'L.A. Noire' Is an Insightful Game About Power, and a Product of Its Misuse

The world is rarely simple, but sometimes complexity is just convenience in disguise.
May 19, 2021, 1:00pm
A Clue
'L.A. Noire' screenshots courtesy of Rockstar

One of the key tenets of the noir genre is that the past is always going to come back to haunt you. The old business partner, the abandoned love of your life, or wartime decisions are always careening into the offices of noir protagonists, and shocking things are often revealed. Heinous acts and repressed memories reign in noir, and so it feels appropriate to look back to the biggest swing that blockbuster games have ever taken at the genre; Team Bondi’s L.A. Noire turns ten years old this week.

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I didn’t have very many expectations when I sat down with 2017’s slightly-augmented Remastered Edition a couple weeks ago. I’d played the game to various stages of completion before, but always bounced off for various reasons a few investigations in. Former Marine-then-cop-then-detective Cole Phelps always grated, and the game’s plodding pace that takes on the beats and forms from its 1950s setting was a hard hump to get over. L.A. Noire sells itself entirely on its storytelling and its mimicking of a time and place within a very particular genre, and if you’re not on board for any of those things it very quickly becomes a struggle to play.

What’s striking about it ten years on is how fresh those simple ideas still feel, plodding pace and all. While the Mafia games have carried the flag for “historical” 20th century games, they are decidedly more action-based than the slow and careful investigation and interview mechanics of L.A. Noire. I also struggle to think of another game that could be said to actually have a wide cast of side and bit characters, afforded almost entirely by the MotionScan technology that the developers deployed in order to capture real-time performances from a huge array of recognizable actors. Even games with fairly large animated and voice acted casts, like the recent The Last of Us Part 2, look humble compared to the horde of character actors you come into contact with in L.A. Noire.

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You come into contact with them through your own character, though. Cole Phelps is so sharply drawn that it’s painful. He’s a by-the-book careerist who wants to crack the hard cases and move up in the world. In many ways, he’s a combination of the two protagonists from 1997’s throwback noir L.A. Confidential. With one hand, he does the interviews, collects the evidence, and holds to the best standards of “good police” like that film’s Ed Exley; with the other, he recognizes that threats and illegal violence get results, and he’s willing to pursue them (or at least threaten them) like the film’s Bud White. But where L.A. Confidential sets these two characters into action against each other, knowing that the dream of detective work and the reality of it are incompatible, L.A. Noire wants to have one guy be both of those things from the beginning. The film, after all, has its golden boy main character shoot a man in the back at its climax, leaving us to realize that every dream of “justice” through police work in its world is hollow. Cole Phelps can shoot fleeing people in the back and the game doesn’t even bat an eye.

This is to say that L.A. Noire is hooked into the circulatory system of noir in a lot of ways, and sometimes it shortcuts the work that noir films do to set their tone in order to get to the meat of the thing. When Phelps enters an investigation site, a dull chiming, clanging soundtrack always plays. It dings and dongs as he finds the corpses of serial killer victims, burned houses, and hit-and-run crime scenes. The music, and the tone it sets, is ripped right out of a scene in Chinatown where private investigator Jake Gittes slowly works his way through an apartment with a murdered woman in it. He looks for clues and checks his corners. It’s a tense, overwhelming scene that lasts a few minutes at most, and the chimes sell the absolute dread of being in this place, at this time, with the particular paranoia that Gittes is feeling. In their clamour for noir bonafides, the L.A. Noire creative team decided that I needed to hear this style of music constantly through the game, robbing it almost immediately of any kind of thrill or resonance.

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Conceptually, then, L.A. Noire is a kind of vibe supercut that is meant to evoke all of these different resonances of noir while also delivering its own particular story. In that way, it has the same resonance of parody films like Scary Movie or Avengers of Justice, which exist only to make you think about the other thing that they’re referencing. The Black Dahlia, the excesses of early Hollywood, underground jazz culture, and a blindingly white civil society that occasionally comes down from on high to prey on black and brown working and middle class people all appear as central recurrent parts of detective life in this semi-fictional noir landscape.

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All of that said, when L.A. Noire is confident enough to tell its own story, it is brilliant. It’s clear that the creators understood that part of what makes a noir story good is a recognition of failure. Sometimes the bad guy wins. Sometimes you don’t have all the information that you need. Sometimes there are power structures that just spin out and beyond your control. Cole Phelps can really mess up an investigation by missing clues and failing to correctly interview people critical to a case. The case is “finished,” but it doesn’t resolve in congratulation. Instead, a superior appears to call Phelps everything short of an asshole. The war hero is reduced to a child, and as a player, I could see that sting of hurt pride on the part of the detective. It’s glorious and powerful.

That particular kind of failure can happen at any time in the game due to player action, but it saves some of its best narrative noir beats for the last third or so. This is when the wartime flashbacks that cap each chapter of the game reveal Phelps’ wartime actions for what they really were. We learn, at different points, that his “hero” status was won simply because he happened to not die in a fortified position on Okinawa; as a part of a sweeper unit, he ordered his soldiers to flamethrower, and then shoot, civilians in a hospital; the wound that took him home from the war wasn’t from an enemy, but instead it was friendly fire from a soldier who just couldn’t take Phelps’ shit anymore. He ruins his personal and professional life by sleeping with a jazz singer, falling from the prestigious Vice unit to the lowly Arson unit. And in the last few missions, we realize he doesn’t even have a monopoly on investigations in this video game world.

