Reality Check: Is Cole Phelps a Psychopath?

Now it's our turn to interrogate the protagonist of L.A. Noire.

by

By now, the discussion surrounding Team Bondi and Rockstar's detective adventure L.A. Noire has made one thing clear: A lot of people, whether they enjoyed the game or not, found something very wrong with Cole Phelps. There's just something about the manner of this protagonist's conduct that doesn't add up. It's the slight inconsistencies in his personality, for example, or the way he relates bad news with such cold composure. And, it's his frequent, inexplicable outbursts. Also, it's the way he never seems to doubt himself. But how do you prove that something is actually wrong with Cole Phelps? How do you prove that you've spent 30 hours of in control of a madman? You take a certified, diagnostic test that can successfully determine psychopathic behavior--tried and tested by criminal justice systems and academia for more than 30 years--and apply it to Cole Phelps. [Warning: Spoilers Below]

Do you detect a hint of crazy?

Robert Hare didn't have much to go on when he first began studying psychopaths in the 1960s. Psychologists knew very little about the topic, and as far as the criminal justice system was concerned, those who did wrong in society did so due to environmental and social factors rather than a particular set of personality traits. Hare began by visiting local prisons and interviewing those incarcerated; he noted their physical and emotional reactions to things like photographs featuring highly banal subjects (like an inanimate object) versus highly emotive subjects (say, the suggestion of rape). He spoke to them about their childhoods, their beliefs, and their personal moralities. What he concluded was that psychopaths tend to display the same set of personal traits; traits that he wrote down and collated in a neat checklist. These things included egocentricity, a grandiose sense of self worth, lack of sincerity, lack of remorse or guilt, pathological lying, lack of empathy, failure to accept responsibility for own actions, and the like.

The result was the PCL-R: a list of 20 traits that are scored with a 0 (if the trait is not present), a 1 (if it is unclear whether or not the trait is present), or a 2 (if the trait is clearly present). Anyone who scores a number higher than 28 out of a possible 40 qualifies as a psychopath.

Before we get onto Cole's results, it must be acknowledged that L.A. Noire is the kind of game that relies on its protagonist to fulfill certain expectations. Cole Phelps is integral to the experience of the game, but players are not encouraged to project themselves upon him as a video game character. In fact, the game goes to great lengths to paint him in a certain kind of light. Cole is a determined, passionate, and focused man. There can be no doubt that the game wants players to believe Cole is a morally sound individual. Yet, there's something conflicting about this portrayal right from the very start of the game. The lack of self-discipline he displays on the killing ground of Okinawa is not a trait he leaves behind: When he refuses to listen to his partner and call in the gun found at the very first crime scene, he is showing that not even the law he lives to uphold can suppress his resolve to do what he thinks is right. It becomes increasingly obvious that nothing players do in the game can have an effect on Cole's character, the way he is viewed by others, or the path that has been set out for him from the very beginning. Why does L.A. Noire allow players to choose the destiny of other characters but not Cole? Why is he the only one who is allowed to destroy city property, run down civilians, and show so little regard for the law without suffering the consequences?

As you have probably guessed by now, Cole is one crazy motherf***er. He scored 29 out of 40 on the PCL-R, qualifying him a first-class, certified psychopath. He was scored on a mixture of his preexisting personality, that is, the one that Team Bondi and Rockstar created and could not be changed; and his potential personality, that is, the one that could be changed through player action. Because writing out the test and its explanations would take a lot of space, I have included the link to the original here so it's clear what parameters I measured Cole against. However, I will list the 20 traits in the PCL-R with some comments and evidence pertaining to Cole's personality.

Glib and superficial charm: Cole is a charming, verbally facile individual. He's smooth with the ladies. He is never tongue-tied. He is never shy. He does not second-guess himself. (2 points)

Grandiose self-worth: From his army days to his aggressive interrogation technique, Cole is nothing if not self-assured. He also likes to read poetry and can decipher hand-written clues that have baffled the entire department for months in the space of a single day. (2 points)

Need for stimulation or proneness to boredom: Cole is obsessed with rising through the ranks. He repeatedly disobeys orders, takes unnecessary chances, and puts himself in dangerous situations. This applies to his time in Okinawa as much as it does to the present. (2 points)

Pathological lying: Cole lies to his superiors, his wife, and his colleagues. (2 points)

Conning and manipulating: Cole is not particularly adept at relaying bad news, choosing on numerous occasions to speak of the death of a wife or mother within earshot of the victim's children; similarly, he displays the same lack of tact and coldness in his manner speaking to teenagers as he does when speaking to known pedophiles. (2 points)

Lack of remorse or guilt: Cole shows a lack of respect for city property, other civilians, and his fellow officers without a hint of remorse or shame. (2 points)

