WARNING: Plot spoilers ahead for LA Noire
In 1940s Los Angeles, crime never seems to rest. Recently promoted to the Homicide division, I’ve been working a particularly gruesome murder. The evidence hasn’t been very forthcoming, at once hard to grasp and too convenient. But suspects have been grilled, two of them chased through the streets of LA and hauled back to the police station. They are Hugo Moller, the victim’s husband, prone to anger and caught incinerating evidence; and Eli Rooney, a child molester who’s been haunting the school where the victim was last seen, and is in possession of her brooch.
Outside Rooney’s interrogation room, I run into James Donnelley, not only the Captain of the LAPD’s Homicide Division, but the man who gave me my first break as a patrolman, recommending me for promotion to detective. “This particular fiend is an old acquaintance. I have tried to reaffirm his belief in a wrathful and terrible God. Whichever way it goes, I'll be dealing personally with him.”
In his Irish accent, he speaks in fiery, poetic biblical terms, calling us his “finest crusaders” and promising swift justice for the “sons of Cain” that stalk the city’s dark alleys. This provides a palatable front for his merciless nature, closing cases quickly and harshly, hassling for confessions when evidence is doubtful.
Despite his promise of dealing with Rooney either way, it’s clear who the Captain wants you to charge with the crime. Eli’s bloodied face shows the rest of the arresting officers clearly feel the same way. Rooney is a despicable character who barely makes any effort to hide his sexual proclivities for underage children. But the evidence seems to favor Hugo.
Charge Hugo, however, and the Captain will be disappointed in you, limiting your ranking in the case to 3 of the possible 5 stars, even if that’s the only choice you make differently. For completionists, those who want to be a “good cop” by the rules of LA Noire—collect everything, get max rank in all cases—it’s no choice at all.
To rub salt in the wound, it’s later revealed in the final case of the Homicide Desk that neither Hugo nor Eli was the actual murderer. Essentially, the choice is meaningless, as are the reasons for your ranking. But that’s the ranking you, playing as Detective Cole Phelps, receive from your superiors, baked into the context of the game as your case report. You didn’t achieve that ranking by earning a high score, or by beating a record—you got it by pleasing those above you as they wanted to be pleased, by bowing down to authority as a good cog in the game’s LAPD, riddled, as you later find out, with its own corruptions.
It forces you to be wrong, and rewards you for doing so.
Of course, corruption—intended and otherwise—is a running theme in LA Noire. It’s the Homicide Desk where it feels like your direct detective work is the messiest. 7 cases long, with a connected plot tying them all together, it’s the meatiest and most memorable portion of the game. It could almost stand on its own.
For some, it’s also a hugely frustrating sequence. Of those 7 cases, you only catch the serial killer culprit responsible for all of them in the very final one. For the other 6, you’re forced to investigate incorrect leads, only flirting around the truth. And in every one, you must unjustly imprison a suspect. It forces you to be wrong, and rewards you for doing so.
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It’s obviously a Rockstar game—see the the Grand Theft Auto style recreation of period era LA, and the Red Dead Redemption-inspired third person shooter mechanics—but LA Noire shares a lot more DNA with more traditional narrative-focussed projects. Series like Telltale’s The Walking Dead also take you along episodic stories, forcing you to make difficult decisions and solving the occasional puzzle along the way.
But LA Noire doesn’t trade blows with your emotions, or toe the line much with “moral choices,” asking you if you feel good or bad about what happens. Your work as a detective is codified with every step. Each question in an interrogation will be “correct” or “incorrect.” There are a set number of clues that will help the DA close the case, and you must mechanically pick your way through crime scenes to find them. In car chases and shootouts, you’re ranked on how much money your work costs the city in dollars.
Your detective work is never about finding the truth, it’s about numbers and checklists. Did you conduct yourself properly as asked, find just enough evidence to allow the DA to push the case through (regardless of the accuracy of the conviction), and did you do it cheaply?
As someone who plays a lot of games, it’s easy to find yourself comfortably settling down into this defined scoring system without much thought. And heck, it feels damn good to see “4/4 correct” after chewing out a witness, “17/17” next to clues found, that 5 star “valorous” stamp on your case report. And it makes you complicit, unavoidably.
Only occasionally do you pause for a moment to think—shouldn’t you check the blood on the suspect’s shoes to see if it really belonged to the victim, or follow-up on their alibi more closely?
But why should you? The police captains are happy, and the DA has enough for a conviction. Case closed. Five stars.
It’s easy to see why players might be frustrated that their work on the Homicide Desk was for naught during the final case. But you feel those frustrations right there alongside Detective Cole Phelps. What the codification of the policing tells you is “good work” is not truly good.
Instead you play into hands of the city's elite time and time again—to get an undesirable off the streets by any means necessary, to find an excuse to purge the homeless from the city, and, ultimately, in the final case of the Homicide desk, to participate in a cover-up with the real perpetrator because he has ties to a powerful family. You’re rewarded with a hollow feeling promotion to Ad Vice, where the corruption gets even worse.
As a player, you feel more trapped by those systems than Phelps. Even the few times he does voice his concerns, he backs down quickly, disallowing you to prod further. When he does push a little, asking suspects questions pertaining to the serial killer theory (such as their shoe size, or whether they know the meaning of the killer’s bizarre messages), he asks them separately from the questions you choose to select and work through—tacked on at the end. The feeling is clear for the player: you’re powerless within the system to work towards the ends of the city’s elite. And your avatar, Phelps, denies you access to push.
Intentional or not, the frustrations this brings out tie right into the corruption that lies at the heart of LA Noire’s story. These days especially, it’s a reminder to look at the big picture, that making the higher-ups happy isn’t always “doing a good job,” no matter how many stars they heap on you. LA Noire reads as a warning for what can happen when you do your job without holding those giving the orders accountable.
It’s only when Phelps relinquishes his own limited control of the situation that we are freed to properly unravel some of the city’s corruption. And it happens by changing our player character from Cole Phelps to Jack Kelso, an old war buddy-turned-rival, now an insurance investigator. Working within the system to change things can’t work if you’re not willing to open them up to outside scrutiny. It’s the internalization of issues that so often leads to corruption, and it’s the narrative you and Phelps have been playing into for most of the game.
LA Noire reads as a warning for what can happen when you do your job without holding those giving the orders accountable.
Revealed piecemeal throughout flashbacks in the game, we learn that seeking the approval of his superiors in the marines led Phelps to see unspeakable horrors and commit serious wrongdoings in the war. On his return, this same eagerness to please and to play by the rules in the police force ends up in the same results.
The only difference is, the second time, he realizes that working blindly within the system and putting unchallenged faith in authority figures doesn’t work. Not in LA Noire, and not in life.