Character Analysis: Cole Phelps from L.A. Noire

L.A. Noire is an action-adventure detective game from developer Team Bondi and publisher Rockstar Games. It was directed and written primarily by Brendan McNamara, who also wrote and directed 2002’s The Getaway. Unfortunately, I never played The Getaway, so I can’t really compare the two games. However, if you’re familiar with some of Rockstar’s games (I’m thinking Grand Theft Auto 4 and Red Dead Redemption), then you know that their more recent games tend to be filled with intriguing, complex characters. L.A. Noire does not disappoint in this regard. The protagonist is Cole Phelps, an ex-marine and veteran of Okinawa, who has recently risen to the rank of Detective within the LAPD. The game’s overarching plot involves corruption within the post-war police department, but it is also very much about Cole’s personal story. In fact, I would argue that one of the game’s strongest points is the complexity of Cole’s character. He is admirable at times, despicable at others, sometimes incredibly keen and sometimes downright foolish. I find him altogether fascinating because his complexity makes him seem like he could be a real person and not simply a character in a video game. I’ve decided to analyze Cole in order to uncover some of the reasons why I find him so interesting; this procedure may also offer some general pointers on good character building and development.

By necessity, MASSIVE SPOILERS FOLLOW. Read ahead at your discretion.

We should begin our analysis with Cole’s behavior during World War 2, which we are shown via flashbacks throughout the game. Sometime in 1943, Cole signs up for Officer Candidate School along with a young man named Jack Kelso. It quickly becomes apparent that Cole has delusions of grandeur: he repeatedly expresses the desire to make a name for himself as an officer, which Jack critically identifies as “Custer’s Syndrome.” Animosity quickly develops between the two men due to their fundamental ideological differences; Cole wants to gain glory for himself, while Jack wants only to fight the enemy and keep his own men safe. Towards the beginning of L.A. Noire, the narrator offers a brief statement explaining the rivalry between Cole and Jack:

Cole Phelps and Jack Kelso. With some people, it’s as simple as chemistry. Two guys who should have been friends, but their personalities got in the way. Phelps—a good guy, but wound way too tight. And Kelso—a quiet man who could never walk away from a fight.

Jack Kelso: an honest stiff and a damn good Marine.

Eventually, Jack drops out of OCS and joins the 6th Marine Division in order to “fight the real enemy.” Cole remains in OCS and ships out in time to participate in the Okinawa campaign in April 1945. He graduates as a lieutenant, which gives him immediate authority over the enlisted men in his company.

Despite his extensive training, Cole is an inept leader of men in combat. He shows an obsession with the chain of command as well as an insistence to handle any combat situation with its appropriate “textbook” solution. His constant mantra, “We’re doing this by the numbers,” appears to obscure his apparent inability to rethink battle plans and effectively strategize under pressure; as a result, many men under his command die needlessly. Throughout the campaign, Cole frequently encounters Jack, who has advanced to one of the sergeant ranks. Jack has proven himself to be an effective leader who prioritizes his men’s safety and formulates battle plans that minimize risk while still getting the job done. However, Jack’s abilities are often overlooked by his commanding officers because he does not attempt to put himself in the spotlight as Cole does.

Later in the campaign, Cole’s intelligence gathering unit is nearly eradicated due to casualties, and it is folded into the 22nd Marine Regiment for participation in the upcoming battle to capture Sugar Loaf Hill on Okinawa. During the assault, Cole becomes pinned down in a foxhole and chooses to hide instead of continuing the advance with the other men in his regiment; he remains hidden all night until reinforcements arrive in the morning. Jack, arriving with reinforcements from 6th Division, finds Cole and berates him for hiding throughout the battle. However, Jack’s CO discovers that Cole is the highest ranking officer who survived the battle and awards him the Silver Star in recognition of his bravery; Cole accepts his medal and promotion with just a hint of dazed reluctance.

Cole’s behavior during the war gives us enough information to determine his base characteristics. By and large, he is a man who tends to behave according to custom, rule, and expectation. This tendency results in his “by the books” attitude, but it also makes him an honest cop who always strives for a just conviction—he is never content to charge a suspect in order to make himself and the department look good if he believes the real perpetrator is still at large—and who does not buy into the corrupt dealings of the LAPD. He is also a proud man: he believes he is exceptionally skilled and has no qualms with showing himself off. One of his partners once calls him out on this, saying:  “Hubris disguised as humility. Kind of your trademark, don’t you think?” His partner may have been right to accuse Cole of putting on a show of humility, but it may also result from genuine shame; despite his show of confidence, Cole is also ashamed of his cowardice during the war, especially on Sugar Loaf Hill, and wishes that he had been more like Jack. Cole’s and Jack’s paths intersect late in the game, and we discover that Cole looks up to Jack even though he never admits it—he is too proud for that. He even apologizes to Jack for their years of rivalry, but it comes out awkward and somewhat forced. Cole and Jack have a very pained relationship—not quite friends but not quite enemies, either—and Cole always treads softly and self-consciously in Jack’s presence.

