerated body language. But as Phelps comes face-to-face with career criminals and seasoned liars, the tells become much harder to spot, requiring the player to cross-reference statements with the known facts of the case.

The game neatly justifies all this through Phelps’ story arc. The game begins with Phelps working as a patrolman, introducing the player to the basic mechanics of the case. Once he becomes a detective, he works the Traffic desk, where he handles (relatively) low-stakes crimes and less-experienced criminals. After being promoted to Homicide, he starts running into more competent bad guys with more to lose. Later, he is assigned to Vice, and tackles the flood of drugs on the streets of LA with his partner Roy Earle. The violence that erupts over control of the drugs justifies the messy crime scenes, contact with organised crime figures, and interviews with criminals well-versed in the art of lying to authority.

When a scandal threatens the position of Police Chief Worrell, Earle offers a distraction: reveal the details of Phelps’ affair to the press, distracting them from the scandal. Phelps is kicked out of his house, moves in with Elsa, and is demoted to Arson. Arson, by its very nature, leaves few clues behind, and by this time Phelps has stumbled upon the massive criminal conspiracy at the heart of the game, pitting him against the most corrupt characters in the city.

Through the narrative, the devs justified the increasing difficulty to the player. But the narrative is not itself justified.

Ingredients for the Fall

A noir story shows the audience how a fatal flaw will lead someone to self-destruction. Noir rips off the polite mask society demands everyone to wear to show the maggots squirming in the rot beneath. Everybody is flawed, everybody has an agenda, everybody is consumed by a cardinal sin.

But to pull this off, you must have the appropriate set-up.

The fall of Cole Phelps was necessary, both to justify the increasing difficulty and to satisfy the genre expectations. But the set-up was practically non-existent. In doing so, the narrative imploded, forcing the game to stand naked on its four pillars of gameplay. For an allegedly story-driven game, such a development fatally undermines the user experience.

The first ingredient for a character’s fall is to establish an internal motivation. To make his adultery plausible, Phelps must be shown as having marital difficulties, a roving eye, something that shows why he will cheat on his wife. However, his family is seen just all ofthree times throughout the game, and never in a social setting. The audience has no way of knowing about his home relationships. A new player may even assume his family to be nothing more than background flavour, making Phelps’ betrayal all the more shocking and confusing. Indeed, Phelps’ by-the-book behaviour throughout the entire game makes him appear to be the least likely of all the cops in the LAPD to have an affair.

Fortunately, fixing the narrative here isn’t terribly difficult. Phelps secretly believes he is a coward, having earned the Silver Star simply by being the sole survivor of an enemy attack, and is internally conflicted over having ordered his men to destroy a cave filled with Japanese civilians in the war. Had the game showed him having difficulties relating to his wife and daughters, it would have created the internal motivation for adultery, and generated sympathy for Phelps.

The second ingredient is an external stimulus. Elsa Lichtmann is merely a nightclub singer caught in events beyond her control. To sell the affair, she must be more than that. Roy Earle is already shown to be openly antagonistic towards her; she could seduce Phelps in the hopes that he, an upstanding cop, can protect her against the corrupt elements of the LAPD. She must be able to empathise with him and show him an exciting alternative to an unhappy family life. Most of all, there must be chemistry between them.

The only hint of this chemistry comes in the final case of the game, when Elsa talks about her relationship with Phelps to another character. She describes how the relationship changed them and made them stronger, and helped her kick her drug addiction. But all of this is told, never shown — the player doesn’t even see Elsa with drugs — and so the dialogue has exactly zero impact. It comes off as a lame attempt at retroactively fixing a plot hole instead of giving fresh insight into a character.

If you want a character to fall from grace in a noir story, first set up the circumstances. Establish the internal motivations and the external stimulus, and inject a dose of character drama and chemistry. This makes the character’s irrevocable step across the line believable and poignant.

The Unfinished Redemption

L. A. Noire has a final, hidden, difficulty modifier: the partner system.

Throughout the game, your partners assist you with your cases. They inspect clues relevant to the case, provide advice when asked, and back you up in action scenes. Thus, to step up the difficulty, the devs removed the partner.

Near the end of the game, the criminal conspiracy freezes Cole Phelps and his partner Herschel Biggs from the case. In desperation, Phelps turns to Jack Kelso. Phelps and Kelso had been at loggerheads throughout the war, and eventually butted heads again in the final case of the Vice desk. Kelso takes over from Phelps as the main character, working the streets to continue the investigation.

