Last month, we started streaming L.A. Noire on Kotaku’s Twitch channel. While the start of the game has some problems, its homicide investigations take a darker turn, adding nuance and moral ambiguity to the tale of LAPD detective Cole Phelps.
L.A. Noire is broken into various “desks” such as arson and homicide. The game’s opening cases focus on traffic-related crimes including a schlub who fakes his death to run off with his lover and a disgusting movie producer taking advantage of an underage actress. The homicide desk is a lengthy series of investigations following the work of the killer behind the Black Dahlia murder. It’s an exhausting trudge full of dead bodies and disappointing conclusions, but in painting a cruel and unfair portrait of justice, it becomes one of L.A. Noire’s most interesting stretch of investigations.
Homicide desk is the longest section of L.A. Noire. While it might be easy to see it as fatiguing, that length ultimately works in its favor. Phelps and his partner Rusty Galloway investigate six murders, all women left in various states of mutilation and decay. The cold presentation of violence starts off as shocking: naked bodies rest in vacant lots, fingers show bone where wedding ring were wrenched off, and necklines blister from being strangled with rope.
This stretch of violence, hyper-focused on women, might seem exploitative, but as the case and bodies stack up, the player experiences a mixture of exasperation and outrage while also tragically coming to see these crimes as routine. Through its length, homicide desk paints a dark portrait of a cruel world where violence is common and justice is elusive. This is a cynical assessment that fits within noire conventions. L.A. Noire will ultimately reveal itself as a tragic tale in which heroes often go unnoticed. Its dramatic tonal shift is powerful foreshadowing of what’s to come.
In order to progress the plot, L.A. Noire often railroads the player towards certain locations and clues. While a failed interrogation might leave Phelps without key information, clues essential to story progress often crop up in multiple locations so cases never reach a standstill. It’s an understandable design conceit that nevertheless removes some tension from investigations. Homicide moves away from definitive conclusions and convictions, giving the player ambiguous crimes with multiple suspects that fit the bill.
One of the most memorable cases in homicide is ‘The Golden Butterfly,’ a case that ends with two possible culprits. One is the victim’s husband, suspiciously caught burning evidence in a fire. He is a domestic abuser, and much of the evidence points to his guilt. The other potential killer is a self-confessed pedophile found with one of the victim’s personal belongings in his possession. The player has to choose which of them to charge with murder. It’s an interesting exercise in moral decision-making that expresses the imperfections of institutional justice.
Another case offers two suspects in the murder of a homeless woman. One was drunk and furious that she rebuked his advances. The other is a composed intellectual with a personal association with the victim. The truth of the case is less ambiguous than the previous example: while you can charge either of them with the murder, thorough interrogation leads the latter suspect to fly into an angry tirade against the victim. Sloppier investigation will lead to an incomplete picture of the crimes.
And yet, homicide’s most audacious decision comes at the end, when it is revealed that Phelps and his partner have been putting away innocent men. Some of them are despicable and dangerous, but they were all innocent of the crimes they were charged with. Traffic desk was clean; cases were wrapped up without doubt. Homicide is a case study in imperfection that paints a damning picture of those in power.
When the killer is revealed, the homicide desk culminates in a frantic gunfight in the tombs beneath a church. There is no way to arrest the killer; no matter what players might attempt, the fight ends with his death. This should be a historic achievement for Phelps. The city is rid of a dangerous killer and one of Los Angeles’ greatest mysteries has been solved. Instead, the police chief informs him the the killer’s identity will never be revealed. It turns out that he is related to a major politician, and the resulting scandal would be monumental. It is a disappointing anticlimax.
Undoing player progress and achievements may seem an unnecessarily cruel design decision given how hard they’ve worked to solve homicide’s many cases, but it serves a stronger thematic point: justice rests in the hands of those who hold the most power. Phelps is a stubborn idealist, clinging to the notion of an objective morality in which the wrong are punished for their deeds. This idealism is shattered by the end of the homicide desk. There is no greater truth in L.A. Noire, no higher power that ensure the proper application of the law. The world is full of blood, lies, and greed. The conclusion is bitter and made all the more memorable for its cynicism.
Homicide desk is a drastic change from what came before, but that change serves larger narrative and thematic goals. It is the start of a journey into the darkest corners of Los Angeles, which will only grow darker as Phelps moves on to the vice desk. Those cases will be full of corruption and a lot of drugs, further punishing Phelps’ idealism. It’s dark stuff and maybe even a bit depressing, but that’s noire.