Let’s break Cole’s character into two key attributes. Cole is:

–          Proud, but also conscious of his shortcomings

–          No-nonsense, strait-laced and “by the books”—qualities that sometimes hinder his performance

Cole does not change overtly until near the end of the game, but there are signs early on that he is undergoing internal turmoil. Roy Earle, Chief Detective of Administrative Vice, introduces Cole to Elsa Lichtmann, a German refugee, popular jazz singer and struggling drug addict. Cole is married with two children, but he is obviously taken by Elsa as he repeatedly visits the Blue Room club to listen to her sing. Eventually, Cole begins an affair with Elsa. Roy blows the whistle on Cole’s affair in order to overshadow a scandal within the LAPD that is about to come to light, and Cole immediately becomes a social outcast (the extreme reaction of the general public makes more sense when we remember that the game is set during the early years of the Cold War, when “anti-American” behavior was severely scrutinized). Obviously this is a huge blow to Cole’s pride: his reputation is tarnished because he fell for a woman.

Elsa Lichtmann: a good-hearted woman caught up in a hell of a mess.

Cole’s relationship with Elsa deserves further attention because it suggests some fundamental changes in his character. Cole and Roy have an interesting conversation in a DLC mission that occurs just prior to Cole’s initiation of the affair. The two are discussing a suspect in the case they are working:

ROY: That old boy really fell for that broad.

COLE: She was incredibly beautiful, Roy.

ROY: Would you throw it all away for a woman?

COLE: Life has a way of making you pay for your pride.

ROY: You’re quite the romantic, Phelps. Stick with the percentages. Broken hearts are for chumps.

Roy Earle: crooked cop and all-around dick.

It would appear that Cole foresees what is in store for him. He knows he’s going to have an affair with Elsa and feels as if it can’t be stopped. Perhaps he feels that he is rightfully being taken down a peg; he will nearly ruin his life because he loves this woman. And there is sufficient reason to believe that Cole really does love her, since he stays with her for the remainder of the game. It also appears evident that he never really loved his wife, Marie, since he is willing to throw away his life with her in order to be with Elsa. If we remember that Cole often behaves according to custom and what is expected of him, we might speculate that Cole married Marie and started a family because that was what society expected of him. This is only speculation, and it is never directly supported in the game, but it suggests interesting character growth; perhaps Cole’s affair with Elsa indicates his “loosening-up” and a new conviction that playing by the rules and doing what’s expected of you is not always the right thing to do. Cole’s affair indicates that he is beginning to “see things from a human perspective, rather than the ivory tower he created for himself,” as Elsa puts it.

Cole has to swallow his pride when he falls for Elsa, but he also has to do it when he is forced to ask Jack for help uncovering a huge property scam involving the Mayor, the Chief of Police and the DA, as well as some other shady characters. If you couldn’t tell earlier, I think Cole’s and Jack’s interactions are the most fascinating in the game because we can feel the years of convoluted history between them. Cole has to rely on Jack, his old rival and “frenemy,” in order to restore his soiled name; however, he maintains a tricky balance between humbling himself and retaining his dignity, never being totally honest with Jack. He can’t quite bring himself to completely swallow his pride—not with Jack.

Cole’s final actions are also delightfully ambivalent, but they do suggest some meaningful growth. Cole and Jack head into the city’s sewer system and confront the linchpin of the bigwigs’ property scam: a mentally disturbed ex-marine who was traumatized on Okinawa when Cole ordered him to clear out a Japanese-occupied cave with his flamethrower—a cave that turned out to be a field hospital full of wounded soldiers and civilians. Upon realizing that his order drove this man insane, Cole insists: “It was war. For God’s sake, I can’t be held responsible for everything that happened!” However, he then allows Jack to mercy kill the marine—knowing that he will go to jail for life if he survives—even though Cole needs him alive to make his case. Finally, Cole helps lift Jack through a ceiling grate as the sewer begins to flood with rainwater; he insists that Jack go first because he is wounded. A torrent of water whisks Cole away to his death before he is able to make it aboveground, but he finally put someone’s safety ahead of his own. His dying decision was to save Jack before he saved himself.

*          *          *

So, what do we take out of this long and complicated analysis of Cole Phelps? Perhaps there isn’t a clear lesson to be learned. Cole is an interesting character because he is complex; like a real person, he often has conflicting motives and desires operating simultaneously. His actions are sometimes unpredictable because he is too complicated to be read like an open book—another quality that I consider very “human” and true to life. Finally, Cole is admirable at times and despicable at others—sometimes he is both at the same time. He is a man who tries to do what’s right but sometimes gets in his own way. He has made many mistakes and done things he regrets. He is neither a hero nor an antihero; his moral character lies somewhere in the gray area, as is true with most real-life persons.

In the end, I suppose I find Cole to be a fascinating character because he is hard to pin down. I dare say that his “characterness”—that quality of being obviously a literary production possessing certain defined characteristics—is overshadowed by his pervasive “humanity”—that quality of being too complicated to ever completely and permanently define. Personally, I consider this one of the best types of literary characters, and I imagine that most of you would tend to agree.

For my next post, I’ll examine the unique gameplay of L.A. Noire and consider how it affects the player’s experience of the story. Stay tuned!