Warning: The following blog contains SPOILERS for LA Noire, Red Dead Redemption, the first episode of Mad Men, and The Departed.
It feels like it took me most of the summer, but I finally finished LA Noire. As a whole, I really enjoyed the game--it took some risks, and in some areas, it paid off. But the ending? Man, that was totally unsatisfying. And I feel like the best way to show why, is to start from the final scene and go backwards. Let the nerd rant begin!
The final scene takes place at Cole Phelps' funeral. The eulogy is delivered by a crooked cop and the stage is filled with crooked government officials--all of which Cole had hoped to bust. It's a scene very similar to the modern noire movie The Departed. The viewer is left feeling sad, tricked, vengeful and angry for the main character, but also a tiny bit happy, because in a small way, he did some good. It's a tone that reminds you how fragile life is, and that in the real world, it takes more than one man to topple a corrupt system. At least, that's how you feel at the end of The Departed. Why? Because the makers of the film were able to build a connection between you and the main character, in two hours or less.
You do not feel that way about Cole Phelps at the end of LA Noire. There is no connection, which is amazing since you spend not just two, but more than 12 hours actually controlling the man. Unfortunately staring at the back of a guy's head for hours on end is a poor substitute for character development. Let me be clear, I'm not upset that Cole dies at the end; happy endings aren't exactly a noire staple. These type of stories usually deal in pessimism, nihilism, cynicism and several other pejorative "isms". What bothers me is the incompleteness of the entire package. I couldn't shake the feeling that some important scenes got cut from the game, at least I hope they did. If not, that means the developers just outright forgot to include them.
Don Draper, the main character in the AMC drama Mad Men, is a scumbag. That's not really a spoiler. I've only watched the first two seasons, but I've seen him sleep with enough women that aren't his wife to know that he's got a problem. I don't like infidelity, it's terrible, and I hate that men are stupid and cheat, but I still enjoy Mad Men--a show where just about every male with a speaking role is cheating on his significant other. The reason I can get past it is because the show does a great job of showing you why Don Draper cheats, beyond the whole sleazy scumbag thing. Sometimes it's because of the cultural and social issues of the time (people didn't talk about how they felt). Sometimes it seems as if he's attempting to salve old, never-mended wounds. And then there are times where it seems he cheats because, despite his age, he doesn't really know who he is. None of those are good justifications for infidelity, but they are justifications. If we squint our eyes and tilt our heads, we can kind of see where he's coming from.
Not so with Cole Phelps. His affair with Elsa is a major plot development, a catalyst that sets a number of gears in motion for the end game, and yet it's totally underdeveloped. It just doesn't mesh with who he is. You spend the first two thirds of the game playing as a straight shooter, a borderline extreme rule follower. Cole seems morally unflappable. He mentions his wife and kids a couple of times (though you never see them), and he even seems to take issue with always having to go after the husbands in a string of female homicides. Midway through the game Cole goes to Elsa's apartment, paces in front of the door, and then knocks and enters. That's it. That's the affair. I wasn't sure what to make of that scene when it happened. I remember thinking, "Did he just cheat on his wife? Surely this is for a case right? It's going to seem like he's up to no good, but eventually we'll find out he was just working with her to bust the bad guys. Yeah, Cole wouldn't do that."
The developers sold the boy scout image too hard. When Cole gets caught and demoted, I was confused. The first and only time we see his wife, she's throwing his stuff out on the street, and he starts to tell her that she doesn't understand. I didn't either. At this point I was still holding on to the straight shooter image. I thought, "Here we go, he's going to say it's all a mix up. Elsa was a witness and her life was in danger or something." Wrong again!
At that point every one of Cole's colleagues hated him for his cheating ways, and as a player, I did too. An extended flirtatious scene with Elsa (beyond the time that Cole goes to watch her sing), a tense scene with his wife prior to the affair, or even one of the traumatic war flashbacks thrown in at the end of the game could have humanized Cole a bit. Cole's affair is so abrupt that you get the feeling that something was cut, that maybe they did include a scene that would have explained it more, or developed his character a bit before, but it got cut for some reason. The abrupt switch might have worked in a short movie, but not here, not after you've spent hours playing an infallible super cop that plays by the rules, busts bad guys, and reprimands anyone that shows even the slightest bit of moral laziness.
