L.A.Noire Last Look Preview -- Red Lipstick and the Tribeca Film FestivalBy Adam Rosenberg - Posted Apr 28, 2011
Rockstar Games received the honor this week of having the first video game, L.A. Noire, of course, to be screened at New York’s annual Tribeca Film Festival. The public presentation, which attracted a diverse audience of gamers and movie-lovers, consisted of a complete runthrough of one of the game’s early cases, from the Homicide desk, “The Red Lipstick Murder.”
This is the same case that G4’s Kevin Kelly got to see at PAX East 2011 a few weeks ago, only this time it was played through to its finish. To bring you up to speed on what was shown: the corpse of a woman has been found in a park, mutilated in a manner that bears a strong resemblance to the famed “Black Dahlia” murder of Elizabeth Short, in 1947. Protagonist Cole Phelps and his partner, Rusty Galloway, follow a series of clues that lead them to the deceased’s husband. The interrogation culminates in a fistfight and, eventually, the husband’s arrest as a suspect.
For those who don’t wish to know more about the story, spoilers lie ahead. Just scroll down; I’ll let you know when it’s safe to start reading again.
It quickly becomes clear during the husband’s interrogation that he isn’t the man you’re looking for. However, a lucky break earlier in the case leaves you with a license plate number to call in and have checked out. Cole rings up dispatch after his little tussle and learns that the vehicle in question is registered under the name of someone who lives nearby.
He and Galloway head over to find an empty apartment… and a box containing blood-soaked clothes along with the murder weapon. That’s when our perp gets home. Cole and Rusty announce themselves and the killer, realizing that he’s cooked, takes flight through a nearby window and onto the neighboring roof. A chase ensues, first on foot with Cole leaping and climbing from rooftop to rooftop. Eventually the action spills onto the street; a brief car chase ensues during which you must get close enough for Rusty to be able to shoot out the suspect’s tires. The car crashes and an arrest is made. Case closed.
That’s it for the spoilers, folks.
We got to sit down for a chat with Brendan McNamara, the writer and director of L.A. Noire, after the screening. While he obviously wasn’t willing to divulge how this particular case ties in with the larger game’s plot, he did lay out some of the goals the team set out to achieve in translating the genre of film noir into an interactive experience.
“We wanted to do a noir story where the person who starts the game isn't the same person at the end. I think that's typical of what happens in film noir,” he explained. “You sort of mine some degree of humanity into them that makes them take big risks.”
“Video games tend to have characters that are slightly two-dimensional, who they are at the start is exactly who they are at the end, and they give you a few one-liners along the way. So if we get to the end of the game and people have the reaction to the character that I want them to have, that will be very gratifying.”
MotionScan, the process used to capture each actor’s performance down to minute changes in their facial expressions, will play a significant role in bringing Cole’s evolution as a character across. Much of the L.A. Noire experience is built on creating an interactive platform for the exposition to unfold in, and having believable performances on the screen is a necessary component of that.
McNamara detailed a little bit of the process, revealing that the “scene” is initially shot as what he referred to as an “ensemble piece,” with all of the associated actors present and playing things out together. MotionScan comes next, which captures a single face at a time and makes a 3D mesh of it, for a texture to eventually lie on top of.
“We do lots and lots of variations on what we want to do, and that allows the actor to bring new things to it at the end of the day as well. We watch it afterwards on an editing system we built for MotionScan, and that allows you to look at someone’s performance [and see if they’ve given] whatever particular thing you were going for,” McNamara said.
“Then you have to make decisions at that point. We sort of do that on the difficulty curve for the game too. [The Red Lipstick Murder] is an early case, but as we get a lot further on in the game we make it more and more subtle because we want to make it harder for people.”
Equally important to the L.A. Noire experience is making sure that the sense of immersion remains relatively unbroken throughout. The game’s secondary activities are part of that; Cole can pick up “unassigned cases” over the radio at any point, a feature which McNamara said had originally been much larger in its scope.
“At one point we had more than [the unassigned cases], we had procedural crimes as well,” he said. “What we found with people playing the game was they couldn't remember what they needed to do in a case. There are so many things to remember, the people, the clues, the relationships.”
“You could try to play to everybody and miss the middle. So… the ideal was to pare it back to being really focused on these cases, making it a kind of a police procedural TV series in a way, that's interactive, that you can play.”
Also important to maintaining the sense of immersion is keeping the game-specific elements on screen to a minimum, things like the heads-up display, directional pointers and the like. This is an area that Rockstar releases are particularly good at skirting around, using in-world features in imaginative ways to give the player the information he or she needs.
“That's something we're pretty conscious about, not doing big, yellow arrows and all this kind of weird gaming conventions. If you believe that your audience is intelligent, and we do, then we think those things that are subtle are nicer. From my point of view, that's good game design,” McNamara said.
The easiest example of this to point to is the game’s “GPS.” Grand Theft Auto is set in a modern city, so putting a navigation system into the cars you drive simply fits. Red Dead Redemption posed a challenge, and ended up using the Grand Theft Auto IV approach of painting your minimap with lines leading you to a destination. L.A. Noire is similarly set during a time before global positioning was possible, but it has an advantage over Red Dead thanks to Cole always being accompanied by a partner in crime-fighting.
“You can just talk to your partner, he'll tell you where to go,” McNamara said of figuring out where you’re driving to in the game. “If you press the talk button, he'll [direct you]. You could turn the mini-map off, I don't think there's an option to do that but you could. You're driving along and he goes 'Next left, next right.' It's fun, [and it fits] in between conversations.”
No matter what else you may think of the game based on what’s been shown, it’s clear that Rockstar is stepping quite a bit outside of its comfort zone. The results that we’ve seen, at least in terms of MotionScan-powered character performances, have been nothing less than impressive. Rockstar’s Rob Nelson, the art director on L.A. Noire, is already thinking about where the technology might go next.
“It gets bigger,” he predicted, pointing to a time when the same technology will be applied to full body capture as well. “In this game we had to have hair and makeup artists to get the hairstyles right and get the makeup right, we couldn't really edit that. It was very much a film in that way. The future of MotionScan I think is to be able to do full body capture, where you can get wardrobe and props, you capture the full performance.”
Nelson stopped short of sharing anything specific about early plans for a sequel – big surprise, right? – but he did drop a small hint, couched in an explanation that should sound familiar to any fan of Rockstar’s catalog. “I definitely don't think with any of our games, any character is that game,” he said. “We definitely have a lot of fun with mixing up our protagonists. There was a lot of content that we had to leave out of this to get it done. We still definitely found it challenging.”
“Is there room for a sequel? Absolutely.”
L.A. Noire arrives on the scene May 17 for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.