A look at the structure and themes created by the Team Bondi title.
LA Noire is not a perfect game by any means. It's a bit buggy in some areas, some have complained about the pacing, gameplay and the usual gripes about the fact the game is open world but there's nothing to do.
But with all that, I still think LA Noire is one of the more well-crafted video game worlds, with great characterisation, a good storyline and some well-placed tropes combined to create an amazing game.
The game's open world is defined by it's realism and historical relevance and not because of the freedom and destruction you can cause.
The world is apart of a greater story outside the video game environment. The story needs this world to function and explain its themes.
Through cut scenes and an overarching story we learn of Phelp's, his home life, his vices and his fate
LA Noire, originally released by Rockstar Games in May 2011, begins with Cole Phelps, a former soldier turned police officer working for the Wilshire Police Department in Los Angeles, California. Through cut scenes and an overarching story we learn of Phelp's, his home life, his vices and his fate in a morally grey world with hints dramatic irony. Flashbacks are provided to give more backstory and explanation to Cole's actions and personality.
I should probably state from here on out, there will be spoilers and minor insights into literary history. That being said, I do admit, I do not cover everything in LA Noire and wish I could. Also this being an interpretation and analysis, I could be completely wrong compared to what the original developers and writers intended, but I do hope to show the structural points, established motifs and examples of strong characterisation that make up the subtext of this morally corrupt world.
Despite my own issues with cut scenes as a form of storytelling in a video game, the overall story of LA Noire is told this way as well as diagetic symbols and clues along the way. As the story evolves the city's underbelly is turned over and the world is not as bright and honest as we thought. This is something we should expect from something with the word Noire or Noir in the title.
Coming from the French term for black, it had it's origins in the early 20th century, especially in film, where stories of the human condition, bleak urban development, brimmed hats and the horrors of the dark collided with America's post-war identity. The murky stories helped create a specific aesthetic and a genre that has dominated almost every medium since the 1920's.
Noir was apart of a cinematic evolution from gritty hard boiled detective dime novels spun into stylized cinematic gold. The usual femme fatale, stories of corruption and alienated citizens in a grimy city, all helped shape the detective genre but when placed in a film world, in black and white, shadows stretch, things get smokey and the fearful world becomes more and more clear in the eyes of paranoid man who stood between heavenly justice and the corrupt underworld. With this in mind, we will be looking at the fall of a Phelps through the story's structure and metaphorical meaning in LA Noire.
Enter Cole Phelps, former U.S. Marine, husband and police officer; a clean cut example of the American dream. Noire's protagonist Phelps is an honourably discharged war hero turned cop who fought for the American dream and ends up falling further and faster into a world of corruption and deceit. start off the game on Patrol. Like every well-crafted story, this is the orientation of Phelps. We get a bit of backstory regarding the war and the militarisation of Phelps. The first mission in Noire, called Upon Reflection, which starts with a narration talking about the black and white nature of war.
“In the Marine Corps, you deal with a chain of command. Mistakes get made, but you deal with them. You know what you're fighting for and that you're on the same team. But dealing with corruption is like chasing shadows....So who do you trust Cole? I made up my mind a long time ago”
The narration gives a question to both the player and Phelps asking who do you trust. The metaphorical notion of “chasing shadows” being like corruption helps with the visuals of the game as most of the cases deal with shadowy figures or people in shadows. In fact in later cut scenes, it's revealed Phelps himself is called The Shadow by his fellow military personnel.
It's a dual edged representation of both being a way of hiding the perpetrator which you'll have to find out later on, but also the fact that Phelps is always chasing shadows. Not only of criminals, but of himself. Shadows of being an officer in the military, raised through the ranks by watching other men die. Phelps is then built up only to be knocked down.
We start Phelps on the path of being a “good cop” and he then struggles to keep himself together as the game continues. The game starts with Phelps on Patrol, patrol meaning to “pass along a road...to maintain order and security.” This is Phelps trying to establish himself as a good cop and as you continue through this part of the game, you feel pretty good about yourself, protecting, serving and keeping on a narrow road. Things seem on the up and up for Phelps and his career.