Shallow affect: Cole rarely displays any signs of genuine happiness, and even when he does, it's of a shallow, smug kind. (2 points)

Callousness and lack of empathy: Cole is often privy to some bad news himself; he's told of gruesome murders, rapes, and other equally chilling cases that he must investigate. Yet these revelations do not affect Cole the way they do those around him, who often cry, scream, and look at least slightly shaken. Not Cole. (2 points)

Parasitic lifestyle: Cole always relies on those around him to help him get by, from his wife to his colleagues, who regularly give him clues and provide him with insight into what he must do next. He has no qualms about asking a longtime friend to risk his life for him. (2 points)

Poor behavior controls: Cole is full of expressions of irritability, annoyance, impatience, and aggression, especially during interrogation sequences. He is not capable transitioning from one emotion to another as a normal person might: He inexplicably jumps from civility to anger with the press of a button. (2 points)

Promiscuous sexual behavior: [SPOILER] Cole cheats on his wife with a nightclub singer, and although an explanation is hinted at, it never comes. So we can assume he did it because he's a jerk. (2 points)

Early behavior problems: Cannot be determined. (0 points)

Lack of realistic, long-term goals: Cole never hints at what his dreams are. While you expect that they're close to something like, "I want rid this godforsaken city of all scum and villainy and finally get my own apartment," they're never really disclosed. You could easily say that Cole lives from case to case as we are given no real indication otherwise. (1 point)

Impulsivity: Cole's erratic behavior during the war is what lands him in so much trouble with his fellow soldiers. Cole does not follow orders. Cole acts on impulse decisions, refusing to adapt to the circumstances of his current environment. Even in a life-and-death situation, Cole cannot put aside his personal agenda and do what must be done. (2 points)

Irresponsibility: As it applies to things such as paying bills and showing up to work on time, this cannot be determined. (0 points)

Failure to accept responsibility for own actions: Whether he's clearing out caves without having permission to do so, running down Los Angeles pedestrians, ignoring orders from the chief of police, or manipulating his interview subjects through his completely irrational emotional reactions, Cole never seems to take responsibility for any of his sadistic actions. (2 points)

Many short-term marital relationships: While we get the impression that Cole has been married to his wife for some time, there is no way of knowing if he had a previous marriage or whether Elsa was just the latest in a long line of women with whom Cole had an affair. (0 points)

Juvenile delinquency: Cannot be determined. (0 points)

Revocation of condition release: Cannot be determined. (0 points)

Criminal versatility: Consistent insubordination in the army and the many criminal offences Cole is capable of committing. (2 points)

So, what do you think of Cole Phelps? Share your thoughts or offer your own analysis in the comments section below.

Discussion

210 comments
Spindle12
Spindle12

Omg, look what you have done, Laura Parker...

The PCL-R isn't some random quiz you can take on the internet.

First of all you need to be trained and certified to test someone.

Secondly, this test is based on interactions and conversation with testee.

Also, there are different cut-off values in the US or EU. In the US you need 30/40 and in the EU: 26/40 (females: 22-24)

What with people who score 29/40 they're not a psychopath?

The 'test' you did on your own is utter BS.

Lastly, psychopathy isn't something like PTSD that you can 'catch' after some events...

Stop spreading false information.

Wall-E_2003
Wall-E_2003

Well. This is excellently written and well thought out, This dude is a psychopath. ps: In my opnion this game really blew

Nima8255
Nima8255

either cole is psychopath or not, cole corruption fighting and not giving up to corrupted monsters characteristic is admirable.

bamir0
bamir0

@Frame_Dragger I find it interesting you don't apply the "know absolutely nothing" standard to yourself. If you are in the Seattle area at any point and would like to talk my office hours are 9-5 Monday to Friday and 8-4 Saturday. You can reach me via the messaging system here.

Artithan
Artithan

@el3m2tigre So if he did come from a war, he is pretty messed up by what he's seen, so you could give him a little slack for being a "psychopath", right?

Naylord
Naylord

He gets way too much guff for cheating on his wife. It's not that big of a deal compared to all the good he does by fighting corruption and whatnot.

raiding_kvatch
raiding_kvatch

This was an entertaining read, although I don't think I would have interpreted much of Cole's behaviour that way. Ultimately I think this article is more indicative of the subjective (and therefore scientifically flawed) nature of such personality assessments, rather than providing insight into the fictional character that is Cole Phelps.

lightwarrior179
lightwarrior179

I think Team Bondi's thought process of Cole was caught up between representing him as an ideal,upstanding citizen with high regard of law and maintaining it (a polar opposite to other Rockstar protagonists) but at the same time they thought "Hey this is a film noir and film noir heroes aren't generally goody-two shoes" They basically tried making Cole into a complex character with moral grey shades over his personality chart but it came across as inconsistent and often jarring at times. They tried making him into a proper film noir protagonist but ironically it's Jack Kelso who ends up feeling the most "film noir-esque protagonist" in the game. As for the article, no offense to Ms.Parker she's done what she wanted to but a lot of those traits stretch the definition of those terms to the breaking point. Cole was an inconsistent character with some questionable flaws but if those are the grounds that Dr.Hare deduces can diagnose ASPD, then it's no wonder he was a psychologist back in the 60s. Hmph.

