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Reality Check: Is Cole Phelps a Psychopath?

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


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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]

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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.

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