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A Character Analysis of Cole Phelps

A Character Analysis of Cole Phelps

And the Themes of L.A Noire

Although L.A Noire is a video game, it is less about the player-initiated action as it is about the action within the story. It is a character driven story with a high degree of verisimilitude, where the game play elements do not carry the game along as much as the tightly woven narrative and story, which draws heavily from classic film noir elements such as a complex, flawed protagonist, corruption and the ultimate frailty of human nature and goodness. It is a dark, often bleak genre, characterised by a fundamentally hopeless world where corruption is the norm and to fight against is to condemn yourself to failure or death, an exemplar that L.A Noire adheres to faithfully in many ways.  The main protagonist is Cole Phelps, a man described as “educated, hard-working and straight as an arrow”. He was born in San Francisco in 1920 to a family involved in shipping. He attended Stanford University before going to Officer Candidate School for the Marine Corps where he was shipped out to Okinawa in early 1945. We pick up his story in 1947, where he is now a patrol officer in the Los Angeles Police Department after his honourable discharge from the Marines. Even though we step into the role of Cole Phelps, his story is already mapped out for us. He is a fully formed character and the player has no role in his development; we merely deal with the outcome of his decisions. His personality and life prior to the LAPD is divulged piece by piece over the course of the story, recounted through flashbacks of his time in Okinawa and through anecdotes from other characters.

These flashbacks serve as one of the most prevalent dramatic devices at work within L.A Noire, helping to illuminate Phelps’s past and personality. Dramatic irony – where the audience is party to more knowledge than the characters – is also critical, contributing to the tense feel that permeates the game, as the conflict between how much the player knows compared to the characters is hard to reconcile. This is played out through thirteen newspapers that are spread around Los Angeles, each leading to a cut scene that is unrelated to the main case Phelps is working on but is part of the thread of deceit and corruption that underlines them all. For example, in one such newspaper scene we see Roy Earle selling Phelps out to his LAPD superiors by informing them of his affair with Elsa Lichtmann. After this newspaper scene, we return to the case as normal, unable to stop working with Roy Earle even though we know he has already betrayed us. It is not for a further few cases that Phelps is suddenly called into the Chief’s office and forced to hand over his badge and gun. Although Phelps is bewildered as to how they have found out, the player already knows who is responsible, yet there is nothing we could have done to change it and Phelps remains none the wiser. These scenes allow us to explore the corruption more thoroughly than Phelps ever could, as we assume an omniscient position. The dramatic irony is such that by the end of the game, the player already knows the outcome and has come to a conclusion before Phelps has had a chance to do so. The tension and discrepancy between our knowledge and that of our protagonists, the character we are controlling trough the story, is what gives the story its edge, as the player has no control over their actions. Despite the players knowing what they know, they cannot protect Cole from the inevitable, reinforcing the idea of the powerlessness against corruption that pervades the story.

We soon learn through flashbacks that Los Angeles is truly “a city of undercurrents where not everything is as it seems.” Phelps, although a good man, is not as perfect as his initial representation would have us believe, with a life that is not nearly as harmonious as his good job, pretty wife and sturdy house would infer. It is frequently pointed out that he is one of only 2 serving LAPD officers who have been bestowed with the Silver Star, a medal Phelps won when he was part of a scouting team pushing into enemy territory. However, Phelps was an overly proud man and his entire battalion but him, was killed when he failed to fall back like everyone else had wanted. He was discovered in the morning and was promoted to First Lieutenant there and then, and awarded the Silver Star. Understandably, Cole feels undeserving of such a high honour as it was ultimately through his actions that his unit was killed and this guilt stays with him. Not only that but towards the end of his military career, he was tasked with clearing out enemy caves during the Battle of Sugar Loaf. His squad soon falls behind though, as Phelps takes a highly meticulous approach, leading him to start rushing them later and they unwittingly walk into an ambush. Phelps’s original orders were: “First fire team and flamethrowers, head in!” so Ira Hogeboom, the man in charge of the flamethrower, rushes past the ambush and set the inside of the cave ablaze. Tragically, unbeknownst to Phelps and his men, this cave was a makeshift hospital filled with civilians, mostly women and children who burn in agony. Scared and appalled, Phelps orders his men to put them out of their misery. Courtney Sheldon, who was criticised early on by Phelps for euthanizing his comrades with morphine, cannot take the hypocrisy and shoots Cole in the back in frustration. It is soon after this that Cole is honourably discharged and returns to America.