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Enter Jack Kelso, a former friend and war buddy of Cole Phelps and a key protagonist of the last few hours of L.A. Noire. In Heather Alexadra’s analysis of the ending of the game, she called Kelso the hero of the game’s story. He does come in clutch. He’s the one who learns that there’s an elaborate plan from Los Angeles’ highest politicians and businessmen to build bad homes financed on the backs of returning GIs before flipping those properties into pure cash when the freeway is built on top of them (again, Chinatown vibes). He’s the one who assembles the surviving members of his old unit to assault the compound of a real estate developer to put all of this together. He’s the one who figures out that the man who has been burning people alive in their homes, at the behest of said shadowy cabal of political operators, is the former flamethrower operator from Phelps’ old unit. If you’re shocked, don’t be. It’s noir. The past is always coming back to haunt you.

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I wouldn’t call Kelso the hero of L.A. Noire simply because the game is too deep in the noir riff to have heroes. Instead, he’s simply the guy who lives. He goes down into the sewer tunnels with Phelps, saves the girl, and emerges back into the street as Cole drowns in a torrent of water unleashed by powerful rains. Some people live, and other people die. The game’s final scene is at Cole Phelps’ funeral. We see his former Vice partner, as corrupt as they come, shaking hands with the new District Attorney who was meant to clean up this town. There’s a deep nihilism to it, and we’re meant to feel it that way. Some people have legacies, and other people have to watch those legacies warp and twist in the wind of history.

This question of legacies is important for L.A. Noire, because it is unclear precisely what that legacy is. Its interview mechanics, lauded so much before release and in reviews, feels both mechanically interesting as well as fairly pedestrian. The person-puzzle mechanic isn’t particularly interesting; in 2021, I do not play this game released a decade ago and think that the future was here. Is the legacy in the (excellent) main and bit character performances? Certainly that scale and the commitment to large pools of talent has been unseen in games since. Maybe it’s in the tone and storytelling, which wax and wane but easily belong in the conversation alongside all of the other heavy-hitter, story-centered blockbuster games.

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In keeping with noir, though, it might be worth considering that the legacy is hidden beneath the surface. It’s not the glitz and the glamour, but the hard material facts of how the game was made. L.A. Noire’s development was characterized by long, horrible crunch as the studio juggled first a relationship with Sony and then the eventual publisher Rockstar. In IGN’s report in 2011, they quoted an anonymous comment that called the game’s development a “24/7 corpse grinder,” and the report makes it clear that the team largely blamed game director and writer Brendan McNamara for the working conditions. Apparently known to bypass team leads and request game changes from staff at whim, McNamara claimed it was his right to do so as director, likening this to the same relationship that Sam Houser has with his own studio at Rockstar (the way that this led to extreme crunch conditions on Red Dead Redemption 2 would be highlighted years later by Kotaku). McNamara’s quotes in the IGN report are very matter-of-fact on the issue of crunch and extensive work hours. As he said, “We're making a type of game that's never been made before. We're making it with new people, and new technology. People who're committed to put in whatever hours they think they need to.” Leaked emails from the crunch period reveal the insidious way that these official and unofficial policies were implemented on the employees at Team Bondi.

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Los Angeles noir media always goes back to the Dream Factory on the west coast. L.A. is a hole that the country gets sucked into. The youth move there to chase fame and fortune, and in noir stories they end up abused, chewed up, or dead. The promise of a world that could be, with their name in lights, causes them to be eaten up little by little until the city manages to cover them over and consume them completely. There’s grand irony in how Team Bondi, like so many companies, sold its team members on the dream that they would be part of the next wave of video game artistic accomplishment in the same way that a noir film executive might stun stars and starlets with the glamour of their next big break. The reality is that some team members crunched 100 hour weeks to produce things like press builds that were never even used. The quotes from McNamara about production read like the smug truth-telling of a corrupt noir police chief laying out exactly how the world works for a PI who has just enough threads to know that the world is unraveling: “The expectation is slightly weird here, that you can do this stuff without killing yourself; well, you can't.” You think the world is one way, but it’s another. White is black, black is white. You’d be a fool to think things could ever be different.

History is always there, churning in the background, and holding the artistic accomplishment of L.A. Noire up against the conditions under which it was made is like holding a flawed jewel up to light. Even if it isn’t revealed in every angle, you know that there’s problems in the core, hidden beneath the smooth sheen that is gameplay and a powerful narrative experience. And maybe that’s the real legacy, that rotten core of the beautiful thing.

At the end of Cole Phelps’ funeral, his partner in the Arson division, Herschel Biggs, talks to a mourning Jack Kelso. “You were never his friend, Jack,” he says. A few moments of comraderie doesn’t erase years of wartime friction and butted heads. Kelso comes back with a rejoinder: “I was never his enemy.” The ambivalence of these positions, of allies and enemies and the grey between, hammers the whole game home in its final moments. The world isn’t as clear as we want it to be. But that final message lands differently knowing how much gray and blurry morality is used to deflect responsibility, and deny being implicated in any of the crimes of a corrupt order. If you just stick to that story, maybe you can beat the rap.