Many games have demonstrated great attention to detail in, for example, recreating WWII, and games like BioShock have explored philosophical ideologies like Objectivism. L.A. Noire‘s great achievement is doing both: Featuring specific details culled from research and original cases inspired by the time period in which it is set, the game successfully weaves together a compelling narrative and a rich historical context without sacrificing one for the other.
The late 1940s are a unique era in United States history. Superficially, everything seemed great. Soldiers returned from war, and women returned to the home. Rationing was over, and everyone had savings ready to spend. The 18 years of economic struggling was finished, and people were ready to enjoy their hard-earned peace. The G.I. Bill promised educational and home-owning opportunities, and racial tensions seemed be non-existent. The reality of 1947, though, was that organized crime was still powerful from Prohibition. Racism and sexism pervaded society, though perhaps not obviously to white, middle-class men. Paranoia about Communist threats domestically and internationally drove government policies. It’s in this seemingly golden era that ex-Marine, newly-minted LAPD Detective Cole Phelps investigates the dark, dingy, hidden places of Los Angeles.
On its most literal level, L.A. Noire features many specific elements taken directly from the 1940s. Gangsters like Mickey Cohen, Johnny Stompanato, and Jack Dragna were major figures in organized crime in 1940s Los Angeles. Cars are also lifted directly from the era, as were the films featured in the collectible Gold Film Reels. Landmark buildings featured in the game did exist in the 1940s (except the Intolerance set), and most of them still stand today. The clothes, weapons, and interior design are all directly from the period.
Tiny technological details create contrast between the 1940s and today. Radios play a crucial role in several cases, since televisions weren’t widespread yet. Dialogue mentions that home refrigerators, a fairly recent home appliance, had put ice companies out of business. Trains and buses are more popular for out-of-city travel than planes and cars. The absence of the internet (or even two-way police radios) means Phelps has to call R&I dozens of times by phone to get basic information like addresses. GPSes don’t exist, but that’s okay because Phelps’ partners share a mastery of L.A. streets that rivals Google Maps.
Similarly, social and political nuances add a rich texture to the setting. Layaway is more common than buying on credit. Kelso mocks Phelps’ desire to be Sergeant Alvin York, one of the most decorated soldiers from WWI, but a stranger to most Americans today. References to RKO, Republic, and Warner Bros. as major film studios are historically accurate, as is discrimination against Okies (migrants who left Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl for better opportunities in California). Anti-communism didn’t intensify until China became communist in 1949 and McCarthy led the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s, but L.A. Noire correctly references the Kremlin, Red Squad, Fifth Column, and fellow travelers in the immediate post-war era.
Specific cases like those from the homicide desk hearken back to the real Black Dahlia murder. A series of women killed in similar ways led detectives both in real life and the game to debate if they were connected or not. Galloway and Phelps’ conversation mentions the Short murder, as Elizabeth Short’s murder was the case that gave the Black Dahlia killer its name (inspired by the film, The Blue Dahlia). L.A. Noire is particularly clever in its resolution to this case; in real life, the B.D. killer was never caught, but in the game, the killer’s family connections suppress any publication of his identity. In this way, the game’s plot is entirely consistent with actual history.
Phelps’ police department may treat suspects in violation of today’s rights, but police had relatively few restrictions prior to the 1960s. The Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963 promised for the first time that felony defendants had a constitutional right to a defense attorney. The 1966 Miranda v. Arizona required police to inform suspects of their rights before interrogation. In 1947, however, neither of these landmark cases had happened, and suspects’ rights existed as a vague idea, if at all. Gamers who think modern police are too restricted today can look at the 1940s as a better time. Those who are appalled by Phelps and his peers can take comfort in the greater rights suspects have today.
I tend to criticize media for excluding people of color and women, or casting them in subservient roles. L.A. Noire does this, but in a historically accurate way: detectives in the 1940s were virtually all white men, whose only diversity was between Poles (Bekwosky) and Irish (Galloway). The only women on the police force work for Records and Identification and answering the phones, and the only police officer of color is Latino Patrolman Gonzalez. That said, the only person of Asian ancestry works at a laundry, and African-Americans are either railroad employees or drug-addict musicians. Yes, large numbers of people of color were legally and socially forced into specific service positions, but I would have loved to see characters of color in non-stereotypical (but still historically accurate) roles. Cases about interracial couples or gay rights or immigration issues would provide even more insights into themes in both the game’s time and today.