Phelps’s attitude towards life in his own words is that “it’s not enough to just survive. You have to try and make the world a better place.” It is for this reason that he joins the the LAPD. He is a flawed but good man who wishes to improve the lives of those around him, by fighting the crime and vice on the streets of Los Angeles, a ‘city that needed a good cop like a thirsty man needed water’. It is even more important to him after the war, where he is weighed down by the guilt of the mistakes he made through his arrogance and hubris and sees improving the streets of Los Angeles as a move towards redemption, becoming what Captain Donnelly describes as a “vengeful guardian”. His self assessment is that he “once lacked courage” and is greatly ashamed of his actions during the war. He hates to be reminded and lauded for them, telling Roy Earle: “I can assure you I’m no war hero.” His desire for atonement is openly questioned by the murderer Garrett Mason who, when asking Phelps why he joined the police force despite being “overqualified”, asks: “Do I get a sense you’re looking for personal redemption?” Although Garrett Mason is a psychopath, he is not stupid and is able to determine this side of Phelps very quickly, proving himself to be the only character able to pinpoint Phelps’s motivations at all, perhaps articulating them even more lucidly than Phelps himself.

As a character, Cole Phelps is unlike other men, with views that are ahead of his time in many aspects of his life. While in the marines, he openly stated that he ‘respects the Japanese’ and he understands enough of their culture to realise that “there is no greater shame than being taken prisoner”, going so far as to even speak Japanese highly proficiently. He dislikes when one of his captive Japanese soldiers speaks to him with language reserved for superiors, as he respects them enough to not consider himself above them. This does not enamour him to his comrades, who are much more of the mind that the ‘japs’ are sub-human ‘sons of bitches’ who “hate the US of A and our way of life”, but Cole refuses to buy into this war mentality. Although he will always fight for his country, he accepts that America too may hold some blame when he reminds his men that “the Japanese attacked the US (Pearl Harbour) because we cut off their oil. What would we do if another country denied us the gas to run our cars?” It reveals his respect for everyone, no matter their perceived standing amongst the masses. He is also very intelligent and well educated, able to recognise excerpts from obscure poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley, recount Ancient Greek myths and quote Shakespeare.

In a city where an ‘honest cop’ is considered to be an oxymoron, Phelps is “the new face of the department”. Described by Rusty Galloway as “the modern cop who tries to understand why the perp does what he does”, he has a highly principled approach to Police work, taking nothing at face value, “digging and asking questions until he gets to the truth.” For Phelps, “getting a vicious killer of the streets is more important than my reputation”. This is at odds with many other policemen, who admit that putting away the wrong man would not bother them unless “anyone except the poor son of a bitch in the slammer ever found out”. To this end, Phelps is frequently obstructed in his quest for justice, often condemned for wanting to spend further time exploring new leads when there is someone in custody that the crime can be pinned on. Captain Donnelly once claimed that he was “deeply disturbed by his style of police work” all because Phelps did not beat a confession out of an innocent man. When Phelps finally apprehends Garrett Mason in the Black Dahlia case, he is told that “Mason is the half brother of one of the most highly elected officials in this country” and so “they’ll be no more mention of him”. Phelps is one man against the police department’s “chain of command” and so his hands are tied and the “truth remains lost to all but a handful of men”, much to his disgust. As this deep-rooted corruption is something Phelps struggles to do anything about directly, he appreciates the small victories; when others rebel against the system and outwit those who seek to profit from corruption, such as Albert Hammond, the English boxer who makes a break for it after reneging on a promise to lose, an action that Roy Earle has the audacity to describe as ‘crooked’. Phelps finds a telegram indicating that Hammond is returning to England and comments: “You know I hope he makes it. […] I say good luck to him.” He goes so far as to even let Hammond escape back to England, despite having apprehended him because Phelps is determined that the corrupt men like Roy Earle and Mickey Cohen will not get a cut of dishonest money they do not deserve. He also feels a kinship with Hammond who achieves something Phelps can only dream of, albeit in the face of smaller scale corruption. Phelps relates to Hammond, an ex-marine who merely wants to leave the dirt of Los Angeles behind and start life afresh back in England with his pride intact and cash in hand. Hammond wonders why Phelps would let him go, to which Cole replies: “Because I was a Marine and I once lacked courage. Everyone deserves a second chance.” He respects Hammond for taking a stance and does not think her deserves condemnation for one mistake; a luxury tragically not afforded to Phelps himself.

