Minimalism in L.A. Noire
Narrative in video games is all sound and fury and no subtlety. In a word, bang! Active voice, onomateopoeia, very physical and very direct, more akin to a Saturday Morning Cartoon than to a novel or a film. They are bright, they are aggressive, and even such supposed pinnacles of modern storytelling as Heavy Rain focus on grabbing your attention like a rabid pit bull and not letting go instead of telling an even-keel, nuanced story.
L.A. Noire, though, is different. Say what you want about it, and people have been saying an awful lot negative about it, but it is perhaps the most progressive game in terms of narrative ever released. It tries. It goddamn tries, and for that, in a medium where so many are complacent, it should be applauded.
(THIS POST IS LITTERED WITH SPOILERS. DO NOT READ IT IF YOU CARE; personally, I think L.A. Noire is the most important narrative in gaming at the moment, so…play it! Specifically with a FAQ after Murder, because Ad Vice, especially, is frustrating and the gameplay is generally mediocre.)
It’s in the mechanics, and it’s in the story being told. L.A. Noire, despite its nominal perspective, is the most first person narrative ever told in a video game. Everything that happens, everything we notice is something important to Phelps, something he would notice. When the perspective changes towards the end of the game, it changes because Phelps has changed, not because it’s necessary to further the narrative.
You become Jack Kelso not because Cole Phelps can no longer forward the plot, as you first think, but instead because Phelp’s priorities have been changed. Phelps has been changed by the events he’s lived. The perspective change is the crux of the narrative, the great moment of intellectual triumph.
Let’s go back to the beginning, though. L.A. Noire is very much a layer cake of a narrative. Remove a piece and you tear the whole work down. This is the mark of good, efficient storytelling, but it’s something that doesn’t mesh with the video game critic: we’re used to tearing bits and pieces from titles and having the game still make sense. It doesn’t fly in terms of L.A. Noire: it has to be considered as an omnibussal whole, a rise and fall and not as moments, because otherwise no sense can be gleaned from the work.
Cole Phelp’s wife first appears in the introduction. She is the first character on screen, kissing him goodbye, a visual representation of how Phelps might describe himself if he met someone for the first time. She is an afterthought in his world, someone who exists like a bookshelf exists to us: useful, but not memorable in the slightest. She is mentioned in conversation during the Homicide desk, as Rusty talks about women. Phelps defends his wife’s honor from his partner’s attacks, but he does so more out of a sense of duty than out of love. It’s more like Rusty just said that Phelps had an ugly sofa in his living room than that his wife was an evil, conniving liar who deserved to get murdered.
Besides these two incidents, she does not appear at all until the end of Ad Vice, where Phelps is turned in for adultery by his partner Roy Earle. Phelps had been involved in an affair with Elsa Lichtmann, a character who herself appears only in four scenes. First, she appears at the end of Traffic, when Roy takes you out for a drink. Cole goes to see her after he solves the Dahlia case, and no mention of sexy times is specifically laid out. She appears in the last Ad Vice case, Manifest Destiny, as a witness, and Cole threatens her like any other woman. Later, he tails her to her apartment, careful not to be seen, and knocks on her door: she opens with a towel on and invites him in wordlessly.
That is the explicitness of the affair. The women in Cole’s life, a game changing plot point, are given about 15 minutes of fame before they become the plot, before they ruin him.
And that is utterly brilliant. It’s first person. These are the things Cole would care about. Cole would read newspaper entries he found at the crime scene about crackpot doctors because he’d be interested in learning about psychology and about crimes that have been committed. Cole wouldn’t be interested in his wife except as a status symbol, why she is mentioned but not seen, and isn’t interested in Elsa for the first three desks except as a sexual object, which isn’t something related to his work. She helps him unwind. Unwinding isn’t his goal, though: catching bad guys is. When his relaxation comes between him and solving a crime at the end of Manifest Destiny, it becomes something mentioned in the game because Cole would begin to care about it.
Faced with his transgressions, Cole transforms. He honest to god transforms, and he does so in a subtle, non-video gamey way. There isn’t a boss fight, and Cole doesn’t power up. His color doesn’t change. He doesn’t dress differently. L.A. Noire treats it the whole bit very maturely.
The events of the adultery seriously affect him. It makes him a different man, one who realizes that not even he can be perfect, and that even if he was to be perfect, it cannot make up for the things that happened on Sugar Loaf. Cole’s pursuit of perfection after he was erroneously awarded a Silver Star for heroism for surviving, for sheer dumb luck, won’t solve anything about his life. He can never make up the hospital he ordered Hogeboom to burn to the ground. He does not realize this, but he becomes receptive to this fact, and that his codified behaviors are not necessarily the correct ones. It’s a turning point, and it doesn’t come with a big Turning Point sign, considering Phelps is very much the same guy after the end of Manifest Destiny, where he realizes his personal mistakes can cost him professionally. Where he cannot just strictly segment his life into bits and pieces.
The true turning point comes in the second Arson case. Phelps reacts coldly, analytically, to the family laid out in the living room of their home, their bodies tensed into prayer positions from the fire. Herschel, his new partner, gets disgusted by Phelps’ speak when the bodies of four individuals are laid out, dead, in front of him. Phelps is concerned with analysis, while Herschel, very much the audience, is disgusted by this horrific display of death.
Phelp’s reaction is distinctly un-Phelpsian. He comforts Herschel, and tells him they’ll get the guy. Herschel, again channeling the audience, says they won’t get him, they’ll fucking shoot him. Phelps doesn’t correct him about how that’s not proper procedure, as we’d have expected him to do from the past. He just nods.
His transformation comes full circle later in the game, when he realizes he’s at something of a dead end. He could keep investigating the Suburban Redevelopment Fund, but it would destroy him, and it would destroy Herschel, and it would destroy everything he now cares about. Faced with this issue, he swallows his pride and calls on Jack Kelso, an old enemy from the war, a man who knows Phelp’s most intimate weaknesses and secrets, and relies on him to help discover the truth.
What we see as players is a character who has moved from a self-centered, dogged pursuit of justice to being a man of intelligence and grace, who has come out of his dark times and who has redeemed himself as a human being. He does this, admittedly, through adultery and shacking up with a German, but he is redeemed as a human. He is no longer a Case Man, but rather a noble individual in pursuit of justice where injustice has existed.
It is Phelp’s redemption that is central to L.A. Noire. It is a linear game, as such: Phelps has to solve the cases, because that is who Phelps is: he is an extraordinary case man. If you constantly got the wrong guy, what would that say about Phelps? His failures in the plot would be minimized, because he’d be a bumbling idiot. In the end, all of his false convictions are eventually washed away in the tide of We got the wrong guy!’s. Whether or not this is a good thing gameplay wise is debatable; what is not up for debate is the intense brilliance, the subtlety of L.A. Noire’s plot, the sense it gives us of living the life of this man Cole Phelps, living his singular devotion and his eventual realization of the importance of other aspects of his life.
And there was only ever one way for his story to end.