Avatars must be honest with their players. No matter who they lie to over the course of the game, they’re always honest with us. We know our avatar intimately but are also limited by what they know. If they don’t know that they’re a secret villain or hero, then we won’t either until the big reveal. It’s very difficult to have an unreliable avatar in games because he/she is our only connection to the game world. If they are not to be trusted, then what is? No matter what persona they put on for others, we know their true self. We play as their true self.
Consider John Marston from Red Dead Redemption. In the beginning, Marston is a mysterious cowboy, but over the course of the game, we learn about his wife, his son, and his desire to live a peaceful life. Marston says he wants to leave his violent past behind him, but during all the moments that we’re in control, he’s surrounded by and causes violence. This disconnect between his words and his actions reflects the core philosophical question that Red Dead Redemptions asks its players: Can we leave the past behind? The game clearly answers “no.” Marston is not actually a family man—that’s just a persona he puts on among family. The real John Marston is the man we control, the man of violence. The player sees the avatar for who he really is; there are no secrets between them.
Cole Phelps from L.A. Noire, on the other hand, keeps many secrets from the player. In the beginning, the player is meant to bond with Phelps over their shared goals. In the very first case of the game, Phelps is just a patrol officer tasked with finding evidence at a crime scene. But he’s not content just to find the evidence and neither is the player. When Phelps decides to track down the owner of a gun, I’m rooting for him even as I control him because his career ambition results in more of the gameplay that I want to experience. Team Bondi knows that I want to get to the investigations and interrogations and so does Phelps. His impatience towards his career reflects the player’s impatience towards a slow start and extended tutorial.
And so we bond with Phelps. We connect with his drive, his ambition, his dedication to protocol and justice because it’s those character traits that result in the most fun gameplay. But as we play, it’s revealed that Phelps is not who he initially appears to be. We only know Phelps The Detective, but there’s a whole other part of his life that we’re not privy to. We only ever play him at his job when he’s surrounded by others. We’re never alone with him and his thoughts so we only see the version of Cole Phelps that he wants others to see.
During the “Manifest Destiny” case, Phelps interviews the singer Elsa Lichtmann. When she dismisses his questions, he gives a short speech that sums up his philosophical view of his job. He says, “It’s not enough just to survive, Elsa. You have to try and make the world a better place.” This is the Phelps we know, but his actions betray his speech when he visits Elsa afterwards. He as an affair with her, breaking the law that he seemed so sworn to uphold. The strangest part of this affair is that the player can never fully understand Phelps’s reasons for taking part in it because we’re never privy to that part of his life. When it comes to his personal life, we’re just as much an outsider as Roy Earle. All we can do is watch.
Phelps plays the dedicated cop, but that’s not the real Cole Phelps. That’s his persona; the real Phelps is more amoral. This is not to say that Phelps is a bad person, just that he’s clearly not the man that he made us believe that he was in the beginning. Phelps has motivations that we can’t relate to, a plan we’re not a part of, suspicions we’re not aware of, and affairs we don’t know about. He keeps too many secrets from the player for us to trust him as we did earlier. Since we play as his persona, as that persona is peeled away, our connection peels away as well until there’s not much left connecting us to our avatar.
But in an interesting twist at this point in the game when Phelps becomes an utterly unreliable avatar, we stop playing as him. Instead we play as Jack Kelso. Team Bondi understands that by keeping the player out of the avatar’s head, the bond of trust between the two is broken. They remedy this by giving us a second avatar, one that can be trusted because he has more in common with the player: Like Kelso, we’re mostly out of the loop with regards to the grand conspiracy that Phelps stumbles upon; Kelso is dedicated to his detective work, which results in more gameplay, and that dedication isn’t hampered by a current romantic relationship. There’s nothing between Kelso and his work. Therefore there’s nothing between the player and the game. Even his obvious attraction to Elsa works in his favor because that attraction motivates him to solve the mystery.
Cole Phelps has an interesting character arc. It’s one that sets him up as a person that we can relate to, a dedicated cop with a strong sense of justice, but the more that we learn about him, the less his motivations match our own and the less we can relate to him. By the end, it’s clear that we play his persona, rather than as Phelps himself. This offshoot of the unreliable narrator certainly gives the game a unique narrative hook, but it’s also uniquely self destructive since it damages our connection with our avatar. It only succeeds in L.A. Noire because Team Bondi knows when to abandon Cole Phelps and give us Jack Kelso.
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