A man of integrity or no, in the wider context of the story, Phelps is a man still doomed to pay for his war mistakes, as L.A Noire is a story without redemption except in death. One of the most prevalent themes is that of atonement and the lack of forgiveness for those who have gone astray. It doesn’t matter what lengths Phelps goes to make up for his past mistakes, he can never escape from them. He is one of the best detectives the LAPD has ever seen, with unflinching principles and upstanding moral fortitude in the face of unprecedentedly widespread corruption. However, his mistake in the past – the ordering for the caves to be burnt – does not go unnoticed. There is no redemption and Phelps dies for his mistake when he is killed by the very man who was driven insane through Phelps’s fateful past actions. His past quite literally returns to hold him accountable. This reparation for past mistakes is not limited to Cole Phelps. Courtney Sheldon is another whose past comes back to devour him. A young medic who was disenchanted with the lack of support or fanfare he and his friends were set to receive as they returned home to America after the war, he orchestrated the theft of two tonnes of military morphine so that he could sell it strictly to “abortion clinics and doctors” and create a better life for him and his unit. However, when his gangster middleman Mickey Cohen, starts passing it on to addicts who “can’t deal with the purity”, Sheldon realises it is time to take control of the situation. Although it was naïve of him to trust Mickey Cohen to keep his word, he never intended for anyone to die and shows great courage in deciding to stand up to him in order to stop the morphine from being distributed. He seeks help from a man he trusts, Dr Fontaine, who promises that he will take the morphine off Courtney’s hands and use it only for medicinal purpose, while investing the money saved in homes for returning GIs. Courtney agrees wholeheartedly as all he ever wanted to do was to help returning soldiers. However, Courtney’s initial mistake in stealing the morphine leads to his death when he confronts Dr Fontaine over accusations that the GI houses are just an insurance scam. Ironically, he is killed by Fontaine who forcefully overdoses Courtney on morphine. Like Phelps, he is almost directly killed by his past actions, inadvertently orchestrating his own downfall, despite his best efforts to atone along the way. Phelps’s death at the hands of his past is mentioned in the penultimate case when investigating the disappearance of Elsa and the death of Harlan Fontaine, Phelps notes that Dr Fontaine was “destroyed by a monster of his own creation”. Fontaine’s neck was broken by Ira Hogeboom, who suffered severely from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and who Fontaine had hooked on morphine in order to render him malleable enough to manipulate and exploit; his “pet lunatic”. Cole says it ironically without realising the connotations but the tragic foreshadowing to his own death is unavoidable. Phelps too is ultimately killed by a monster of his own creation, the very same ‘monster’ in fact. Ira Hogeboom was never able to overcome the trauma of being ordered by Phelps to burn out the cave that was filled with civilians. It is Ira who leads Phelps to his death, when he is swept away by the overflow waters in the underground tunnels as he rescues Elsa. This example of foreshadowing and many others are used to great effect in the story, with off-hand comments often being elucidated as subsequent events unfold and impressing upon the player a sense of tragic inevitability to the events of the story.

