It’s common in video games to wear themes on the sleeve. Whether because the writers are less experienced, or because it’s meant to be accessible to a wide range of ages and backgrounds, or because there’s something about the format which makes the lessons and ideas of a game’s story pop out a little more, who can say. Once in a while though you find a game with layers, themes upon themes, that examine the interplay between multiple core concepts rather than building a single central theme into a particular experience. Such a case, I think, is L.A. Noire, the game of corruption and deception.
It hardly needs to be said that corruption, deceit, and parsing out the truth from lies are central to L.A. Noire. Apart from being a defining attribute of film noir, which the game is brazenly named after, the idea of separating outright contradictions of fact from the half-truths and lies of omission are a gameplay mechanic. Indeed, the promotion of the game was based on developing new technology to render facial expression more accurately, so the player could literally watch people’s faces and determine how much they were lying to you. So it follows that every character in the game is lying, or covering something up, or in some special cases telling the absolute truth, because everyone involved knows they’re guilty but circumstances mean accusations would be unprudent. Greed, taking advantage of others, and a corrupt system which break the innocent and reward vice are built into the world of L.A. Noire from the ground up, and no one could play the game without seeing it.
Indeed, the central thrust of the plot is that our hero, Cole Phelps, war hero, proclaimed by all and sundry the last honest cop in L.A., is far from above the sins of mortal men. Within the episodic cases making up his career as a detective, Cole is seemingly as much pureness and light as can be, but between each case we see two sets of scenes. The first is Cole’s military career, beginning in boot camp for aspiring officers and leading into his role in the Pacific Theater. The Cole we see here is an unabashed glory hound, out for personal honor despite considerable sympathy for the Japanese people… indeed, he shows more compassion for his enemies than the soldiers under his command, and throughout these flashbacks is shown to lose more than a little judgment in the face of personal advancement. It’s hardly for nothing he’s christened the Shadow of Death. While hailed as a war hero, we learn that Cole was awarded the Silver Star for, essentially, just living through a particularly hellacious battle… one in which damn near all Cole’s command had perished following his orders.
Meanwhile, in the present, Cole meets Jazz singer Elsa Lichtman, a German expatriate suffering from the prejudicial trifecta of being a woman, being German in 1947 America, and being a junkie. While initially Cole seems to simply be eager to help a downtrodden woman, behavior we see throughout the game, it soon become clear he’s smitten with the woman and ultimately engages in an affair. This event, or rather subsequent events in which it is made public, drive the conclusion of the game, Cole being demoted to the Arson desk and subsequently put on the trail of the Urban Development conspiracy.
So even our hero, possessing more than a few white knight traits, is a glory-seeking adulterer. But while corruption and secrets drive the game, with the three major case arcs being a secretive serial killer planting false evidence to cover his trail, a conspiracy among returning veterans to make it big selling stolen military surplus, and a long-running real estate scam involving the biggest names in the city and the rise of the freeway system, none of these really strike at the heart of the characters involved, their motivations and ideals. And while it would be easy to paint everyone as simply greedy, that too falls short of the mark. Greed is an aspect of human nature, and all men are driven by it in one way or another. But in L.A. Noire, some characters are more developed than others, and in these more complex characters we see not only a greater drive, more dedication and work towards their goals, but over time we see a shift in their motivations.
Backing up a little, we know that L.A. Noire is, as noir fiction, concerned with deceit and corruption, but uses this to flavor its core plot, dealing with human nature and more specifically what motivates mankind. At the top layer we have Greed and vice, the satiation of base desire, and it motivates the primary villains of much of the story; the Black Dahlia killer and the members of the Urban Redevelopment conspiracy. The notorious serial killer not only brutally slays his victims, but openly taunts the LAPD, his crimes a game to sate his feelings of intellectual superiority. The Urban Redevelopment Fund members have a complex scheme to say the least; buy up property where the freeway will be laid down. Burn down the houses of any who won’t sell. Turn those large blocks of property into supposed housing for GIs, collecting the government funding for those purposes. Build them cheaply… so cheaply they fail the building code, then burn THOSE down to hide the evidence. In the meantime, assess the land value while the buildings still stand, meaning that when the property is ultimately bought for the freeway, the city will owe them millions upon millions. If you can’t spot the steps where these guys are greedy, unfeeling bastards you may need a remedial course in business ethics. Hell, real-life gangster Mickey Cohen makes an appearance or two, generally at odds with the veterans involved in the tanker heist.
The aforementioned tanker heist, and the involved former Marines, is another story. Spearheaded by Courtney Sheldon and other survivors of Cole’s unit, and indeed inspired by Cole’s success as a police officer (in that they couldn’t STAND a glory hound who got so many good soldiers killed being successful while they went home paupers), the group stole surplus cigarettes, army rifles, but most of all tons of high-grade undiluted morphine. Essentially the crew becomes instant players in the drug trade… and runs afoul of the established gangsters. Greedy bastards, if ones with very understandable reasoning and a sympathetic plight? Maybe. But throughout the game we see the newspaper segments, most of the having to do with Courtney. Combined with his role in the war flashback, we know he’s extraordinarily dedicated to helping his fellow man and, more than anything else, can’t stand to see people suffer. Despite a promising career as a doctor, he gets deeper and deeper into the morphine trade, and is deeply disturbed by the reports of overdoses and the dealer’s refusal to pull the product and properly dilute it. Most of his actions are indeed motivated by trying to help as many returning soldiers as possible, and his very first scene his him begging his professor to help a soldier suffering from impressive degrees of post dramatic stress disorder, Ira Hogeboom. Throughout the story, as he realizes just how deeply over everyone’s heads his scheme has gotten them, he scrambles to do everything in his power to save them. In equal measures altruism and, later, guilt, Courtney Sheldon plays his role in the story.