Galloway’s sexism and Earle’s racism are typical of criticisms of law enforcement of the time. Even moderate Bekowksy prides himself on serving during the Zoot Suit Riots, in which the L.A.P.D. helped Navy sailors terrorize Mexican-American youths. Note that Phelps, with the exception of cheating on his wife, is relatively modern in his outlook. He’s far less sexist and less racist than his peers, treating women and people of color with relative respect. This comparative egalitarianism makes him a more likable protagonist to us if not to his peers.
Phelps’ biography provides insights on the early 20th century and helps to explain why he always seems distant from his peers, whether in the Marines or the L.A.P.D. Phelps grew up in San Francisco, which had a substantial Japanese-American population before Japanese Internment demanded they sell their property for pennies on the dollar. Phelps’ family shipping business with Japan fostered more empathy than most Americans had at the time, like when Phelps points out that the U.S. embargoed oil to Japan before Pearl Harbor. Phelps also attended Stanford at a time before the G.I. Bill made college educations common. He went directly from the Recruit Officer Training Corps to Officer Candidate School, as opposed to serving as a combat soldier and earning promotions before O.C.S. The soldiers under his command likely saw more combat than Phelps did, increasing tensions between them.
Phelps seems to think and act in a by the book, straightforward way, whether in the military or the police force. Phelps’ honesty seems compelled by his guilt from WWII, whether it’s the soldiers under his command dying, ordering Hogeboom to attack the Japanese in the cave, or doubting that he deserved the Silver Star. His refusal of bribes and persistent pursuit of the truth alienate him from his fellow detectives. Moreover, his college education and knowledge of Shelley’s poetry help him catch the Black Dahlia killer, but don’t earn him any friends among his less classically-educated fellow policemen. This biography not only details elements of pre-1947 history, but creates a sufficiently noir protagonist, constantly apart from his peers.
The Arson Desk cases capture the essence of what grows to be mainstream 1950s culture. The Federal government, through the G.I. Bill (1944) and the Federal Aid Highway Act (1956), subsidized the creation of the suburbs. The G.I. Bill gave favorable home loans to veterans, and freeways made living away from urban jobs feasible. Most of the country didn’t have freeways in 1947, but southern California’s car culture caused freeways to be built earlier there than elsewhere. As local, state, and federal governments became more active in construction, seizing existing property through eminent domain became more frequent. The Suburban Redevelopment Fund’s scam exploited these state and Federal government policies. First, the government was paying for homes. Secondly, it was subsidizing transportation to make those homes more attractive. And lastly, it was paying to seize over-valued property through eminent domain. The conspirators depended on government spending, which didn’t exist in such substantial amounts in earlier eras, for their plot to work.
L.A. Noire goes further and references developments decades after its setting. Ira Hogeboom, to modern audiences, suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a term that arose during the Vietnam War. Audie Murphy, who was rejected from military service for being too young, too short, and too light, but eventually earned the Medal of Honor, was one of the first to draw attention to what was earlier known as “battle fatigue.” In the 1940s, however, Hogeboom has no resources available to him. In another reference to events decades after L.A. Noire‘s setting, Captain McKelty equates Leland Munroe’s innocence with Richard Nixon’s. In 1947, Nixon was a recently elected member of the House of Representatives serving Southern California’s 12th district. The following year, he gained fame for his investigation of Alger Hiss and the Pumpkin Papers. Americans wouldn’t find out about his wrongdoing for two and a half decades. Hogeboom’s plight and Monroe’s guilt make more sense to us, because of our 20/20 hindsight, than they would to the game’s 1947 characters.
Team Bondi have earned great praise for the technical achievements of L.A. Noire, and deservedly so, but they deserve equal praise for capturing the historical context of 1947 and the decades before and after. As a history teacher and a gamer, I believe that education and videogames are natural allies. Deeper understanding of U.S. history makes L.A. Noire more enjoyable, and interest in L.A. Noire can translate to interest in history.
David has been teaching for six years, and gaming for over twenty. You can see read his thoughts on nerdy topics at http://historteacherynerd.blogspot.com/.