It is worth mentioning the parallels that can be drawn between L.A Noire and Red Dead Redemption, another story-driven Rockstar title. In Red Dead Redemption, the protagonist John Marston seeks to live out the rest of his days on a ranch with his wife and son, after giving up the crime riddled life of an outlaw. However, his early life catches up with him and he is blackmailed by Edgar Ross to detain the men of the gang he used to run with, or else forfeit the life of his wife and son. He carries out Ross’s wishes, as he wants to cut ties with his former life. He wants his son Jack to not have to experience anything that he did. Once he delivers his final gang member, Dutch Van der Lind, to Edgar Ross, it seems like Marston has finally achieved the quiet life he so desires. It appears that all has been forgiven. His crimes in the past have been undone by his actions in the present. However, there is ultimately no redemption. Edgar Ross descends upon Marston’s ranch shortly after with an army, leaving him no option but to get his wife and son out, before facing them and the inevitable. He stands no chance and is shot, dying in front of Edgar Ross who goes on to receive medals for this corrupt and underhand deed. It did not matter that Marston had tried to atone for his sins; the damage had been done and he was unable to escape from his past or be exonerated. The lack of redemption continues when his son vows to avenge his father’s death and seeks Ross out in his retirement, entering into a duel and shooting him dead. At that moment, John Marston’s son becomes everything that he was and everything that he never wanted him to be. The outlaw cycle continues, with Marston’s sacrifice ultimately amounting to nothing when his son made the fateful decision to kill. Cole Phelps is no different. The mistakes he made during the war do not go unpunished and he is killed by his past, just like Marston. Inadvertently ordering the death of the Japanese civilians in the cave was the beginning of the end for Phelps because as John Marston said: “People don’t forget. Nothing gets forgiven.”

Despite all the player sees of Cole during the war, it is unlikely they will come to the conclusion that he is a bad man, arrogant perhaps, but not bad. He made some fateful choices that he longs to make up for but as Phelps himself says, “people make bad decisions in the heat of the moment” and he did everything with the best of intentions. However, the players’ faith in Cole takes a gut-wrenching blow when we discover that he is having an affair with Elsa Lichtmann. It is surprising that it sits so uneasily with players, as we know nothing of his wife and consequently feel no affinity towards her, but we are shocked because to us as a society, adultery is considered fundamentally wrong and yet Phelps is the embodiment of everything that is good in a bad city. He is unwaveringly principled in the face of endless corruption but he suddenly seems to be diverging off the straight and narrow. Above all, it is most shocking because there appears to be no build up to it, leading the player to assume that Cole is a spurious, opportunistic cheat. However, there is much more to his actions than meets the eye, something we find out after Cole returns home having been forced to turn over his gun and badge. There he finds his wife Marie throwing his possessions onto the front lawn in disgust. Although she is in no mood for excuses, Cole says: “I’d like to explain Marie. I’d like to tell you what I’ve been going through…” It is an easy comment to miss as it sounds like a conventional hollow platitude but in light of everything Phelps has been through and seen, it is a very telling indication of the motivations for his affair.

To Phelps, his wife is pure. She has nothing to do with the corruption that Cole has found himself mired in. Elsa, however, is the antithesis to Marie. She is a street-wise immigrant, addicted to morphine and singing in a Jazz club, having escaped from Germany after her parents were killed by Nazi’s. She is not only aware and accepting of the crime and vice around her but she is part of it. To Cole, who has found himself caught up in dangers and sleaze he never expected, Elsa is emancipation. He finds that Elsa is the only person he can turn to for support as she is someone who can understand the hardships he is going through. This dichotomy of character is nothing that Phelps could control, as the breach that opened up between his family and his work was not of his doing. His home life is the embodiment of the American Dream, right down the the white picket fence. His wife is pretty and dutiful but also naïve and unfettered by the difficulties of the world. In some ways, Phelps is like this at the beginning too, with noble but naïve dreams of changing Los Angeles. However, as he makes his way through the LAPD, he quickly wizens up to the bribery, the murder, the narcotics abuse and the unremitting corruption of the big city and trusted people. Los Angeles changes his view of the world and so changes him. This is not something his wife could ever understand or empathise with, even if he did confide in her his troubles. He grows apart from her because their experiences of life are fundamentally different, whereas he grows closer to Elsa who is world wise and weary. This is further highlighted by the complete lack of exposure that Phelps’s family have within the story. He barely speaks of them and we never see him return home once a case has finished; we go from one case to another without a single glimpse into Cole’s present life outside the LAPD, save for his affair with Elsa. To that end, one of the only times we see his wife is during the opening of the game, where she kisses him as he leaves for work dressed proudly in his blue LAPD patrol uniform. Tellingly, we do not see her again until after the affair, where by this time, Cole Phelps is a changed man. When he is working in the vice department and notices a reference to one of his first traffic cases he comments that it “seems like a lifetime ago” because he has seen so much since then, even though it’s been only months. At the beginning he was like his wife; full of shimmering ideals, keen to ‘fight the good fight’ and so we see them together as the picture perfect couple, but the moment he starts to chip away at the endless corruption, his life takes a dramatic tangent to that of his wife’s and this is highlighted by the players not seeing her again until Phelps’s downfall. The Cole Phelps who married Marie is fundamentally different to the Cole Phelps who is disloyal to her and it is almost for her own protection and wellbeing that he turns to Elsa.

