To Err is Human, To Forgive Divine

So yesterday I spent about an hour fawning over the ending of Red Dead Redemption, one of my favourite video games.

Today, I’m doing the same with L.A. Noire, a game fast becoming equally placed among my top ten. (Actually not a bad idea for a series of blogs, once I actually come up with a concrete top ten list.).
SECOND FAIR WARNING. Spoilers may follow, so if you haven’t finished the game, do it before reading. If you haven’t played it, what are you doing?!

In a nutshell. L.A. Noire is the story of Cole Phelps. WWII veteran, and straight laced L.A detective. He returns from the war to a hero’s welcome and quickly rises through the ranks of the LAPD, solving a series of incredibly harrowing, mature and very entertaining cases, finally uncovering a plot that runs deep through the mob, the government, and the LAPD itself.

I dont really want to go into too much details about the cases, or the structure of the game, or any of that stuff. What I do want to talk about is, again, the ending.

As a detective, Cole is lauded as one of the best and most thorough case-men in the business, with an eye for detail and a very definite sense of justice. One thing I noticed about Cole is that he always has a desire to Do What is Right. He always ensures the right men or women go down for their crimes, and is incredibly tough on himself when things aren’t done right, almost to a debilitating degree. What I wondered was, why? Why is Cole so obsessed with Doing the Right Thing? Why is he so determined to fix all the wrongs of LA?

Redemption. Again, redemption. But different. Marston, the disgraced former gang member was forced onto his path. He was taken from his family, made to commit his crimes again, for a ‘greater good’, in order to earn his peace. It wasn’t his choice. Phelps however, forces this path upon himself. He chooses to atone for his sins and misgiving in this way. He feels he must be punished for his past, and act to put right his future, where Marston, feels he is being punished by his past. Phelps is a man ridden with guilt. For what?

Throughout a series of flashbacks peppered through the game, you come to learn that Phelps, during WWII, was known as something of a bad luck charm. Wherever he went, death soon followed. On a mission at Bunker Hill, Phelps’ squadmate is killed by a mortar round, Phelps goes into shock and spends the night on top of the hill, frozen with fear, for which he earns a medal for bravery, something he feels he doesn’t deserve. It comes to light that he’s responsible for the deaths of dozens of innocent Japanese civilians, after ordering his squad to clear out a suspected hostile cave. Only later do we learn it was a makeshift hospital

I found it odd, that Marston did terrible things by his own hand, but found peace on his own terms, whereas Phelps, whose intentions where always in the right place, but to whom terrible things just happened, feels the need for punishment. Hence his need to ensure justice is served properly on the streets of LA, to counteract the injustices he was inadvertently responsible for during the war. He needs to set the needle back to zero and find his redemption.

Anyway, about two thirds of the way through the game, Cole begins an affair with Elsa Lichtman, a German night-club singer. Their initial meeting comes thanks to Roy Earle, Phelps’ Vice Desk partner. Throughout the game, you see Phelps visit The Blue Room Nightclub, to hear her sing, and eventually interrogate her as part of a ad-vice investigation. Thinking he can get more information from her, he decides to sleep with her.

Its a very interesting scene. You see Phelps hesitate outside of her door, clearly in two minds, before knocking on her door and being invited in. On the one hand, Phelps is a clean cut, happily married man with two children, and a hero cop, a poster boy for the LAPD. He’s the last person anyone would think to have an affair.
On the other, Phelps is a man who would clearly do anything to further his case, and ensure the right thing is done. And he’s is a man who clearly wants to be punished for his past. So in this regard, sleeping with Elsa is the lesser of two evils.
News of the affair is leaked by Earle, and Phelps’ reputation within the force is tarnished, he is demoted and none of his colleagues will look him in the eye.

Again, this is conflicting with his WWII career, where he is rewarded and glorified by his superiors by doing supposedly good things, to terrible consequence. Here he is demonized by his superiors by doing terrible things, to good consequences.

Initially I thought ill of Cole at this point. I couldn’t believe he did it. But then, like Marston, he is not some righteous, one sided, flawless supehero. He’s just a man. He’s human, and prone to making the wrong moves for the wrong reasons. He’s flawed, and has to live with the consequences of his actions. But I think he wants to be demonized. Unlike Marston, he wants to atone for his sins, whether they were his fault or not. To reset the balance, he wants to be punished. By others, by his wife, by himself. Its his path to redemption.

Endgame. Elsa is kidnapped, and along with Frank Kelso, (member of his old Army unit, between whom there is a lot of bad blood, and who has been working with the DA) they find themselves in the sewers under the streets. Elsa is freed, and the man responsible for the deaths of many people, and a series of vicious arsons, is killed. Phelps has brought down a massive conspiracy and cleaned up the streets of LA. Should be enough, right? The balance should be set to zero. No.

In their escape of the sewers, a torrent of water fast approaches Phelps, Elsa and Kelso.

This next moment took me until the next day to really appreciate.

Phelps lifts Kelso and Elsa up to a drain cover, onto the streets above. All the while, the wall of water bearing down on them. Kelso and Elsa urge Phelps to take their hands and lift himself up to safety. But instead, Phelps utters one word, before being engulfed in a wave of water, drowning. You dont see this. You just hear his final word, and then flash of water.

“Goodbye.”

Phelps doesn’t die in a hail of gunfire, like Marston. He doesn’t shout, or fight back, or resist, like Marston. Just whispers.

Phelps, the man always looking to punish himself to achieve redemption, ultimately sacrifices himself for it. Finally, he earns his peace. As if his death has made up for those he caused in Okinawa.

He is mourned at a hero’s funeral. Because like Marston, despite some awful things and awful circumstances, Phelps was a good man.

Two games, two endings, two very similar characters. Both with demons and things to hide, both seeking redemption for the sins of their past.

I loved this ending, just because of how quiet and understated it was. At no point did the game force you to empathise with Cole. Quite a lot of the time, I thought he was a bit of a dick. His desire to do the right thing is admirable, but his methods aren’t fantastic. At times, his pursuit for justice was incredibly selfish. Indeed, his Army career was governed by the desire to be seen well in the eyes of his superiors, at the expense of people like Kelso. He always would do the right thing,selfish, despite the cost to other and himself. The game never asks you to like Cole. But you do because he is determined. But you get behind him and support him to do The Right Thing because its what we all want to do.

His death, sudden and quiet and unassuming and unexpected, was entirely selfless. And shocking in its realism. No fanfare, no music, no lengthy final words. Just one. It was not a video game moment at all. It was as real an end I’ve seen.

And thats why I love videogames so much, for the non-videogame moments they produce that are incredibly shocking.

Done now.

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