Who Is Cole Phelps?

Spoilers for those who haven’t finished the game.

Who is Cole Phelps? What is he like? Does he have trouble sleeping at night, thinking back on the war, does he feel the weight of the darkness keeping him up? Does he turn up the heat and let the steam fill the air during a shower, or does he brave a stark, frigid blast? Does he go out on walks on LA’s starless nights?

Who is Cole Phelps?

I don’t ask because the game does a poor job of characterizing the guy. No, I ask because he has a quality that only very well written characters have: the ability to haunt me. Long after the disc stops spinning in my console, I wonder about the characters–the life they lead, the things they do, who they are. They stop being imprisoned within the game, and I start conceptualizing them as a person. I wonder what keeps them up at night. I wonder what makes them tick. I wonder what type of food they eat. I wonder what knowing them would be like. I wonder about all the small trivial things that one might wonder about a relative, a friend, a lover.

I wonder because there’s this elusive quality about him, too. Team Bondi doesn’t let you into his head. This seems to frustrate most people, but it fascinates me. I don’t see him as someone I am controlling, I see him as someone I’m watching, someone I’m getting to know. I suppose you could say there’s this eerie voyeuristic quality about playing the game. He’s not there for me to influence, or for me to project onto. He’s there for me to watch, for me to contemplate. I’m not going to talk about the effect of that move on the narrative–Tom has already done so. What I do want to talk about, though, is what I’ve pulled together about Cole Phelps, who he is and why he does the things he does.

There’s something in literary theory that I’d like to talk about for a second, because it leads me, eventually, to answering my initial question. There’s something called the ‘hard-boiled ideology’; being hard-boiled describes a specific way of speaking or seeing the world, and the ideology speaks to the very fiber of the detective genre. The detective has deep ties to the mythic frontier American hero: those who ventured out and tamed the wild west and its creatures like their cowboy; John Marston. In that sense, Rockstar’s games have deep ties to Americana and our cultural consciousness. Cole Phelps is the natural progression of heroes like John Marston, both seeking to ‘restore moral order’ to our savage reality. The detective is “another version of the cowboy, who symbolizes the pastoral dream of America.”

Bethany Ogdon argues that the reason why both the detective and the cowboy are so seductive and have stayed as cultural icons is because the public is complicit with their call for a ‘national homogeneity.’ This is why their existence as a white heterosexual man is key, they are a metonymy of larger cultural forces who wish to carve out civilization from the ‘other.’ Let’s take a quick look at the ‘other’ in LA Noire, shall we? There’s women who care more about their shoes, about their fame than the fact that someone has been killed. In hard boiled fiction, women are usually sirens, the reason men fall from grace–and that’s exactly the role Elsa fulfills for Cole. There’s black dope fiends. Cultured but effeminate men like Fontaine. The detective’s main purpose is to ‘bloody its readers with reality;’ they are men who have seen what true ugliness looks like–in this case, Phelp’s war experience. That experience informs them, allows them to see under the hood of culture and realize when darker forces are at work, usually a conspiracy of some sort, a corruption, a perversion.

The conversation about how closely LA Noire embodies the Hard Boiled ideology and the standard detective paradigm as described by social sciences is one that could expand a handful of papers, but the purpose of me bringing it up is so that I can establish LA Noir as a ‘detective fiction.’ Now, we get to talk Frederic Jameson (again, for those of you that have read about conspiracy theory here at Nightmare Mode). Jameson suggests that in detective fiction, there is a difference between the ‘story of knowing’ (the narration) and the ‘story of doing’–the act if not overarching mystery that must be reconstructed by both the detective and the reader. To successfully find the connection between the detective (‘knower’) and the criminal (‘doer’) is to bridge the chasm between knowing and doing. You do this by getting inside the criminal’s head, and this occurs by either dirtying your hands or by being like them in the first place.

Cole is like many of the people that he pursues, which is to say Cole isn’t like other people–‘normal’ people. In many ways, he exists outside of the norms of society–similar to, say, the boy that kisses dead women, or the bartender that thinks he’s doing god’s work. I’m not saying that Cole is insane, but there’s definitely something off about him. He doesn’t get people, he struggles with empathy, he has no semblance of tact. He is surgical and cold. It’s so pronounced that Cole has created a minigame in his head where he ‘reads’ people, and he categorizes their responses in simplistic, downright childish ways. Truth, doubt, lying. We all read people, but to do it so consciously as the game suggests Phelps does, it’s almost a reaffirmation of Phelp’s difficulty with other human beings. And the fact that what he says doesn’t always mirror what those categories imply only furthers my sense that Cole has little grasp on people, on feelings, on what it means to be human.

There’s one particular moment in the game that is cemented in my head, and that’s when Cole has found the bartender at the chapel. Heading to the catacombs reveals a gruesome, bloody room. And what does Cole do there? What does Cole do while the suspect is getting away? He stops and he takes a look around, taking his time cataloging the evidence. He picks up the killer’s tools and analyzes them, and when he reconstructs what the killer must have done with the tools, his tone borders on fascination, captivation. It was a moment straight out of Dexter, really.

The kicker here is that Ira, the final criminal to apprehend, closely embodies Jameson’s idea. Ira was in the war, like Phelps. Not just in the war, Ira was in Phelp’s own squad. Phelps orders Ira to do something horrific, and Ira comes out of the war a completely different man–and so does Phelps. The war is the entire reason that Phelps constructs himself an ivory tower, why he comes back with such a hunger for redemption. War has changed them both, in different ways, but changed them just the same. ‘We’re not so different, you and I,’ may be a cliche, but there you have it, they’re not all that different. It’s Cole’s closeness and similarity to the perpetrators that truly grants him the ability to know how they think, it’s not just that he’s innately a good case man as everyone in the game suggests.

Who is Cole Phelps? I can’t quite say, there’s a dark, almost ugly je ne sais quoi about him. If you dig in a bit, you’ll find that who he is and what he stands for is definitely not what it seems.