That is not to say there were no other reasons; Elsa is of course very beautiful but Cole did not leave Marie for the usual reasons that a man may cheat on his wife. We know that Cole himself considers adultery to be wrong, as he deems Rusty accusing the murder victim, Deidre Moller, of such as ‘disparaging’, and takes offense to him insinuating that ‘his [Cole’s] eye might bend’ (something Rusty says long before Phelps has even met Elsa) further illustrating that he did not commit adultery for adulteries sake. His affair was not about sex, it was about support, as Elsa says: “It’s making him stronger and it’s making me stronger helping him”; it is a mutually beneficial relationship between two damaged people where attraction is secondary. Elsa is helping Cole to “see things from a human perspective rather than the ivory tower he created for himself” and Elsa attributes her renewed health and vigour to “the new man in my life. He’s convinced me to fight my addiction”. Every comment made about the affair by uninvolved parties always mentions that fact that Elsa is ‘damaged’ not just that she is beautiful, stressing the point that Phelps has very specific reasons for being with her and they have much less to do with her looks. He most likely still loves Marie, shown by his continued wearing of their wedding ring even after he has been thrown out, but their lack of shared experiences alienates Cole from her. Had Elsa not been in the picture, it is likely that he would not have been disloyal to his wife at all. He would most likely have continued on, suffering in silence. However, opportunity presented itself for Cole to be with someone that would truly understand him and as John Donne wrote, “no man is an island.” It is not, however, all so clear cut and the overall relationship between Phelps and Elsa is is made up of two parts; that of support and that of sex.

We cannot condem Phelps for seeking support from a kindred spirit, but the involvement of sex in this relationship diminishes the players understanding and acquital of Phelps, as he undeniably cheated on his wife when he could have simply sought Elsa’s help as a friend. It is because of this that the affair also acts as an allegory for Los Angeles and the corruption; the sex was an unneccesary part of the relationship and demonstrates Phelps’ falliabilty as a man and his openess to corruption, despite his status as ‘crusader’. It shows that it does not matter who you are or how noble you have been, you too could fall. In the traditional Aristotelian sense, Cole is a tragic hero; a man who falls from a great height because everything was not enough and because of a fundamental flaw in his character. No one is safe from corruption, not even the ‘Golden Boy’ of the LAPD, which is all the more dangerous when there is no redemption. It goes some way to show the entrenched sin of a city like Los Angeles. Cole set out to change it but in a small way, becomes part of it. As Rusty says, “the higher you climb, the further you fall” and Phelps took a mighty tumble in the LAPD from hero to perceived “social basket case”.

In further reference to his affair, while Phelps and Roy Earle are leaving the office of a doctor who defenestrated himself through grief and shame over being used by the woman he loved, Earle comments on how “that old boy really fell for that broad”. At this point, unbeknownst to Phelps, Earle knows of the affair and sees an opportunity to shrewdly question him, asking: “Would you throw it all away for a woman?” to which Phelps replies enigmatically, “Life has a way of making you pay for your pride.” This rather inadequate and circumlocutory response is the only real justification of the affair that we hear from Phelps himself. Insufficient though it is as a response to that specific question, it is still a highly loaded answer. It not only foreshadows his own death, but it is also a further indication of Cole’s attitude towards his actions in the past and a rather accurate summary of the themes underpinning the story of L.A Noire.