Gamer_4_Fun
Gamer_4_Fun

ya'll should inspect master chief, he has tons of issues :\

poseidion
poseidion

@shadehunter thanks a lot. @bottaboomstick copying and pasting my earlier comment is good only because not everybody reads all the way down, but could you try some things called imagination and self-opinion??? @megasus_ lol!!! --- if anybody wants to read my comment, it was on June 30, 8:03 PM

GamerOfLove
GamerOfLove

@19Gam3NErD91 selfish? cole phelps is selfish? he saved so many people. did you even play through the whole game? did you just watch the ending at a friends house or something? phelps is a great character and when he cheated on his wife just because he didn't say anything doesn't mean that you couldn't of told by his change in personality that he was still upset. any way phelps is awesome

stealth6spy
stealth6spy

@eze_sl89 What game were you playing?

jonnybutler11
jonnybutler11

lol this is a goodand well written article, but there's something wrong with the reasoning involved. at least 4 of the points out of the 39 Phelps got CAN change depending on the players actions, contrary to what is stated on the first page. the *player* chooses whether to mow civilians down in a truck he's just hijacked in the name of the LAPD... so, some aspects of cole's personality may be quirky, but he's only a 28 on the psycho meter if the player gets a kick out of hurting innocent NPCs or is going for the $47 000 in damage trophy.

19Gam3NErD91
19Gam3NErD91

the most disappointing aspect of L.A noire for me was the cole's character. the game basically sets him up as an upstanding justice-seeking good-hearted and ambitious kind of fellow who wants to do his best to bring justice to the city and the police department and rise through the ranks to increase his influence but who overally has some deep flaws that we understand from the flashbacks and when he cheats on his wife. but to me not of that seemed believable .his reactions and interactions with other people more or less paint him as a selfish , self-worthy and cheating jerk with no regards for other peoples emotions and rights.and we never get really much of a background or explanation for his wrong actions or flaws like when he cheats on his wife and when he comes back to his wife ,she is like : "go away, i don't wanna see you again!" and then he gets a bit sad but goes away and never looks back again like nothing happened or he didn't care for his family. and before he slept with that german singer we didn't know he even had a family that he cared about! SPOILER ALERT : but the worst part was probably at the end where you simply control a 'nice guy' sort of character for pretty much two chapters and at the end cole , the main character whom you probably played as for 20 hours shows up at the last minute to become a hero and redeem himself , literally gets washed away from the story and your mind!

eze_sl89
eze_sl89

no offense rockstar games, but LA Noire SUCKS, such a boring and lame game

solidsnakehd
solidsnakehd

the game was a mess.the director wanted to craeted a game like heavy rain but he ...

EikoAtoride
EikoAtoride

A character from the 50s gets rated according to 2010 standard? That is sooo wrong in many ways. Having an affair was the normal thing to do during that time period, police had a very high and somewhat abnormal moral codex. Nah, this guy isn't any different from the average guy - with all the issues and the advantages. *my opinion as a girl*

rasputin177
rasputin177

I appreciate the fact that they are trying to provide unique articles that differ from the norm. Even if this is of no particular interest to me.

RedReckoning
RedReckoning

I like where Gamespot is going with this; when you look back on when he was in the military and the flashbacks of how the war effected him, it may have caused his emotions and feelings to change when he got back home which could explain why he [spoilers] cheated on his wife and how he handles interviews.

Wandrian
Wandrian

In short, the article's writer takes LA Noire, logical fallcies, and outdated pop psychology far far more seriously than one should.

JAHBU
JAHBU

No hes not...he is just the main character in a boring ass game.

quackthegreat
quackthegreat

Cole is only human, of course he has some problems. But I think giving him points towards being a psychopath because the player can potentially run over people or destroy property isn't fair. It's entirely possible to not cause any destruction or hurt anyone while driving, and the game never actually hints at how good a driver he is, so I think that should be undetermined.

BoSPaladin
BoSPaladin

And we care about this because.....?

