In L.A. Noire, you ask questions first, shoot later, the artful game is a risky move for Rockstar


LOS ANGELESAaron Staton is used to being in front of cameras. But it wasn’t until the actor best known as ad account executive Ken Cosgrove on “Mad Men” starred in the video game L.A. Noire that he acted in front of 32 of them.

On a winter morning in a warehouse in Culver City
that has been turned into a makeshift acting and game development
studio, Staton was wrapping up his last day on the job. Sitting alone
in a small room surrounded by the dozens of cameras and pupil-shrinking
lights that eliminate any hint of a shadow, he worked his way through
one gritty line after another — the type most people haven’t heard
since the days of, well, noir.

“A 15-year-old girl told me she was drugged and
molested at a casting house with a mermaid out front,” Staton growled.
On the other side of a thin white wall, Brendan McNamara talked into a headset. “Make it a little more urgent,” the game
director said with his Australian accent. “This guy throws his rival
off a roof.”

By the next day, a bank of servers helped transform the performance into Det. Cole Phelps,
an animated character who isn’t so much based on Staton as possessed by
him. Every dart of the eyes, tilt of the head and crinkle of the skin
caught by those 32 cameras can be seen in the game, making for an
eerily lifelike performance.

It’s not uncommon for video games to feature
professional actors doing voice work and even motion-captured movement.
But McNamara was searching for something different in L.A. Noire: a
video game in which players spend less time shooting people and more
time interrogating them. “People hear about this game and they wonder
what buttons they press, but it’s not about that,” McNamara explained.
“It’s doing what your brain has been doing for millions of years:
Reading faces.”

Seven years in the making, L.A. Noire (due out May 17)
is the latest release from Rockstar Games, the company forever
associated in most people’s minds with its blockbuster Grand Theft Auto
series. However, the New York
publisher has long struggled to find another series that could stand
behind it, with titles such as Bully and Manhunt falling well short.
Rockstar finally hit the jackpot in 2010 with Red Dead Redemption,
which sold 8 million units and swept industry awards.

It also revived the Western at a time when it was
virtually dead not only in video games but the larger pop culture. The
company has mined different angles of the crime drama with its GTA
sequels and is now looking to do the same with noire. “This is a very
risky game, but it’s also consistent with what they are known for,”
said Adam Sessler, co-host of the video game news
show “X-Play” on cable network G4. “There’s no other game developer
with Rockstar’s interest in mining American mythologies.”

L.A. Noire shares traits with GTA and Red Dead such
as a huge, open world — in this case 8 square miles of 1947 Los
Angeles, from downtown to Hollywood,
faithfully re-created with the help of a cadre of historians. But it
stands out from most big-budget games for one simple reason: It’s not a
shooter or a fantasy role-playing game or any of the other
industry-standard genres on which publishers are typically comfortable
spending tens of millions of dollars. Action, in fact, is minimal, and
there’s no online multi-player, a de rigueur feature for most
big-budget games nowadays.

Making a game centered on investigation is
inherently a chancy proposition. Players raised on a diet of fast-paced
shooting and epic action sequences might struggle to stay interested
with the more methodical tasks of investigation and interrogation, no
matter how stylish the backdrop is. With the exception of sports
simulations and a few long-lasting and well-known brands such as Super
Mario and the Sims, hit games in the U.S. not centered on shooting,
stabbing or stomping are rare. Other games that emphasize style over
action, like last year’s murder mystery Heavy Rain, have been modest

“This is a very bold move in that most people won’t really be able to understand what it is until they play it,” said Andy McNamara,
editor in chief of the gamer magazine Game Informer (and no relation to
the game’s director). “I don’t think it could have gotten made at any
other company.”

But Rockstar, about to kick off a significant
marketing campaign for its latest creation, believes L.A. Noire can be
a hit among an audience much broader than the typical young male
gamers. They’re going after people who watch police procedurals like
“Law & Order” and “CSI.” “I think it’s going to appeal to a very
broad audience that is familiar with this type of thing in television
or movies but never before in interactive entertainment,” said Jeronimo Barerra, vice president of product development for Rockstar.