Cole Phelps is a “good man but wound way too tight” and was a proud man, to the point of fault. We see examples of this early on during a flashback when Kelso interjects as Phelps is being unfairly berated by an Army Officer. Instead of thanking Kelso for supporting him, he brushes him off saying, “I didn’t ask for your help.” During the mission that afforded him a Silver Star, it was his pride that kept him pushing forward into enemy lines even though the rest of his battalion knew it was dangerous and that the mission should be aborted; it was his pride that unintentionally caused the deaths of his friends. He was overly proud when in the Marines; to the point of reprehensible arrogance and it is something he has evidently come to regret in the present. He is paying for it with the guilt of his comrades’ death; it is a constant weight bearing down on his life but one that has humbled him. He also pays for it by suffering the scorn of almost everyone in his unit, not least Jack Kelso and Courtney Sheldon, which is all the more tragic when we know that they are two men he greatly respects. He came to acquire the pejorative nickname, ‘the Shadow of Death’ and was considered ‘bad juju’ by his men. Roy accuses Phelps’s trademark as being “hubris disguised as humility” and Kelso pegs him early on as a man “who goes around dreaming of fame and glory” and both ring rather true for his time in the Marines. He considered it his “duty to lead” but it was arguably less about duty as it was about flattering his own ego because he proved himself the sort of man proud and petty enough to anger when one of his men doesn’t call him ‘lieutenant’ even though it had been agreed beforehand that “there will be no more saluting or signs of rank” because “that sniper barely missed you back on the beach”. As Phelps himself admits: “I once lacked courage” possibly indicating that much of his arrogance was fear parading as bravado. Whatever it was that caused him to act like he did, it is something he comes to feel repentant for and it goes some way to beginning his journey in the LAPD.

Phelps is already saddled with his personal quest for atonement and then after his affair, has to deal with seeking atonement from everyone around him in the LAPD who consider him some sort of miasma of iniquity. Despite being a happier man with Elsa, he still regrets the hurt he has caused his family. During an Arson investigation, Phelps is seen giving money to the family who just lost every worldly possession, to which Biggs notes: “I guess he’s thinking about this own family. I’d say he’s searching for some kind of atonement right now”. When Mal Caruthers tells Phelps that “I feel sorry for your wife and kids, Phelps, not for you”, Phelps considers him to be “firm but fair”, however, claiming that it is ‘firm’ implies that perhaps he feel it is a little unjust. He has dealt with more than enough scorn in the past; he is tired of peoples’ reproach towards him, especially when he feels “there are certain things people have a right to keep private” and doesn’t appreciate his failings being broadcast to the world. A point further emphasised when he says to Hershel that he is determined to make a certain Arson case and “rub the department’s nose in it”. When he has already proven himself to be an excellent case man, he resents being judged for something unrelated to his work life, something that he already judges himself for. This is further shown when Kelso launches into a speech about how Phelps needs to “get over it” and stop beating himself up about the medal on Sugar Loaf. Phelps responds with “You got it off your chest?” showing that he is already fully aware of how he should be reacting to that situation and prefers not to have others tell him so. Phelps is harder on himself than anyone else can ever be.

Towards the end, the player is presented with Jack Kelso as a protagonist instead of Phelps and this overlap is significant in that Kelso becomes our replacement for Phelps. More than that, Kelso is like the improved, less flawed version of Phelps. Elsa explicitly states that: “We (Phelps and her) are both finding we have a lot to live up to. […] In Cole’s case, his friend Jack Kelso”, showing that Phelps considers Kelso a worthy man to aspire to be like. However, the main difference between them is that Phelps is the man who has made a mistake; Kelso on the other hand has not. This almost arbitrary assessment is the reason Phelps dies and Kelso lives, as there is no redemption except with death. Both Kelso and Phelps are good men and share many similarities, despite their respective egos getting in the way of a friendship. As Hershel Biggs notes, Kelso and Phelps were “two men who should have been friends but their personalities got in the way.” Kelso is a man who, like Phelps, is guided not by anyone else but by his own moral code. Phelps level headedly respected the Japanese, despite everyone else blindly hating them and Kelso refused to steal the morphine, even though everyone else on the ship urged him to do so. We also learn that Kelso never blamed Phelps, he just resented that there was no apology or recognition of wrong doing; he resented his arrogance, just like Phelps himself came to. Kelso is a compassionate and forgiving man who reassures Phelps that: “You think you failed up on that hill but courage isn’t a tap you can turn on or off.” Their relationship improves when Kelso has a chance to vent at Phelps over everything that occurred in the war and Phelps has a chance to say that he is sorry “about a lot of things”. This leads their tangential lives together for the greater good, as they lay aside their differences in order to expose corruption that appals them both. Phelps enlists the help of Kelso through Elsa, knowing that Kelso “won’t be able to help himself if he smells a rat” as he considers Kelso a good and honest man. And then finally, their lives overlap for the last time as Phelps urges Kelso to go before him when they are escaping the tunnels. It is here that we are left with Kelso, a man who carries Phelps’s ideals and hopes when the man himself is unable to do so; a man who improves upon all that was good in Phelps.

