Friday, 1 July 2011

The best laid plots of Vice and Men

Games can exist with the most minimal of story-telling - Why do we arrange the blocks in Tetris? Because we are simply asked to. Why does Mario need embark on his quest? Because he has to save the princess. As this ever adapting medium grows however the stories of modern titles seem to be taking on new merit - delivering atmosphere and themes not completely dissimilar to that of acclaimed literature and film.

L.A noire exceeds in this aspect - its story-telling taking on some of the more complex features and formation that would be found in the greatest of texts. Even to the point where this gritty recreation of L.A  parallels Shakespeare.

German dramatist Gustav Freytag stated that many plot-lines, in both literature and stage, follow the structure of what he described as "Freytag's Pyramid" or the dramatic arc. L.A Noire is no exception to this dramatic device. Freytag put forward that most works followed the structure of an Exposition - Rising action - Climax - followed by a Downfall and then a resolution. Usually this formula's "Rising Action" "Climax" and "Downfall"  refer to the journey of the central character. This staple of most classic literature was true for Macbeth and Othello and is similarly true for L.A Noire's Cole Phelps.

Whilst L.A Noire is not split up into the Acts that would commonly be found in a play it is segmented into five distinct parts - the five positions that Phelps holds in the police department. The exposition takes the form of the tutorial levels - Phelps is established as a character through a short burst of action during his time as a beat-cop. This is followed by the rising action which takes the form of Phelp's promotion to Homicide, this is where we see him most grow as a character in terms of both his own opinion and the opinions of others towards him. We see Cole's longing to be a 'legit' cop as well as small incites into his past.

The Climax of Phelps' character development revolves around his time in Vice - at this point in the game's story Phelps comes close to solving a major case that would expose the depths of an underground morphine ring in L.A. It is in the final scenes of this act that Cole is then betrayed by his partner Roy Earle. In many works of Shakespeare the equivalent to this part of the story is the pivotal scene - In Othello, for example, this marks the start of Othello's descent into an almost inhumane rage due to Iago's betrayal. A downfall caused by a conniving 'partner' - that does sound familiar.

Phelps' fall from grace takes the form of his demotion to Arson. Cole is found out to have had an affair with a German singer named Elsa - her addiction to morphine and  the seductively tempting nature of her siren-songs being the ultimate symbol of Vice. This is the point where Cole loses everything- his wife, his daughters and his reputation. It can even be argued that he shows signs of a mental instability at this point - he seems obsessed with 'getting back' at the LAPD higher-ups that have wronged him in conversations with his partner Hershel. There is also a scene where he lashes out at his lover Elsa when he fears his plan to uncover the corruption engraved deep in the heart of L.A is going awry later in the game. Just as Julius Caesar fell victim to his own downfall after meeting the temptress Cleopatra - Cole Phelps falls from a 'War Hero' to the shell of his former self after meeting Elsa.

The final 'act' is the most poetic for Cole - in a similar vain to many works of Shakespeare the 'resolution' isn't always a happy one. Cole dies trying to unmask the deep-rooted corrupt nature of Los Angeles government. Strikingly - he doesn't die a hero and he doesn't succeed in his am. However, this is the most fitting way that Cole could have died. In the end Cole wasn't the hero of the tale - he was a man who cheated on his wife and didn't get to expose the corruption that he worked so hard to fight against. But he never wanted to be the hero and he was never meant to be. Ultimately he was just another man betrayed by forces much greater than him. In a way this is fitting - because it equalises him with the men he felt so guilty losing in the war. The men Cole felt that he had denied heroism - the men that, through constant flash-backs to war, he could never forget. That is Cole's Closure - he was never meant to be special. At one point Kelso tells Cole that "Nobody deserves a medal, it's just the ridiculous situation you find yourself in and how you react to it" - the ending of L.A Noire echoes this sentiment - not everyone who gets put into the forefront of a dangerous situation comes out the hero. A poignant allegory of war. Phelps is even denied heroism to the point where his the final climactic scenes of the game are taken on by his ex-war compatriot Jack Kelso.

Thus the dramatic tale of Cole Phelps' rise and fall is given to the player. The 'Golden Boy' from the city of Angels apparently flew too close to the sun and had his wings burnt.  L.A Noire is aware that its strong suit is story telling and the developers at Team Bondi presented their hand with the type of flare that will mean that L.A  will surely be reminded as one of the strongest stories in Video Game history.

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