Here in Part Two of my L.A. Noire post-mortem, I'd like to address the two main characters of L.A. Noire, and how the game's bizarre handling of them cripples its impact.
We have James Ellroy's lawyers on the line
It's not unusual for game developers to take their inspiration from other, better established media. There are roughly fifty games about some version of Indiana Jones, after all. It is, however, a little on the strange side to see a game lift content so thoroughly that lawyers could very well get involved. Even Deadly Premonition, Gamecritics.com's 2010 Game of the Year, which was noted far and wide for its similarities to television series Twin Peaks, was smart enough to merely use that show as a jumping-off point. Deadly Premonition's story and characters bore no real resemblance to anything in the Lynch/Frost production.
If only L.A. Noire could say the same.
L.A. Confidential, the novel by James Ellroy (as opposed to the Oscar-winning film based on it) concerned Ed Exley, a driven young cop who rises quickly through the ranks of the police department through a combination of luck and a dedication to his craft unparalleled among his corrupt and lazy brother officers. He's also helped along by the veneer of heroism imbued by the Silver Star he won in the Pacific Theatre—a Silver Star he profoundly did not earn. Not to mention a painful bit of history involving a flamethrower… Over the course of the story he becomes involved in a controversial love affair that threatens his future on the force, as well as his standing in polite society.
If any of this sounds familiar, it's because Cole Phelps, the main character of L.A. Noire, is essentially the same character—only far less interesting.
Introducing Cole—(yawn)—Sorry, what was your name again?
While Rockstar has never been known for its compelling lead characters—only CJ from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas really had any charisma, they haven't offered a main character this vacant since Grand Theft Auto III—and Mutey literally had no personality whatsoever.
Cole Phelps is a cipher for the vast majority of the game. He starts out as a prickly, elitist, authoritarian just joining the force, and when we get a look at a flashback to his army days, we find that before he went through the hell of the pacific theatre he was… a prickly, elitist, authoritarian. Despite his army experiences including all of his men being slaughtered, an episode of shell-shock, taking part in a massacre, and being shot in the back by one of his troops, his behaviour, personality, and worldview aren't changed in the least.
Cole's history is told through a series of flashbacks, which play parallel to the main storyline, meting out information about his increasingly darker history piecemeal. The problem with the way it's handled is that the stories seem to be happening in parallel time. Even though he's supposedly a deeply troubled man, for the first three quarters of the game Cole doesn't offer even the slightest window into his personality, other than that he's a ramrod-straight, by the book copper. This makes the revelation, at the 75% mark, that he's suddenly a traumatized vet who's been seeking comfort in the arms of a morphine-addicted jazz singer, something of a jarring twist. When talking about the relationship to his wife, he alludes to his tragic war history weighing him down so much that he had to go elsewhere to open up about it. Which would be a really powerful revelation if he'd ever at any point in the game seemed like someone with a problem.
It's not like these are hard things to foreshadow and layer into the story—simply show Cole reacting too harshly to a guy who pretends to have been a marine (instead of the way he does react—not at all), or make a comment or two about his homelife to prepare the audience for the revelation that he's hiding massive personal problems. None of that groundwork is ever laid, so when the whole family life collapse occurs, it comes completely out of left field—his wife isn't a presence in the game until the one scene where she throws him out, so his betrayal of her has no chance of resonating with the audience. Cole's betraying the idea of fidelity, more than he is a real person.
The worst part is that after this revelation about his backstory happens, he's demoted to the arson desk, and he shacks up with his German junkie girlfriend, absolutely nothing changes about Cole. He goes right back to being the exact same straight-arrow cop he'd been for the rest of the game, with none of his personal troubles or backstory in any way informing the way he behaves in the game proper.
Having people behave completely differently in the cut-scenes and the actual gameplay is de rigeur for this genre—John Marston might spend hours flagellating himself about his outlaw past in the cut-scenes, but if the person playing him is something of an a-hole he'll still shoot up a convent just for kicks. L.A. Noire, by not offering any opportunities for random mayhem, had a chance to actually develop the character in both the story and gameplay sections, but for some reason Team Bondi didn't bother. In cut-scenes and flashbacks, Cole at least has some minor personal stuff going on, but whenever he's controlled by the player, he's the most dull, generic cop imaginable.
He's so dull, in fact, that when the game gets to the end, and we reach the part of the "cop fighting corruption" narrative where he's run out of legal options to deal with murderers entrenched in the city's power structure, instead of actually coming alive as a character and going outside the law to obtain justice, the game essentially forgets he exists and recruits a new main character—seemingly because Cole Phelps can't be bothered to do anything as interesting as "go rogue".
Undercutting your main character… with style!
This brings me to Jack Kelso, the man who serves no logical purpose in the narrative other than to make us wish that the rest of the game had been about him. First, a little background on his and Cole's relationship.
Through a series of flashbacks set in Officer Candidate School we meet two characters. One is a prissy, rules-obsessed suck-up who demands to be saluted and called sir at all times, is terrible at dealing with his troops, and freezes up whenever he's under fire. The other is a hard-charging maverick who doesn't do what his superiors say, but through tenacity, bravery, and a kinship with his troops, he's able to nobly succeed in everything he attempts! Naturally the two men butt heads over the course of the story, with the simplistic, by-the-book approach of officer A being shown up every time by the more intuitive, adaptable, and realistic approach of officer B.