Upon Reflection helps establish some usual tropes regarding the noir style such as the pistol, the extradiagetic sad jazz music, the terrors of the night, the danger in the dark, the blood stains and the usual unclear alleyways you'll find yourself stumbling down. The title itself, is the beginning of the story as Phelps begin to look at himself, his work in the military and the future he has as a police officer. The first cop you meet is Ralph Dunn.
Ralph Dunn, your partner for the opening missions is helped to establish a contrast between Phelps stern misdemeanour. Dunn is happy-go-lucky and looking for real cases, but doesn't really want to get into any real fights. Dunn is all talk and no action, which leads to Cole being promoted. However, Ralph actually turns up later in some extra DLC during Arson, the Nicholson Electroplasty, after Phelps has been disgraced and he talks to Phelps as if he's just an officer who's joined the force. Dunn also has the same badge number as Phelps to draw further comparison. Dunn is still seen as clean and simple in his work on Patrol making you wonder if Phelps being promoted was the best thing for him. Dunn is a strong contrast but shows a man who is safely moving through his life, while Phelps has lived dangerously and yet gained very little truth from his experiences. Dunn does talk the talk, but Phelps may be the one who walks the walk.
“Phelps, we can come out of this all bright and shiny with a commendation, or stick our schlongs in a hornet's nest.” - Ralph Dunn
From Patrol we move to Traffic, simple crimes based around moving offences. Traffic itself being just a form of movement; this is Phelps heading towards a new section of life, a transitional period. Traffic starts with The Driver's Seat and Phelps is given a new partner, Stefan Bekowsky, a Polish detective; another allusion to the war or to the works of poet Charles Bukowski. Stefan's been on Patrol for six years, during the war oddly enough and he comments to Phelps with this comparison as soon as he's promoted:
“Six years on patrol before I got this desk, you were here in five minutes” - Ralph Dunn
There is already jealousy and an air of insecurity between the two. Bekowsky actually calls Phelps, “kid” on multiple occasions, despite being younger than Phelps. The thing with Traffic is while most of the cases have to do with cars being abandoned, briefly talking to women and figuring out where certain people are, nothing too new. However, while Phelps does most of the interviewing, Bekowsky often has a few interactions with women and continually refers to them as dames or broads, forgetting he’s still a traffic officer.. Bekowsky sets up the misogyny that becomes prevalent during the homicide cases later on and actually you can tell Bondi or Rockstar set up Bekowsky to be a womaniser early on with an early promotional image.
This leads us to Cole being promoted to Homicide where we start a series of murders all associated with a serial killer offing women. The final level in Traffic, Fallen Idol has to do with the Hollywood case of a young girl being deceived into being apart of the casting couch. This also leads to Phelps meeting Elsa Lichtmann, a German singer and a future lover of Phelps who will be apart of his downfall. The Fallen Idol is the last time Cole is truly clean and innocent and next comes the death of Phelps.
Homicide is about the death of Cole Phelps and seeing what the police force really has to offer. Homicide starts with the Red Lipstick Murder and the establishment of the “Werewolf” serial killer. Werewolf being itself a metaphorical representation of man being both man and beast, especially during the night time. Phelps goes through a metamorphosis here as he finds more and more grizzlier murders and the situations he gets into to solve them. The murders actually take influence from the classic unsolved Black Dhalia cases of the 1940's, a media-starved case of the death of Elizabeth Short, a regular woman who was killed and then sensationalised completely post-humously.
Homicide has a lot of motif's and iconography based around feminine items with each case. The Red Lipstick, White Shoe, Studio Secretary, Silk Stocking and Golden Butterfly. Each of the pieces to do with both the murder but also with feminine qualities or change. The silk stocking and red lipstick, as a sign of sensuality; the White Shoe being a sign of innocence and the secretary being a largely female dominated profession in the 1940's; the Golden Butterfly an allusion to the symbol of an untouchable beauty, established partially by the works of P.G. Wodehouse. The final case, Quarter Moon Murders, brings the transition to a close and Phelps is given the sad truth about the fate of the serial killer and the poorly rendered justice dealt by him and his partner, Galloway.
