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I Played Your Guy or You are not Cole Phelps

by Tubatic   //   10:41 PM on 01.02.2012



NOTE! I get a little spoilery, though I showed some restraint. Read at your own risky. Game has great performances regardless of knowing the plot points anyway...

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One of my favorite games from last year was L.A. Noire. While the gameplay had its problems with jank and excessive handholding, the narrative flow and character performances made the experience something special. Having a big appreciation of police procedurals TV shows and films, I was drawn into this thick series of crime vignettes and period specific spacial and character settings. What really struck a chord with me, though, was how dedicated L.A. Noire is to keeping the player from identifying and connecting with the main protagonist of the game.

At the start of L.A. Noire, we find Cole Phelps at the bottom rung of the LAPD career ladder, with a wartime past that seems to hang on him in this not-so-proud way. As the start to a narrative, it seems well enough that we're in for a hero's story, as Cole ascends the ranks as a detective and eventually rules the roost, presumably, toward the greatest victory. We expect to find Cole vindicated and victorious by the end, but the Detective Phelps we have at the end of L.A. Noire's narrative is less than a white knight. Only the most forgiving or open minded player will easily accept the character as he's presented by the final act.



And that in particular is what makes the whole trip especially captivating. What Team Bondi gave the player is not the begrudging yet strangely willing hero of John Marston or the sad but morally malleable Niko Bellic. Nor is it the nihilistic via aggressive apathy tough of Johnny Kibitz from GTAIV Lost and Damned. With paper thin regard for who the player would want Phelps to be, the Cole that you have to play is a character that takes none of his overall disposition or destiny from the player's decisions. By the time the user hits that last act and the gameplay twist runs its course, it feels that you haven't even been playing Cole himself. Its more like you've been playing Cole's will to redeem his arrogant and regretted past.

What drove this home for me was the level of interaction with Cole that the player has. Very specifically, you don't control his home life. You don't control what he eats, and you barely control what he wears. But in the context of your protagonist's profession in police work, you are the driving catalyst for the ascension and motiviation of this crappy sap to which you're given the reigns. It not that you're pushing Cole to respond to suspects aggressively: you're indicating when Cole's professional line should be agreeable or distrustingly pressing. You never manage Cole's personal life or his relationship to his family, but you are the intangible dedication to job and duty that keeps him working well into the evening. In an era where the open world has presented players with the customizable, lived-in character, here's this guy. While the world around him appears to be this fully functioning world, the only context we can even begin to touch him in is professional.


Image found here

In this way, the turn in characterization that the game takes for the final act makes a lot of sense. What can a player do with Phelps when he is completely neutered in terms of his career and skill? Nothing. As our crushed protagonist passes his work onto the avatar of the final act, we're presented a certain scenario. The first mission of that final stretch is one all about sparking interest and getting our last man to care about continuing Cole Phelp's work. When the final splashes of the game's narrative plays out, the content is all about the will to set things right, from Cole's outro to the wrap-around flashback stinger, its undeniable, to me, that we've run a full tragic arc through this rollercoaster ride.

Its unfortunate that several people gave up on L.A. Noire about half way through. The gameplay and the intentional samey-ness of the homicide worked in active deterrent to players that had not been successfully hooked by the story content. What the game lacks in character movement in the first half, it makes up for in the back 9 with, in my opinion, one of the best falls a video game character has ever been allowed to have.Photo Photo Photo view gallery
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