L.A. Noire: Saying Goodbye

Warning: Major spoilers for the ending of L.A. Noire.

Yes, the flamethrowers were ridiculous. Yes, the switch to gunplay in the final mission feels like it betrays a lack of confidence in the game’s core mechanics. The thing that bothered me, though–the thing that left me feeling faintly unsatisfied after completing what is on the whole an excellent game–was the way the ending handles the two player characters.

So, L.A. Noire turned out to more story-arc-based than I had thought when I was half way through it. The Traffic cases are self-contained; the Homicide cases at first seem self-contained but turn out to have their own arc; but the Vice and Arson desks, the entire second half of the game, tell an increasingly unified story, until by the end of the game the breaks between the missions begin to feel arbitrary.

Towards the end, the game introduces a second player character, Kelso. I didn’t mind the switch in itself–I enjoyed the Kelso missions, and the change itself gave a sense that things were changing because we were moving into the endgame. What I was expecting was to play as Kelso for a few missions, have him deliver the final evidence that Phelps needed, and then switch back to Phelphs for the climax. The overall arc of the game had been about Phelps’s gradual rise in the police force, then his fall, just as he was on the verge of uncovering major corruption. I expected a final act to that story, in which Phelps survives his darkest hour and rises triumphant. Even if it were at great personal cost, I expected to see Phelps win.

Instead, the baton passes to Kelso and Phelps is sidelined. There are a few more Phelps missions, but they seem half-hearted. You investigate a crime scene in which you already saw in a cutscene what happened.

There is one excellent playable sequence as Phelps, where he escorts Kelso’s car to the scene of the endgame as the rest of the police force hunts for him. They get there, and then they say they’ll split up: Kelso will go one way into the storm drains, and Phelps will go in another way, and they’ll meet in the middle. I find myself playing Kelso, but I assume that I’ll be playing one sequence as each of them. Two heroes, both player characters, working together in the endgame–great stuff.

But I don’t get my final Phelps sequence. I make it to the middle of the storm drain as Kelso, and then Phelps arrives, having made his own way without my help–any adventures he had, I don’t get to see. And then, unexpectedly, that’s it. In a final cutscene, Phelps is killed, in twist of fate only barely related to the plot up to that point. The final cutscene is Kelso attending Phelps’s funeral.

I don’t object to the main character dying, but I felt like I hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye. The last car chase mission was great, but nothing about it flagged to me that it would be the last Phelps mission. I wanted Phelps to be the main character of the endgame as he was of most of the game, or at least for him to be joint main character with Kelso. You could imagine a great final mission in which you guide Phelps as he goes knowingly to his death, for some tragically inevitable Film Noir reason. Instead he dies suddenly, in a cutscene, as a supporting character in someone else’s story.

To be clear, I like Kelso, and I would happily play a L.A. Noire 2 in which he was the main character–but he wasn’t the main character of this game and it shouldn’t have ended as if he was. I also very much liked the game over all, and this is just a criticism of one aspect of it.

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