“Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” — Ecclesiastes 1:2
“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” — Ecclesiastes 1:9
In Rockstar Games’ 2011 hit “L.A. Noire,” you are Cole Phelps, a former Marine, WWII Pacific Theater vet and current detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. The game was originally released on the XBox 360 and Playstation 3 platforms, but was recently re-released on the PlayStation 4, XBox ONE and Nintendo Switch formats. I just recently finished playing the PlayStation 4 version.
What I at first thought was an open-ended sort of “Grand Theft Auto” but with the LAPD quickly revealed itself to be a fairly standard point and click branch choice game, where your actions have consequences — or do they?
True to the genre in its title, “L.A. Noire” ends up saying a lot more about man’s search for redemption, forgiveness and meaning within a corrupt system than it is an entertaining game. Sure, it’s a fun game to play, but now that I’ve finished, I’m wrestling with questions about ethics and morals, and whether or not any of it matters in the long run — rare for a video game, let alone one from Rockstar.
The main storyline follows Phelps as he returns home from the war. He settles down, gets married. Has a few kids. Starts his job at the LAPD as a traffic cop, investigating burglaries and hit-and-runs and the like. As you control his character, you’re given the choice to “Good Cop,” “Bad Cop” or “Accuse” suspects you interview in each case.
Through flashback, we learn that the straight-edged Phelps was a by-the-book leader while in the Corps. Sometimes, a little too straight-edged, as his philosophy of leadership is revealed to hold more stock in black-and-white protocol than in how people actually act. His orders result in casualties or injuries multiple times, and his men begin to resent him. (More on this important plot point later.)
As Phelps (voiced by Aaron Stanton, AKA Ken Cosgrove from “Mad Men”) works his way up through the ranks he impresses his superiors by solving homicides in his typical dress-right-dress fashion.
By the time he gets to Vice, he’s already caught and killed a serial killer. This work went unnoticed by the public because the killer was tied to some government higher-ups. Phelps’ choice (which you cannot control in-game) to bury the discovery is the first step down Noir Alley.
In Vice, the big discovery is that members from Phelps’ old unit have stolen morphine from a government ship and started selling it on the black market, much to the chagrin of the local Mob boss, who then starts killing members of Phelps’ unit for cutting in on the drug trade.
While trying to save his own unit, Phelps starts up an affair with a German lounge singer. Unbeknownst to him, his Vice partner is working to cover up the drug scandal and paints Phelps as a scapegoat, using his affair as the final nail in the coffin. Phelps end up divorced, disgraced and demoted down to the Arson desk.
But, through cutscenes, we learn another layer to the conspiracy. A psychiatrist has been using that morphine mentioned earlier to help returning veterans with PTSD, who also sell it to others. In return for the drugs and the service, those vets do this doc’s bidding. They burn down houses and commit crimes for an evil syndicate. In a move straight out of the noir playbook, the syndicate is building cheap, disposable houses for veterans, then burning them down and collecting the insurance money.
Throughout this whole vastly-layered conspiracy, we learn through flashback that Phelps, in a fit of stunning arrogance, ordered his unit to go into a village on Okinawa and kill everyone left standing. His unit rebelled. Only one man with a flamethrower went through with the crime. Long thought dead, he becomes the game’s main antagonist at the end. It isn’t until that final flashback on Okinawa is revealed that you as the gamer sees how all of this fits together.
Phelps’ final act as a man, and a cop, is to finally understand that life is not black and white. it is often tinged with shades of gray. In doing so, he sacrifices himself to save his partner and to keep the truth about himself hidden. Phelps achieves a kind of redemption with his final moments of life, even if it is simultaneously self-sacrificing and self-serving.
Throughout the game and in trying to redeem its main character at the end, “L.A. Noire” focuses on the illusion of choice and free will and how trying to reinvent yourself might bring about your ruin.
(Speaking of reinventing yourself, it’s very interesting that much of the voice talent here comes from “Mad Men,” a show that, among other things, is very concerned with what it takes to reinvent yourself in post-war America.)
You might make a choice in one case that you think will have repercussions later, only to find out that it doesn’t matter what you do. The police chief will still demote you. Likewise, small mistakes (like “Bad Cop”-ing a suspect instead of “Good Cop”ing them) can affect how you receive evidence to solve entire cases.
In short, you as a gamer might think you can control your choices, but in reality, you are being controlled by something else. This mirrors the internal conflict in the game where Phelps tried to do the right thing but is thwarted at every turn.
How do you make meaning out of that? In Phelps’ case, you make your last moments wholly yours. Will one last moment of action make up for a full game of moral mistakes?
In one of the few moments where he exercises free will instead of following orders or abiding by some sort of code, he is fully realized. And then he dies.
At the end, you learn that the conspiracy lives on, and that nothing could have stopped the initial drug trade in the first place.
In true noir fashion, hardly anything changes. The world is still bleak, and the main character’s heroics go largely unknown. The fire of the conspiracy may have dwindled, but it’s still there, waiting to be re-lit. What has been will be again. But Phelps’ last action did a little bit of good, however trivial.
The only way to fight that, “L.A. Noire” suggests, is to think for yourself and follow what you believe is right, no matter what. Here, individual free will, no matter how misguided, is the key to making sense out of a meaningless world. But does that matter in the end, or matter to our legacy? The game never makes that clear.
Pretty heavy stuff for a video game. I’m not in any hurry to re-play it, but it gave me a lot to think about.