The setting of the final showdown begins at the exterior of the church and then goes down into the catacombs beneath the building. This represents the underworld that Phelps has to go through now he has left behind his secular following of his principles. This all comes to a head when you kill Mason, the case remains open despite you being promoted to Vice. The promotion comes at a cost which is reflected in the passages from P. Shelley which Phelps and Galloway have to collect through out the Homicide cases.
For a quick literary history lesson, Prometheus Unbound is a work by English poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. The four act play is about an adaptation of the mythological tale of Prometheus, who stole fire for mankind and was then tormented by Zeus. In the original story, there is reconciliation between the God and man, but in Shelley's story, Zeus is overthrown and Prometheus turns out to be the force that drives the destruction of the Earth. However, one analysis of Shelley's work says that, in a similarity to the noir style, Unbound is idealised and removed from the conditions of life that “the moral lesson is not essential to the enjoyment of the piece.”
The morality of LA Noire, especially in the homicide cases are completely overturned, due to the serial killer's political ties. Phelps begins to question his own work, whether he is making a difference and this begins an unknowing downward spiral. There are a few parts in Vice which truly show how he falls, but Homicide is the beginning of the end for our wide-brimmed American hero.
In an ironic twist, Homicide actually has the lowest bodycount out of all the criminal desks, another oddity is the use of the handgun as the symbol for Homicide, despite the fact a handgun is never used as a murder weapon by the Werewolf killer. The promotion to Vice is a reflection of Phelps own rising through the ranks in his military days. There is a sad continuing parallel of him getting promoted by only leaving bodies in the way. The difference between the war and his police work is the hand on the trigger and this leads us to Cole's Vice.
Vice is where things begin to fall apart for Phelps. The first clue is Roy Earle, the truly corrupt cop you're partnered with to reflect how good Phelps once was. Earle is meant to create a widening gap and contrast to how Phelps has to deal with being in a different part of the police force. Roy says to Phelps about Vice:
“...if you look at it any other way, you better forget about being a Vice Cop.” - Roy Earle
Earle is older than Phelps and as Vice continues you find more and more about the people Phelps worked with in the Marines and how tainted they truly are. The stolen morphine, guns and their post-war professions all show how they've handled their lives. Phelps is slowly beginning to realise what the future may hold for him.
Earle has already come to accept this fact and has decided to dance between both parties of the just and corrupt. Earle's history is pretty blank but he does say to Phelps he wishes he could bask in his “reflected glory”, referring to Phelp's years in the war. However, Phelps is not particularly proud of his work in the military and it is only the glory Earle wants and that is how he view his deeds in the world. Earle is often trying to make good on deals and distribution but is rarely caught due to his repeated side-swapping. In the end, Earle actually walks away as a free man. That being said, Vice has a larger, more human component to it's arc and it all comes down to one person.
The biggest part of Vice is Elsa Lichtmann. Established earlier on in the game during the Traffic missions, Elsa is a reflection of the internal and external war that Phelps feels after his stint in the Marine corps. Elsa is a German who escaped Hitler's Germany, she moved to America, became a singer and works the Blue Room in Los Angeles. She is established as every negative thing that post-war LA Noire has to offer. She's a drug user, she's German and she's a woman. This even leads to Roy to refer to her as a “junkie whore”, during a point of frustration. However, when Phelps goes to visit Elsa, this section is told beautifully with little dialogue and Phelps going to Elsa's place, her opening the door and him entering without a word being uttered.
In LA Noire, Elsa adds more to usual femme fatale role on it's head. While usually she may be considered a threat in the noir world, she is nothing more than a tragic heroine who falls for Phelps and becomes a victim in his world. They are torturous to one another, only realising it when it's too late. She is never more than a suspect or a witness and sadly, due to their entanglement, Phelps world falls apart. He is accused of adultery, he is thrown out of his house and then he is bumped down to Arson. Right before he meets with Elsa, Earle tells Phelps “not to do anything he wouldn't do.” Phelps does and this is where his path leads. Earle even says that working in Vice is about keeping the dirtiness “manageable,” Phelps sadly does not follow this advice.
