Cole Phelps, Badge Twelve-Forty-Seven
LA Noire is an oddity of video games. Huge, sprawling, riddled with idiosyncrasies resulting from a brutal development, it heavily resembles its subject matter: Los Angeles itself. Having finally played through the game in its entirety I wanted to write my thoughts on one element in particular: the unlikable protagonist Cole Phelps.
I do not mean simply that he is an anti-hero, that his morality and methods are against that of a common hero. In some sense this is true, but in fact Cole is substantially more traditionally heroic than most of the characters. Nevertheless, however, LA Noire presents a protagonist who while outwardly and at core a good person, he is deeply flawed.
When we are first introduced to Cole he is a patrolman in the LAPD in 1947. He is intelligent, morally enlightened for his time, and upstanding in following the law. He is insufferable, essentially. However, at this point he only needs to be a cipher for the player: the player cannot break the law, so the protagonist cannot either.
In flashbacks we also see Cole in his armed forces career during WWII. He comes across differently here, openly cocksure, more ambitious, whereas the Cole we play affects an almost extravagant humbleness. He refuses to speak of his war past, curious given that it was highly decorated.
These aspects of Cole continue throughout the game as he rises in rank as a detective: at his core, he does not change. Instead, however, we learn more about him, putting his personality in context and revealing his tragedy.
Some of it appears incidental: only about half-way through do we learn that he is married, with two children. We only play as him while he is working, and the fact that he speaks so little of his family that his colleagues are surprised to learn of them is telling in itself.
The point where Cole then abruptly leaves his wife is shocking. He has the American Dream, and drops it for a “German junkie whore”. Cole makes no attempt to defend his actions, even when confronted with the devastation it has on his children. We start to realise that Cole believes himself to be broken, and that he seeks redemption, not change, through his work.
Elsa, his new girlfriend, is a nightclub singer and a survivor of the Nazis. Cole, throughout the game, shows a talent for understanding the psychology of the criminals he chases, even as he condemns them. Elsa is a broken woman too, but she is kind and empathetic. Cole can no longer connect with the dream of society, he needs to be with people he understands.
In his succession of partners we also see Cole connecting with people who have seen the darkness in the hearts of man. Even in Roy Earle, a rogue among rogues, Cole can see a man corrupted by fighting a drug war he doesn’t believe in.
What it all comes back to is the war. WWII hangs over the plot of LA Noire like smog on LA. Every character was affected by it, and there is a real sense of the cumulative psychological trauma across the whole population. Cole was a young, ambitious officer, and, it turns out, a terrible one. Frequently he led his men into suicide missions for little reason. He ignores advice and follows regulations to the letter despite death following him like a shadow.
In one battle every man under his command was killed, with Cole shellshocked and hiding in a foxhole. As the sole survivor, however, he is promoted and decorated. He sees this as a great failure, his “cowardice” having cost his men their lives. There we start to see the progression between the Cole of the past and of the present.
Later, his rival Jack Kelso admonishes Cole for his attitude: men are not either brave or cowardly, they can both all things at different times. Men can be heroes and villains: Cole’s quest for redemption is pointless, since he considers a failing what is completely natural.
We then see Cole’s true failure in the war. Obsessed with following regulations and proving himself, he led his men into an ambush and then ordered them to burn what turned out to be a makeshift hospital. Faced with the screams, he panicked and ordered mercy killings, before one of his soldiers shot him in the back. Kelso covered up the shooting, and Cole was invalidated back home where he joined the police.
We realise, retrospectively, that this shattered him. It isn’t until later, when he finds Elsa, that he starts to come to peace with his past, instead of it shaming and driving him. In a curious move, the finale of the game then switches the player character to Kelso. I like this, as at this point Cole reaches what is essentially the end of his arc: he understands himself and his limitations. He seeks Jack’s help, acknowledging that he is out of his element handling the conspiracy that the latter acts concern.
Cole then dies in the final level, sacrificing himself so that Elsa and Jack can reach safety. Perhaps this might have felt cheap had he continued as the player character, I do not know. However, I do like how it allows us a brief period where he has reached self-understanding, where he sees his flaws and fights in spite of them, not merely against them. LA is a city of rogues, darkness and deep, deep shadows, but it is not hopeless.
LA Noire is certainly not a perfect game, but I do believe it gave us character work unlike any other game. Cole is in many ways a truly reprehensible man: a war criminal, among other things. Yet, he leaves an impression as somebody who learns that fighting for others, for the helpless and forgotten, is more important than fighting for himself. He is not redeemed, but achieves the closest thing to it.