Despite Phelps’s herculean effort, there appears to be no true justice. L.A Noire paints a very dismal picture of Los Angeles and human nature, where the men of integrity are not able to change anything and the corrupt men continue on unhindered. This is no more obvious than during Phelps’s funeral, where a veritable collection of the most corrupt, treacherous men in Los Angeles turn up to mockingly sing his praises while subtly denouncing any allegations directed at them, a duplicity that is hard to watch. Even more difficult to watch is the handshake (upon which we see the camera zoom) between Peterson, the new District Attorney, “crusader against Corruption” and Roy Earle after he has finished reading Phelps’ eulogy. It shows that the cycle of corruption may continue and we are reminded of Kelso’s inciting of Lord Acton’s Dictum: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” If we were to try and pinpoint a moral of the story of L.A Noire it seems to be that the good guys can try their hardest to atone for their mistakes but that deviating from the path of righteousness is worse than if you never started on it in the first place, as demonstrated when people as inherently crooked as Roy Earle live to scheme another day, while men who tried their hardest but sometimes went astray are the ones punished. “Fighting corruption is like chasing shadows” commented Hershel Biggs at the beginning and not even Cole Phelps, detective extraordinaire, can chase shadows. An offhand comment made by Stefan Bekowsky succinctly summarises the omnipresent theme of responsibility within L.A Noire: “You make a mistake. You face the consequences.” The use of the word ‘mistake’ is very vague; everything from miscalculating a sum to shooting a man could be considered a mistake and it is this ambiguity that means it so perfectly encapsulates the themes of this game. By its very definition, making a mistake is a passive, not deliberate action but it is still paid for regardless, making the underlying theme of the story a tragic and rather hopeless one.

Cole is a good man but one who mistakenly ordered the death of civilians. Had he known who was in the cave, he would never have ordered Ira to set the flamethrower on it. That was a genuine mistake, admittedly with tragic consequences but a mistake none the less. But like Bekowsky says, he still must face the consequences. As Hershel Biggs foretold right at the beginning, “it could only ever end one way”. Redemption only comes to Phelps in death when the waters of the tunnels literally wash him away and figuratively wash his sins away.

Harlan Fontaine may have said that ‘many things in life are gray’ but if it were, fundamentally good people like Phelps and Sheldon would not have paid for their mistakes with their life. In fact, it is the opposite of gray. In L.A Noire, everything is black or white: “There’s no sitting on the fence. You have to choose sides”.

There is, however, a sliver of hope in an otherwise bleak story. According to the twenty seven year old Cole Phelps, “they say only the good die young”.

 

3 Comments

  1. This is absolutely wonderful. One of the best games essays I’ve ever read. Informative, in-depth, thoughtful and carefully justified. You put across a lot of points I agree with, and some that I hadn’t even considered. Most importantly, you really captured the thematic essence of L.A. Noire. :) Amazing work, and a brilliant read which gave me a lot to think about!

    • Thank you very much, I’m so glad you feel you got something from it! That makes it all worth it :) I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

  2. I just finished the game on my PC (5 years later) and I loved it. I played some of it before when I was younger but this time it had a much bigger impact. I enjoyed reading your article. I wonder if the ending was leading to a sequel where you eventually stop the circle of corruption? I know there was issues with the studios that made the game overworking the workers so maybe the sequel got thrown out the window… who knows

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