Ira Hogeboom, while less complex, is a critical player in the later events of the story. In bits and pieces, we learn what has turned him into a complete wreck of a man. He served in the Pacific Theater, manning the flamethrowers. His commander, clearing villages and caves of soldiers to break trail for the main force, ordered him to blindly torch a cave. Said cave had been converted into a field hospital, housing wounded soldiers and displaced families. Such were their screams that the officer, already dismayed he had issued these orders, ordered all the burning victims shot to at least end their suffering. Referred by Courtney to Dr. Fontaine, pioneering psychological therapy in L.A., he finds that his trauma stems from developing a fear of fire, and Fontaine recommends periodic controlled arson as part of his therapy… never knowing of course that Dr. Fontaine was a member of the Urban Redevelopment Fund, and needed those houses burned to further their schemes. After a few successful trials, disaster afflicts the poor man again and he lights a house in which the occupants had not left on the Development Fund-sponsered vacation, burning them alive. Finding no condolence from the doctor, he soon begins to believe he is on a divine mission to end people’s suffering, using the flames to release them to heaven. Again we see guilt eat away at someone, ultimately changing every aspect of their lives for ruin.
This brings us back to Cole Phelps. As might be guessed, his military days did not end with his Silver Star. No, he continued on, increasingly irritating his superiors with the overly cautious approach he took to clearing out island bases, burning every hiding spot he found along his way to ensure no one could ambush his team. And so it was he and his team that torched the hospital cave, the trigger for very nearly every event in the game. Courtney Sheldon, enraged at the senseless loss of life, shot Cole in the midst of all the mercy kills. Cole Phelps was sent home before the close of the war, leaving him ample time to enter the LAPD and build his career before the rest of his command was discharged. His heroism there, of course, triggered the cargo theft that drove much of the story. And yet, while Cole undoubtedly appreciated being hailed as a hero, the man we know is not the one we see in the earliest flashbacks, eager to exit officer camp and become a hero. Our common themes come back again, and we see again what can change the nature of a man: guilt. Cole’s poor orders caused the deaths of hundreds, not only his command but of injured men and helpless families. Those who survived were forever traumatized. Unbeknownst to him, he had a hand in a series of arson-murders. He may have liked being a hero, but throughout we can see he doesn’t need to be a hero for glory. He needs to be a hero to atone, to do good where he did ill.
Here we break for the last player in this drama, Jack Kelso. Jack has been accused of being a Marty Stu, an unambiguously good character in a setting filled with nothing but ambiguity, whose incorruptible nature is implausible to the story and on and on. But I think that’s the point; Jack Kelso is not a character, he’s a symbol. He represents what is sometimes called the Big Good, a character who is not the hero, but instead the leading figure on the side of good. Jack fulfills this role not in position, but in character. He is truly a pillar of moral fiber, and when things go wrong, every sympathetic character in the story calls on him. Courtney seeks his help in defending the rest of their crew from Cohen’s gang. When it’s clear that corruption in the LAPD means Cole can no longer pursue the Urban Redevelopment conspiracy, he tricks Jack into their path. When Jack realizes that it’s Ira Hogeboom behind the serial arson cases, and that the man can no longer function in society, he’s the one that gives him what peace he can.
Which finally sets up our last point. Cole Phelps has done much wrong in his life, and spent the whole of the game seeking some absolution. Perhaps this played some role in his affair with Elsa. Perhaps a woman so obviously broken gave him that much more to protect, and she in turn had much to offer him. We can never say for certain, because much as Cole is the hero we are never privy to his thoughts on anything beyond the case at hand. We do know that he, whether from contemplation or from tasting true heroism with the LAPD, has become fiercely protective of the good people in this corrupt world. An ill word against Courtney Sheldon, who never wanted anything more than to help people suffering, earns a death threat. But whatever the case, this never absolved Cole of his guilt. Instead, he can only ask the only truly good man he’s ever met, Jack Kelso, a man with every reason to hate him and indeed made no secret of that hatred, if he can be forgiven. He’d wronged him, and in a rather uncharacteristic moment Cole Phelps asked forgiveness. And it had already been granted. Knowing this, in the climatic scene, Cole Phelps makes sure Jack Kelso is the one to escape the flooding sewers of L.A. Guilt can change the nature of a man, but forgiveness? Forgiveness is what inspires men to the heights of their character.
And here we are. L.A. Noire runs a gamut of human emotion, and my own references to one of the great PC games aside, makes a shockingly well rounded examination of human nature, or more specifically what drives humans to deeds both virtuous and ill. An unabashedly noir story has a rather upbeat take on what makes a man, but that’s part of the game. With a little digging, careful attention to detail, and a dash of good luck, you can find a good ending even in the most tragic of circumstance.