L.A. Noire: The videogame that feels like a film
Rockstar's L.A. Noire could be the most realistic videogame yet, utilizing cutting edge technology to create extremely accurate characters and environments.
The woman I’m speaking to is lying. I don’t need to listen to what she’s saying; I can tell from her body language that she is unnerved by my questions.
Her body is slightly turned away from me, her arms are folded and she is nervously chewing her bottom lip. Most telling, however, is the look in her eyes and the way that she refuses to make eye contact.
The woman I’m referring to, however, isn’t real. She’s a computer generated representation of an actress playing a character in an upcoming video game called L.A. Noire.
The technology being used to display her face captures every detail; every line and every facial tick. Not only is it an incredible piece of work, it has an immersive effect on the player. In no time at all, I’ve begun to think of this collection of pixels as a living, breathing person.
According to the game’s developers that’s exactly how I’m meant to feel. Developed by Rockstar – the creators of the Grand Theft Auto series – in collaboration with Team Bondi, L.A. Noire is a crime thriller set in 1940s Los Angeles.
According to its head of development, Brendan McNamara, getting players to connect emotionally with the game’s characters will be key to its success.
“We know we’re asking a lot from players,” says McNamara. “We’re asking them to connect with characters and remember names and faces and events. It is risky, but hell, Rockstar has been taking risks in this industry since GTA III.”
L.A. Noire shows how far Rockstar’s games have come. Gone are the cartoon-like graphics and slapstick violence of earlier titles.
L.A. Noire feels like a high-end HBO drama; its characters look and feel like real people and the vintage L.A. backdrop is shrouded in mystery and intrigue.
It’s like the video game equivalent of a Raymond Chandler or James Ellroy novel. The setting gives it a more mature atmosphere, and as the game’s producer, Jeronimo Barrera points out, it enables the developers to tackle more adult themes with the game’s plot.
“If you read anything from that time period – news articles or crime scene photography – it’s really gruesome. I think that a lot of people have a very rosy view of the past during that period but it wasn’t like that at all. It was very dirty.”
“Film-wise and literature-wise I’ve always been interested in the period,” says McNamara. “The challenge of setting a game there was finding a hook – or a number of different hooks – that would kind of work in that setting.”
The first ‘hook’ in this instance is MotionScan, the incredible technology constructed for the game by Depth Analysis.
Using cameras, microphones, lights and editing software and built from the ground up, MotionScan enables the developers to capture every nuance of an actor’s facial expressions. They can then recreate them, providing a level of realism, detail, performance and emotion never seen before in a game.
This is combined with a full-body motion capture performance to create the vivid representation of the actors on the screen.
The second ‘hook’ is the use of Hollywood actors – such as Mad Men’s Aaron Staton, who plays the game’s lead character, Cole Phelps. However, McNamara says that because of the Depth Analysis technology, the success of L.A. Noire requires very believable characters and that’s only possible through great acting.
“The real choice wasn’t just star power, it was acting quality,” he says, “In the past you’d stick your development team in your game. You can’t do that anymore in a game like this using the technology we’ve got currently. It just wouldn’t hold up.”
“The casting of Aaron is inspired choice, he says, “The character Aaron plays is conflicted and has quite a bit of depth and Aaron is great at conveying those things.”
Thanks to the MotionScan technology, the visual representation of actors in video games is as almost exactly like watching a real-life performance.
However, in this instance, the player is engaging with the characters on a level previously impossible in video games. Barrera says it’s an evolution in game design and essentially the closest marriage between movies and games thus far.
“We’re definitely blurring the lines now,” he says. “I want this game to be the flashpoint where people start to think of games and film as being on the same level, because I’m confident they already are.”
La Noire looks set to be a compelling and ground-breaking game which opens up whole new avenues in the medium. But then again, as Barrera rightly points out, pushing the boundaries is Rockstar’s stock in trade, and has been for quite some time
“With all our games… they’ve all been incredibly cinematic experiences, but it’s been a challenge to be viewed as a legitimate medium,” he says. “I talk to [Rockstar CEO] Sam Houser all the time on this and he’s always asking ‘where can this medium go next?’ It’s a key part of every game we make.”