Solve Virtual Murder Mysteries in 'L.A. Noire' by Reading Faces
A murder mystery can unfold in the little emotions that flash across the face of a witness or suspect. Maybe he's just embarrassed because he hit his wife in a drunken rage and she ran out, never to be seen again. Or maybe he's not meeting your eyes on account of the bloody tire iron stashed away in his car trunk.
Such facial expressions in the cinematic game "L.A. Noire" reflect the character performances of more than 400 actors captured by new MotionScan technology. Players will interact with those characters by taking the role of a young detective who must solve crimes based on historical cases in Los Angeles circa 1947, such as the infamous Black Dahlia murder.
"If you're going to make a game about detectives and have the main game mechanics be asking questions and having to tell whether [a character is] truthful or not, you have to get strong performances," said Rob Nelson of Rockstar Games, which is releasing "L.A. Noire" May 17.
Players rise through the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department as they explore 8 square miles of post-World War II L.A. that was virtually recreated from period photos. Finding clues may involve not only interrogations but poking through a suspect's house or examining different parts of a victim's gruesome corpse.
A live demonstration of "L.A. Noire" took place in front of a crowd of gamers and moviegoers at the Tribeca Film Festival April 26, the first time a game was featured at the film festival. It was a hit, even if the audience chuckled occasionally at giveaway facial expressions during interrogation scenes.
Playing film noir
Much of the interactive story's atmosphere will seem familiar to fans of TV crime dramas or film noir classics such as "L.A. Confidential" or "Chinatown" two sources of inspiration for Brendan McNamara, lead writer and director behind "L.A. Noire."
A "choose your own adventure" style of play essentially packs many different possible stories into "L.A. Noire," depending on the player's choices. The game eventually required a 2,200-page script.
"It's essentially two seasons of TV in one game," said Simon Ramsey of Rockstar Games.
Each game character that a player interrogates gives signs of whether he or she is telling the truth. Game characters may swallow, refuse to meet the player's gaze, or give other telltale signs of lying. Players can then choose their next question based on how they read the character's facial expression: "Truth," "Doubt" or "Lie."
People who read the situation correctly get rewarded with clues that will enable them to solve the crime faster. But even wrong choices don't stop the story. Instead, players may simply go off on a wild goose chase during an investigation, before other hints encourage them to circle back to the truth.
Game characters don't look perfectly realistic, but their facial expressions work well enough to convey the appropriate emotions.
The cast of "L.A. Noire," led by the dapper Aaron Staton (who plays Ken Cosgrove in AMC's "Mad Men"), acted out their performances in two parts.
First, the actors roamed around a virtual set wearing Hollywood-style jumpsuits studded with tracking balls, so that their physical movements could be translated into the game through cameras.
Second, the actors sat in a room surrounded by 32 HD cameras that captured every angle of their facial expressions as they spoke their scenes. Their performances mapped directly into the game without the need for animation .
The MotionScan approach provides a new twist on the usual performance-capture methods, which involve using just one camera or having tracking markers on people's faces.
"This was a technology that was developed for the sole purpose of making games better, and with this game in mind," Nelson said.
When film meets games
Rockstar Games' interactive film noirish storytelling will not surprise some gamers, given that the company has won praise for other cinematic games that embrace tales of Americana in classic Hollywood genres. Those include the gangster stories of the "Grand Theft Auto" games and the Western-themed story of the game "Red Dead Redemption."
"We're not trying to make interactive movies ; we're trying to make games that have narratives in them and are cinematic," Ramsey said.
"L.A. Noire" has plenty of action-packed gameplay such as shootouts and car chases. (The Tribeca Film Festival audience laughed when, during the live demo, a Rockstar Games representative violated a few traffic laws in the best "Grand Theft Auto" style.) However, people who want to get on with the dialogue of the story can choose to skip such scenes after a few tries.
The game's ultimate success at the film festival came from its ability to captivate a theater crowd that simply watched the story unfold on a big screen.
"The storytelling, the narrative, the voiceover, the direction I was left really wanting to know where you were going to go," said Geoff Gilmore, chief creative officer of Tribeca Enterprises.
"L.A. Noire" is scheduled for release on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 May 17.