I would have been willing to follow Cole and go along with the infidelity plot twist if I had any idea why it happened. I know before the first episode of Mad Men is over that Don Draper is a troubled man. He's troubled, but still likeable, I still want to root for him. Cole Phelps isn't written that way, and he should have been--it would have made his death much more poignant. Also, it's hard not to compare the writing in this game to Mad Men because they take place around the same time, and much of the supporting cast in the show--including the actor that plays Cole Phelps--make appearances in the game.
What a way to go
You know what else would have made his death more poignant? If he didn't go out like a loser. For reasons unknown, the sewers Cole finds himself in at the end of the game are flooding. This isn't some kind of simple storm-induced overflow. This is a manhole shattering, dam-busting surge of water. Where did it come from? It felt so incredibly contrived. If they were going to kill Cole, they should have done it with a shot to the back by one of the many corrupt cops he was trying to stop. They wanted him to die doing something selfless, I know, but man, what a dumb way to go.
Following our "this was done better somewhere else" format, let's take a look at Red Dead Redemption, another Rock Star game. It was a shame to see John Marston die, and that was because we knew how happy he was. If John would have died before reuniting with his family, it wouldn't have been as sad. Instead he spends the whole game talking about his family, and then he returns to them, a free man. You play a handful of slow missions that show John working around his farm and attempting to mend his rocky relationship with his son. Then, in a cruel twist, John is gunned down by the men that put him in the initial predicament. He's not mauled by a bear or swept off a cliff in a rockslide, he's shot dead, and as the player, you're there squeezing his trigger finger as he dies. It's a tough pill to swallow, and when you take control of his son and find that secret mission that lets you track and kill the man responsible for John's murder, it's mostly satisfying.
Close, so close
What's frustrating in LA Noire is that you can see what the developers were trying to do, and you can see where they messed up. Cole is a troubled man; a war "hero" that doesn't deserve the accolades. He made some huge mistakes and got rewarded for them, and now he's trying to live up to the heroic image he accidentally created. You don't get a sense that this bothers Cole until the very end of the game. The vague flashbacks show you some of the things he did that obviously scarred him, but the important ones are all stacked at the end of the game, after he has an affair. Had we seen some of that stuff early on, we might have understood why he fumbled the ball and screwed up his marriage.
The final nail in the coffin is the late game switch to Jack Kelso, a private investigator that served with Cole in the war. Cole and Jack weren't friends, but as Jack says at Cole's funeral, they weren't enemies either. Jack is far better developed as a character than Cole. We see him get into some trouble early in the game, and we know that he had issues with Cole's leadership abilities in the war. We also see that he's a morally upright man that does his best to do what's right, even when there doesn't really seem to be a "right" option.
Playing as Jack is great because you feel like you can really get behind him--you understand his motivations. When he finally meets up with Cole and the two agree to work together, it's Jack that starts to clear things up. He gives Cole a talk about bravery and courage that shines a light on the source of their friction, and Cole's personal struggle. It's at this point that I finally started feeling for Cole. I was still a little mad about how sloppily his character was developed up until that point, but at least I understood him more. This would have been an excellent point to turn control back over to Cole. You should have finished the last few missions with him, not with Jack. We should have played as Cole. We should have seen him break the rules he lived and worked by in order to save Elsa and stop the bad guy. The game sets you up for that--as Cole you help keep crooked cops off Jack's tail on his way to the sewers--but then takes it away.
In the final sequence, after the car chase, Jack and Cole meet up at the sewers to get to the bad guy. The two split up and instead of following Cole, the game drops you in Jack's shoes and puts you through a series of bland firefights with non-descript thugs that have no reason to be there. The Call of Duty-like mission is bad enough, why do you have to play it as Jack? He served his purpose--he showed us who Cole was. You should have played as Cole during that last bit. He should have been the one to gun down all those guys to get to Elsa. It would have made the final scene, where Jack talks him down from killing the guy that took Elsa, hit so much harder. That was their last opportunity to save the game and deliver on the noire tone ending they were obviously trying to create, and they screwed it up.
So I've now officially spent way too much time complaining about the end of LA Noire. As a gamer, a writer and a storyteller, I was pretty disappointed with how it ended up. Overall, I really enjoyed the game, especially early on. There's nothing else quite like it. The narrative structure and pacing is a mess, but the gameplay is a lot of fun. As a video game enthusiast, I'm happy I played it, even if I am a little let down by the story. Have you finished LA Noire? Have you read this far down? What did you think?