Now, given everything you know about the way stories are constructed for mass public consumption in the western world, which of these two characters do you imagine is the main character of the game L.A. Noire? If you picked the whiny suck-up, you're right! And also possibly psychic, because seriously why would you pick him?
Throughout the entire game the character of Jack Kelso is built up in the background. He's a man of honour who doesn't go in for criminal things himself, but he's willing to make threats and carry through on them if it means helping the people he cares about. When lifelong screw-up Courtney Sheldon gets himself in over his head dealing with the mob, he calls Jack to bail him out, because he knows that Jack won't hesitate to put his life on his line for a friend. These are all things we learn about a character who doesn't enter the main narrative until the game is almost over. By comparison, here's what we learn about Cole Phelps in that same time period: he got a lot of people killed in the war through incompetence, is willing to do his job up to basic standards of duty and integrity (which, admittedly, is seemingly a rarity on the force), and he's kind of a dick to everyone, all the time.
When Jack showed up as the playable character in the third-last mission of the game, I was a little surprised, as this was a more narratively bold choice than I'd thought the game capable of until that point. I assumed the mission was going to be a brief affair, with Jack finding out something shocking, getting killed for his trouble, and then his death would motivate Cole to finally break out of his dull-as-a-dishrag persona and avenge the death of his old marine "buddy".
That wasn't the case, however. Jack doesn't die, and he doesn't leave. For the last three missions of the game, L.A. Noire stops being about Cole Phelps, star of the other 19(!) missions—the guy who we've followed for the entire plot, really, tracking for his entire career at the LAPD, and becomes about Jack Kelso, hard-boiled insurance dick-turned DA's investigator. The strange part is that there's absolutely nothing about those three missions that requires Jack to be the main character of them. Had Cole simply decided that he wasn't going to let bureaucracy get in his way he could have investigated some building sites, beat up a paedophile, and led a raid on a billionaire's mansion—he just elects not to.
It's almost as if the developers realized that their main character simply wasn't dynamic or interesting enough to believably do any of the things that were required of him in the last fifteen percent of the game, and elected to just swap him out for someone who was up to the job. Which raises the question—how did they not notice that eighteen missions earlier?
The stupidest thing I've ever heard
When Jack Kelso takes over L.A. Noire, he doesn't just become the main character, the whole game switches over to his worldview. This leads to a frankly ridiculous scene that must be excerpted here to facilitate discussion.
Yeah, that's some terrible writing right there. He says that there's no such thing as a hero, then goes on to describe exactly what a hero is. If someone runs into danger and saves a comrade, then he's a hero—if he cowers in a bomb crater all night playing dead, then he's not. It really isn't very complicated, Jack.
For the record, though, if you break cover and run across fifty yards of beach under heavy fire, then manage to blow up the machine-gun nest that had your men pinned down, single-handedly saving your entire unit, Jack Kelso believes that you do not deserve a medal.
This scene is just another example of how fundamentally the game changes when Jack takes over as the main character of the story. It isn't just the gameplay that shifts, the entire story is suddenly being told from Jack's perspective. Cole has gone from the dull main character to a grasping, pathetic man who needs to be forgiven by the saintly Jack. Even Cole's death is told from Jack's point of view—he's no longer the guy who heroically tracked down the Black Dahlia Avenger and got a quarter-ton of morphine off the streets, now Cole is just a screw-up who needs to be redeemed by sacrificing himself, in what's treated as the first noble, selfless act of his life.
Which is how Jack would see him.
Never mind that the main thing that Cole needs to be redeemed for is barely a sin. Is flamethrowing a hospital full of injured civilians awful? Absolutely, but then again, so is almost everything else people do in war. Let's not forget that Jack's competing plan for dealing with the same situation was to bomb the entrance of any caves without checking what's inside—which would have resulted in trapping those same injured civilians, helpless, in a pitch-black cave until they died of suffocation or thirst.
The main difference between Jack and Cole's approach? In Jack's plan, they never would have known how many innocents they would have been responsible for murdering.
And then Jack doesn't shoot him in the head
Oh, hey, speaking of Jack's lack of moral superiority, here's something that puzzled me about one of his stories—when given the opportunity, he doesn't shoot a paedophile in the head.
After surviving an attempt on his life, Jack heads over to his former's boss' apartment in the hopes of discovering how much the man knows about John Noble's conspiracy. Forcing his way inside, he discovers something shocking—
The 12-year-old girl that the boss was busy molesting when he was called away by a knock in the door. Jack sends the girl away, then begins questioning the boss. When the questioning ends, Jack considers turning the pervert over to the police, but his boss points out, quite accurately, that since the DA is part of their cabal of evil pillars of society, he'll never be charged with a crime. Faced with the reality that this monster will never face any kind of punishment within the legal system, Jack screws up his courage and… leaves.
He doesn't shoot the man in the head and make it look like a suicide, he doesn't viciously beat the man to within an inch of his life. He leaves.
Remember—of the two main characters, this is supposed to be the darker, tougher, more likeable one. Yet, when the game drops a paedophile right in front of him, the ideal punching bag for a character who needs to establish his tough guy bona fides without any moral questions (hey, remember when Jack 24 beheaded that child molester? Good times), and what does Jack do?
Lets the man get away with it.
That's not how you build a sympathetic character, people.
And finally in the third part: Random Nonsense, and things I found odd