'L.A. Noire': Watch the killer new trailer. Has gaming become as emotional as movies?

Videogames have always trended toward outlandish visions. The history of the medium is top-heavy with monster-infested fantasy worlds, outer-space battles, and racetracks that feature a perhaps-unrealistic amount of exploding cars. But the makers of the upcoming LA Noire are trying to capture the most spectacular image of all: The human face. The look and narrative of the game is taken from the noir-detective genre — lots of shadows and moral ambiguity — but the real draw of L.A. Noire is the photo-realistic technology that makes the characters look far more humanlike than, say, the mannequin-people of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Check out the new trailer for the videogame, due in May 2011.

EW caught up with two of the men behind the game: Brendan McNamara, the founder of Team Bondi and lead creative voice behind L.A. Noire, and Jeronimo Barrera, VP of Product Development at Rockstar. McNamara notes that the impulse to make L.A. Noire was partially technology-driven — “We knew that on this generation of consoles, you’d be able to do lighting really well, and the original noir films did an amazing job with very few lights.” But McNamara’s also a noir fan, listing Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James Ellroy as favorites, along with a laundry list of great noir films: “Out of the Past, Detour, House of Bamboo, Sweet Smell of Success, Chinatown, which is probably my favorite movie, and L.A. Confidential.”

In L.A. Noire, the photo-realism isn’t just a nifty visual — it’s central to the gameplay. According to Barrera, “The core mechanic is… trying to figure out whether or not the person you’re having a conversation with is lying to you. As the game plays out, you’re investigating crime scenes and finding evidence, and you use those pieces of evidence in the conversation.” And McNamara insists that the lying isn’t a binary good/evil deal:  “When I was writing the game, I had up on my whiteboard: ‘Everybody’s lying about something.’”

The game is open-ended, and “the way the conversation system works, it branches at almost every sentence,” says Barrera. (The script was 2200 pages, the length of about 18 two-hour movies, although McNamara says the narrative is more like “Two cool seasons of TV.”) The game is built on a series of individual cases, 22 in all, that also add up to a larger overarching serial-killer story. “We think we’re creating a new genre of game here,” says Barrera. “But we’re heavily influenced by TV cop shows. You start with the crime scene, the investigation, and then you meet the suspects.”

Because of the nature of the game’s photo-realistic characters, creating the characters was a more cinematic process than usual. “Rockstar has a long history of working with quality actors for voiceover,” notes McNamara. “The difference with this was directing people as an ensemble, directing people in close-up. In [the motion-capture rig], it’s a 70-80 day shoot of people in close-up, which is pretty intense.”

That put a lot of extra pressure on Aaron Staton, the Mad Men actor who plays L.A. Noire‘s protagonist. “He brought a lot to it, in terms of shades of gray,” says McNamara. “In the end, he was a better barometer of the character arc than I was.” Apparently, Staton brought some of his Mad Men co-stars along for the motion-capture: Vincent Kartheiser (Pete Campbell) and Michael Gladis (Paul Kinsey) both make cameos in the game. Also appearing prominently in Noire is Fringe star John Noble, who was involved in the game from early in the development process. “John’s been incredibly supportive all the way along,” says McNamara. “He took a few days off from shooting Fringe in Vancouver and came down and did a couple days in the [motion-capture] rig for us. It’s an Aussie mafia thing,” he laughs. (Team Bondi is located in Sydney, Australia.)

McNamara knows that the new photorealistic technology wouldn’t work for every game: “If you’re doing a science-fiction thing and you’ve got your helmet on, there’s not much point doing the rig.” But the technology is continuously evolving in intriguing new directions– they’ll soon be able to scan an actor’s full body, complete with a costume. McNamara is excited about the possibilities offered by the ability to actually capture real human emotion onscreen. “If the future of videogames is just to go somewhere, get shot, die, wake up again, get shot, die, wake up again, get shot, then I don’t think it’s a particularly interesting future,” he says. “We’re trying to bring all those other elements to it — storytelling, character development, taking people on journeys. When people see the game, they’ll see that we’re starting to get to that place.” Says Barrera, “It’s the holy grail, it’s what everyone has been after since the CD-ROM days. It’s an evolution.”