And Brendan McNamara said that if
nothing else, he’s confident L.A. Noire takes his chosen art form in a
much needed direction. “If the future of games is only about body
count,” he said, “then it’s not a very interesting future.”

McNamara and his core team of developers previously worked on Sony’s racing video game series the Getaway. In 2004 they formed their own studio in Sydney, Australia, called Team Bondi and set to work on L.A. Noire. As a fan of Humphrey Bogart films, the books of Raymond Chandler and the man he calls “Mr. Ellroy,” McNamara thought the
then-in-development PlayStation 3 could for the first time create the
genre’s foreboding shadows in a video game.

Developing the story and setting was the easy part:
In 1947 Los Angeles, a World War II-veteran-turned-police-detective is
haunted by his actions at the Battle of Okinawa
while he investigates crimes based on infamous real events, most
notably the Black Dahlia murder. From music to lighting to case names
like “the silk stocking murder” and “the red lipstick murder,” L.A.
Noire was designed from the start to embody its title.

The problem was what the gameplay would be. McNamara
knew he wanted to center it on interrogations but wasn’t sure how to
translate that into something compelling for the player. Verbal
sparring was too technically complex, and letting players beat the
truth out of suspects resulted in almost comical barrages of smacking.

At the same time, however, McNamara had begun working with researcher Oliver Bao,
who was developing a system called MotionScan to more accurately
capture facial movements. Starting with two cameras in a shed, Bao’s
dream was to re-create every nuance of the face in digital form without
the help of an animator.

McNamara’s intention had been to use Bao’s
technology for the narrative scenes in between the action. But he
eventually realized that lifelike facial performances could be at the
heart of it — players would analyze suspects’ facial tics and attempt
to determine who’s telling the truth, who’s lying and where to take the

“The first half of developing this game was
basically stick figures and texts,” recalled Barerra. “When the heads
started coming on-line, it was a ‘Hallelujah!’ moment.”

Those heads were portrayed by Australian stand-ins until late 2009, when video production began in Los Angeles. More than 400 actors performed in the game, first by acting out their characters’ movements on a stage and then in the Culver City offices of Depth Analysis, where Bao is head of research.

It has taken more than a year of on-and off work to
make it through a script that weighs in at a staggering 2,200 pages
because of the multiple paths each investigation can take. The game
features 20 cases as Phelps works his way through the Los Angeles
Police Department’s traffic, robbery, arson and homicide desks,
investigating crimes. In one, a boxer goes missing after winning a
fixed fight he was supposed to lose. In another, a young woman comes to
Hollywood with dreams of stardom and ends up raped and nearly dead.

On Day 82, according to a call sheet taped to the
studio’s white walls, Staton was one of several actors wearing orange
T-shirts who were going through hair and makeup before sitting in the
blindingly bright room with the expensive cameras. Bao was proud to
show off his technology but also paranoid about letting strangers get
close. The last time someone accidentally tapped one of the cameras, he
explains, it took nearly four hours to recalibrate the system.

Reading a teleprompter and staring at a mini-“Mona
Lisa” as his eye line, the 33-year-old Staton rattled off lines like
the video game pro he has become, though McNamara occasionally had to
remind him to stop blocking his face with his hands. Speaking later on
a bench outside, he acknowledged it has been a bizarre process as an
actor and not at all what he expected when, in November 2009, he was offered a part in a game code-named “Hard Boiled.”

“With a television show or a movie, you have an idea
of how it’s going to look because you were there,” he said. “In this,
you feel very removed because the physical process was separate from
the line reading. I have no idea how it will look when it all comes

McNamara has a pretty good idea after all the time
he and his colleagues have put into the game. The question is how many
consumers will be as fascinated as he is in the underbelly of L.A. in
the late 1940s. “The detective story has always been great in
literature; it’s always been great in films,” he said.”We’re asking:
‘Why hasn’t it worked in video games?'”


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