The final Vice case, Manifest Destiny, slowly plays out with all of the pieces of the previous cases fall into place and the actual title itself refers to the manifest you find with the names of your former war buddies on it and the American idiom of Manifest Destiny. A quick American History lesson: Manifest Destiny itself, refers to the subjective taking of land based on three principles originally established in the United States in the 19th century. Manifest Destiny in the context of LA Noire is the corruption that begins to spread throughout Cole and the rest of the Vice squad. The institution is corrupt, his partner and eventually Phelps himself falls for his own vices with Elsa. This all comes crashing down and even leads to Phelps having nowhere else to stay but Elsa's place after her is kicked out by his wife, Marie.
Vice is about drug addiction, sexual urges and the grey area that spreads within Phelps. Vice itself, could also refer to a vice grip, that traps Cole in this world. While not focusing on Phelps loneliness or solitude, he keeps a brave face through each case trying to redeem himself. In a dark turn of events, Vice has you killing someone in almost every case and shows the true killer inside Phelps, even though that is how the game progresses. He's now through the looking glass and on the other side of the law, so where does Phelps go from here? To echo what Earle tells Phelps early on in Vice, “everyone has their vices, even you Phelps.”
From Patrol we move to Traffic then to Homicide then to Vice and finally to Arson; this is when things truly go to hell for Phelps. Like Dante's hell bound hero and a good amount of Rockstar characters before him, Phelps has to pay for his sins as he begins the Arson cases with one that truly hits close to home. We start Arson being told “there are no ropes.” Both as a way to establish how far in the game you are by now, that Arson is no different from solving the other cases, but also that there are no ways to escape the mess you are in.
The first case in Arson, The Gas Man, we have two families, one who is there and one who is burned in a house fire. The title referring to the man who is no longer solid, nor liquid, he is a clear or invisible presence in the world. Phelps has transcended from being in a solid state or flowing freely through his vices and now almost ceases to exist, reflected in the way police officers and bystanders react to him.
The case beings with you looking through two family homes, the Steffens and Sawyers. One of the houses has the victims all covered in sheets on the ground, except for the father who is even more burnt and on a stretcher. The Arson squad is here to pick up the pieces from all that is burnt. This reflects Phelp's state of affairs as he sifts through each of the houses and then goes to accuse a group of men of their destructive behaviour; another reflection of Phelps' actions.
In Arson, you are given the partner, Hershell Biggs. Biggs is a rough and much older, much more wiser cop than Phelps is used to. Biggs and Phelps get along like...well, like a house on fire. Biggs was a former soldier who got post-traumatic stress from Germans burning down a barn him and his unit were trapped in. Biggs doesn't like working with people, but despite Phelps reputation post-Vice, he seems to cut him some slack.
Biggs and Phelps are two tragic characters cut from the same cloth, however Biggs has learnt from his military mistakes and has gone about it the wrong way. Phelps was thrust heroism upon him, while Biggs never had the chance. It is in Arson where he finds a contrasting redemption. A man who fears fire, yet sifts through the aftermath. This makes him a perfect partner for Phelps as he is crashing and burning.
The Arson cases also show Phelps how far the corruption spreads beyond Vice. The conspiracy around the Subruban Redevelopment Fund and Elysian Fields Development is a reflection of both the gentrification of Los Angeles post-1940's and the breach of trust that is usually established with the family home. The nuclear family and the family values that were established in the 1940's and 50's, then reinforced by American telvision and politics, is shown to have an awful burnt out core, even from the foundations, provided by the developers. In the game, Elysium are developing houses for GI’s after the war and doing a bit of research you will find the etymology for Elysium leads to Greek mythology where Elysium was an evolving afterlife. The homes for GI’s would have been a final resting place after the war, however, they are aptly burned, much like their undoing in the war.
A Polite Invitation and the DLC case, Nicholson Electroplasting show the corruption in the medical community and media. The healthcare system, as well as psychological foundations are also torn apart in some of the newspaper stories, including the lies spread by Dr. Harlan Fontaine and the truth behind the media, which praises people like Leland Munroe, a capitalist property developer. The foundations of American society crumbling slowly but surely around Phelps and the way each of them are sites for killings, cases and corruption show how bad the police are doing their job and yet sadly, Phelps has one more thing coming.