Kelso also works solo.

Without a partner, the player must do all the hard work himself. There’s no one to offer hints, pick up clues, assist with interviews or help with gunfights. This narrative-imposed handicap is a logical step up the difficulty ladder, and it would have gone well had Kelso not stolen the game from Phelps.

Kelso is a true knight of the streets. He treats women with respect, jumps at every opportunity to fight evil and corruption, and is just as courageous and intelligent and determined as Phelps. Unlike Phelps, he has no major fatal flaw, beyond a willingness to stand by his friends and to dispense street justice without the niceties of the law.

The final case of the game could have been a great opportunity for Phelps to reconcile with Kelso and earn his redemption. But the game blew it.

The last case, A Different Kind of War, begins with a game-wide antagonist killing another member of the conspiracy and kidnapping Elsa. The objective of the case is to find the villain and rescue Elsa. The first quarter of the case follows Kelso’s quest to track down the suspect. The second and third quarters are seen through Phelps’ perspective as he investigates the crime scene and helps Kelso run a gauntlet of corrupt cops. The last section follows Kelso fighting through more corrupt cops in the sewers of LA to reach Elsa.

This would have been an excellent ending, if Kelso were the protagonist. But he’s not. The game is Cole Phelps’ story. Playing Kelso in the climax steals Phelps’ thunder and makes the rest of the story fall flat.

There’s a simple fix to this problem: just swap the character perspectives of the last two quarters.

By playing as Kelso in the third quarter, the player can see Phelps escorting Kelso through the mean streets of LA as the vestiges of the conspiracy deploy their muscle to stop them from rescuing Elsa. By helping Kelso shake off his pursuers and blow through barricades, Phelps gives Kelso a reason to respect him and put aside their differences. This satisfactorily resolves their game-long drama arc, transforming their relationship from antagonistic to respectful, casting them as two fundamentally good men in a city of lies.

The final gunfight should be Phelps’ show. He is the main character of the game; this is his moment. He is finally taking a stand against the corruption that plagues the LAPD, and is fighting to save the one woman who accepts him for who he is. This time, he isn’t running away or breaking down or cowering in fear like he did in Okinawa; this time, he becomes the hero of his story.

With these two changes, the focus of the story turns squarely to the main character, the fallen avenging angel of the city of angels, and his final act of courage and redemption.

Balancing Gameplay, Story and Noir

Storytelling in a gaming medium is much different from other media. It can’t just tell a story; it must invisibly justify increasing difficulty, new characters and different mechanics. L.A. Noire did its best to juggle the needs of gameplay and storytelling, but where it erred, it erred on the side of gameplay. The story did its job in organically modifying and presenting the mechanics to the player, but it fell flat of becoming a true noir story.

A noir story is a morality tale of vice and human frailty. To sell the story of a character’s fall from grace, the creator must first set up the circumstances and show believable motivations. To have that character redeem himself, the story must focus on the character’s actions during the most critical moment — not that of a secondary character.

But for these issues, L. A. Noire could have lived up to its name.

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All images are official artwork from Rockstar Games.

For a different kind of morality tale, covering the Eternal Battle between good and evil, check out my latest novel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.

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LA Noire and the Tragedy of Cole Phelps

3 thoughts on “LA Noire and the Tragedy of Cole Phelps

  1. My grandfather was a detective and eventually chief of police after getting home from the war. He flew bombers over Europe. This game should be interesting to a guy like me but after reading your review it leaves me kind of flat. I was hoping there would be enough investigation type stuff to keep someone like my wife interested.

    If a game is interesting to more than one person in the house, it’s a bit easier to sneak it in under the radar. I’ll keep looking. I’m that guy who just won’t give up on XBox 360. When XBox One finally gets interested in games, I’ll start paying more attention to the system for now it’s not really that interested in me. It would rather I watch videos than play games on it.

    1. To be fair, the individual cases are pretty well-crafted, with the exception of the final Arson case, which doesn’t actually feature any investigation work. But the overall story has some major holes in it. There’s plenty of investigation and interviews to do throughout the game, and it should be enough to keep your wife interested.

      1. I might point her at this later then. She’s always fussing over the controls on an Xbox as if we never hung out at an arcade in high school. Maybe we need to get a single joystick and a button or two for her to mash.

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