Gazapec
Gazapec

This article is silly. Please, no more.

rasputin177
rasputin177

@lorider yeah because it was so much better when our leading protagonist were unrealistic always do the right thing robots. Life by its very nature is full of complicated choices and grey areas. No person is perfect and if you think you are you are the sociopath. I applaud the effort to bring a true level of realism to video games. I would rather have lippy kids able to think for themselves then ones who blindly ignore the complicated and obtuse nature of life.

rasputin177
rasputin177

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

Megasus_
Megasus_

@bottaboomstick Dear bottabomstick, I don't mean to sound like a whore, but feel free to use me anytime. Sincerely, Grammar

bottaboomstick
bottaboomstick

This is wrong in so many ways. Cole did symphatized with the victims, finding hard to accept how people was capable of doing those. Cole didn't killed the civilians on the cave on purpose, and he actually demonstrated he had a very hard decision in his hands when he took them out of their misery. Cops have to be mentally prepared for the worst, you don't see them crying each time they have to work on cruel crimes. They have to be strong on interviews so they take the truth out of them. He didn't liked, by any means, sending innocent people to jail and for that, he worked as hell. Cole doesn't even likes people talking bout his medal, meaning he feels guilt for what happened in Okinawa. So this "test" is a complete mistake

Bane_09
Bane_09

@Frame_Dragger Thank you and I will make sure to take your words to heart

gamespot4life
gamespot4life

I didnt even read the entire article I just wanted to say " game of the year!!!" I love this game

halofanatic333
halofanatic333

Cole was a soldier, and did serve in the Pacific Theater. The way he handles bad news, it's sort of inbedded in him after that...

ceainic_1
ceainic_1

Like everyone who's been in combat Cole has his demons and his problems,but in my opinion that is one of the aspects that makes the game even more beautiful and intriging i mean come on who isn't tired of that perfect hero model ? This game is a masterpiece and in my opinion a milestone for the industry and for everyone a MUST PLAY !!!

ShadeHunter1840
ShadeHunter1840

@poseidion by the way i completely agree with your points psuedospike and Elvis4576 have some great points too.

ShadeHunter1840
ShadeHunter1840

hold up...Insubordination in the army...? granted i'm only up to halfway through the vice cases but the flashbacks showed that he followed the rules too much. the fact that he can't change plans or disobey orders on the fly shows a huge lack of impulsivity. Second of all, all those references to running over pedestrians. that's a player made decision that isn't based on his personality Third. when you describe his aggressive interrogations, its just a technique used to keep a suspect off balance and to pressure them. It combines bits of: Pride-and-ego down. Good cop/bad cop. the Reid technique, Suggestibility and deception. it doesnt mean he like that it just means he's using the best tools to do the best job he can. Also if a war vet/homicide detective/ vice detective/ arson detective broke down crying at the sight of every murder he went to id be suprised by that same logic everyone on csi are psychos. you see something alot you get desensitized. and while cole does get help from those around him he comes up with most of the leads. asks the right questions. figures out who lying and kills or arrests most of the bad guys. hardly a parasite. several times when alerting people about the deaths of someone. he offers to give them time to collect themselves to deal with it. he treats the moller daughter fine. behaving reserved and not freaking out on her......so there. a big comment that i just realized i put 20 minutes into and looked up stuff for. god im such a geek! :)

thevoyce
thevoyce

according to this i'm most likely a psychopath

thevoyce
thevoyce

according to this i'm most likely a psychopath

killer690
killer690

Crazy motherf***ker that is one funny expresion, um so what were we talking about?

SwiftusMaximus
SwiftusMaximus

I really did not enjoy Phelps as a lead role, I thought his acting was all over the place and very stale.

CLOCKWORKIAN
CLOCKWORKIAN

Honestly, the game didn't show much about him for me to care.

lorider25
lorider25

he sounds like the average anti hero or douchebag hero that are now the new norm in games and movies. I freaking hate these type of characters, because if this was real life they would be the first to catch an ass whooping if they tried to pull that egotistical self centric bad boy crap on someone. Now you wonder why these kids are so freaking lippy these days.

Bane_09
Bane_09

@Frame_Dragger Correct I have not taken any abnormal psych yet and I was more interested in the article because it at least brings video games and psychology together

parrot_of_adun
parrot_of_adun

@Voice_of_Wisdom I believe the estimate was less than 1%, for the US anyway. Then again, this test isn't really taken too seriously anymore.

Voice_of_Wisdom
Voice_of_Wisdom

80% of mankind would be considered psycopath by this test

GnomeGrown
GnomeGrown

@Altoshadow13 Thanks dude. It's some artwork from Tool. I'm a huge fan of their music and an even bigger fan of their artwork. Game on brother!!

Bane_09
Bane_09

Great article, as I psychology major I found this very interesting