A sad and major spoiler warning here, which I won't ruin too many details of, but Phelps dies at the end of the last case, A Different Kind of War. There is a funeral service for him and he is surrounded by his former partners, his wife, his children and his lover Elsa. Phelps is washed away after saving Elsa and Kelso, the streets are flooded, as though everything comes to the surface in it’s most literal form; the sewers runeth over, both metaphorically and literally. Phelps and Kelso working together makes everything worthwhile, even though in the end they have to kill their main suspect, a formerly disgraced. mentally deranged marine, Ira Hogeboom, who has caused Phelps and his platoon so much anguish.
Hogeboom as the antagonist for the story has a few allusions to his acts in the war, including his mode of killing and the accident he recommits in the arson cases. He is the arsonist Phelps is chasing through most of that story, but also the first case, The Gas Man, has a group of people accidentally burnt to a crisp. Hogeboom is another tragic figure who is pushed and pulled by forces outside of his control and one of his final lines is a question everyone in LA Noire is secretly asking:
How can I find peace? - Ira Hogeboom
The game ends with Biggs saying to Kelso that he he was “never his friend.” Biggs as I’ve come to understand him in the game, is a mediated between Phelps the detective and Phelps the hero. Kelso reminds Biggs that he was “never his enemy” either and Biggs, to continue to preserve Phelps’ memory, tells Kelso that he think he knew that. The game ends on a bitter and sad note as we close on the funeral, even without Phelps. Earle gives a eulogy about Phelps and his efforts as both a police officer and a Marine, but is this the truth?
Earle denounces the adultery, while Elsa is in attendance. She leaves in anger as Earle tries to keep Phelp's honour and legacy alive. To draw a cinematic reflection, it's akin to the representation of Harvey Dent in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Universe or the Comedian in Alan Moore’s Watchmen; a way to show that authority and power reign, no matter what the truth is, it's always the story that keeps people alive. The truth of LA Noire, is it never really had a hero, just a man who wanted to be one; to make things right. Kelso turns out to be the real hero as the man who never wanted the glory and only did what was honest and expected of him.
The structure of LA Noire is built around the different desks at the police department and they shift around because of the structure of the story they want to tell. Each desk is a representation of Cole Phelp's and his progression through the true morality that takes place in a Los Angeles. While other characters get away scot-free or are arrested, Phelps lives and dies by the sword and in the end is killed in the line of duty, washed away before saying goodbye to the people he saved. I admit I shed some tears and my heart sank before I even thought about how this story would end.
Ultimately, LA Noire is a perfect noir adventure game, by it's defining genre tropes, strong aesthetic, attention to detail and adventure game mechanics. It is not Grand Theft Auto, but it's also not Grim Fandango. It is the anti-thesis of the Grand Theft Auto series, with it’s destructive and impulsive nature, LA Noire, takes it’s time, tries to find rhyme and reason in the world and only fires under threat, sadly the outcome is still the same in a violent and twisted world. LA Noire is telling a tragic tale where a confused America is caught between the end of the war and the middle of the 20th Century. Everyone is trying to find their identity but no one is looking to the past to sort things out.
The structure of the game represents the metaphorical downfall of a man who tries his best to try to maintain justice and authority, yet the tragedy is not that this man could not solve these cases, but how corrupted he became by the world he came to trust and the world he fought for, both at home and overseas. Between corporate greed, unchecked books and a whole lot of political and criminal ties, the world of LA Noire represents not a conspiracy, but sometimes the way the world works and those who get caught up in it. Cole Phelps may have had a short fuse in some cases, but he was just a man fighting for truth and justice, in a world struggling without it. In the end, he's just washed away, but at least he get's to say goodbye.
I wanted to thank everyone who worked on that game at Team Bondi and most importantly, Branden McNamara who wrote such an in-depth and well-rounded game. I hope this analysis got some of it right.