Since L.A. Noire comes a year after Rockstar reinvented the western with Red Dead Redemption, and with the company’s mysterious Cold War thriller Agent coming in late 2011, is Rockstar purposefully checking off a list of old Hollywood genres? In which case, when can we expect Rockstar’s Singin’ in the Rain? “They hate when I start talking about my ideas for a musical,” laughs Barrera. McNamara, for his part, has an even trickier genre in mind: “I’d love to do a romance. If you can empathize with a character using this technology, then why can’t you fall in love with someone?”

PopWatchers, are you excited about L.A. Noire? (As a bonus, check out this clip of the entire performance capture process.)

Comments (30 total) Add your comment
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  • Marlene

    When I was watching the trailer, I actually said, “Wait! Is that Ken Cosgrove?” and it actually is. I’m excited to play this game when it comes out. It’s such a cool use of technology.

    • Caleigh

      THANK GOD I WASN’T THE ONLY ONE WHO THOUGHT THAT.

      I was like “Wait…Ken Cosgrove Accounts?”

    • CJL2124

      I thought the same exact thing haha.

  • Felix Lang

    Games will never be as emotional as movies, because game makers (with the exception of a few Japanese developers) never create any original ideas. Just as McNamara demonstrates in this interview, all they’re doing is cribbing everything off of old movies and TV shows they admire. So games will always be imitating, rather than actually creating, art.

    • Joey

      Little Big Planet is quite a piece of art in my opinion.

      • Monty

        L M A O! That came so out of nowhere that I read it twice before i busted out laughing in my cube!

    • Strepsi

      Your comment is exactly what Stage actors said about movies 60 years ago. And is just as incorrect.

    • Tajah

      @Felix You’re behind the times. Video games ARE art. Case in point, BIOWARE’s Dragon Age and Mass Effect series. They go above and beyond not only in graphics but with storytelling and voice acting. These are games pioneering art.

      • Rush

        Games by definition are not art. Artwork comes completely from the mind of the artist and the audience is not a participant in the final product or production. Games may have artistic elements, like well produced cut scenes, amazing graphics, or beautiful backgrounds, and even compelling storylines, because the audience has potential to change the plot they are not art. It’s the same with the old “Choose your own adventure” books, RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, and the like.

      • Rush

        Or consider it this way: say you have a beautiful picture and you make a jigsaw puzzle out of it. Is the puzzle art or the original picture?

      • Objection!

        @Rush: Who died and made you the King (or Queen) of Art? Like Roger Ebert, you are in no position to establish a “Definition” of Art so you can exclude a medium and its fans from being part of the Art sphere. Art is subjective, and it may be a matter of taste for you, like if a person said they don’t like Sci-Fi and love Romance. But don’t go around telling people what can and can’t be Art with the intent of excluding a medium and its fans. No Art medium is above another. And no Art medium and its fans should be excluded because you have a difference in taste.

    • Quirky

      Not true Felix, in fact there have been some games that to me were more emotional than movies. In a movie you are a passive audience member, if a major character that you cared about dies you can feel genuine sadness and anger over their death even if they were only a fictional character. In games the audience takes on a more active role in the story telling. Spending 20+ hours when the game characters voiced by professional actors, helping guide their development, creates a bond between the fictional character and audience that the other mediums can’t provide. When a character in a game dies that you cared for you can feel the same anger and sadness as in a movie, but also a genuine sense of guilt if your own actions (or usually inactions) led to that character’s permanent death.

      People keep thinking that games are only twitch based exercises like Asteroids, when they now have professional writers and voice actors like animated movies. For me Bioware is right up there with Pixar when it comes to story telling.

    • aj

      Right, because movies are all about originality and never borrow ideas and stories from each other.

    • Gina

      Felix, I am very much inclined to disagree with you. When I pair up my main character with someone, it has to feel right based off of who I have decided my character is. It’s just like not understanding a pairing on a tv show. And then there was the case in Mass Effect 2 when I was pissed off at a character because they were upset I took another character’s side. I kept going back to her office, trying to make things right but she wasn’t having any of it. And because of the loss of loyalty between that character and my character, she died. So games are indeed emotional. And so am I. ;) p.s. The stories in L.A. Noire are actually loosely based off of actual crimes that took place in the 1940s. But, nah, you’re right… movies would never do such a thing like borrow ideas from previously written stories.

    • Rush

      It’s somewhat a limitation of the genre, that the player functions as protaganist, that game creators have to keep things a little simplified. But games have come a long way when you compare today’s games with the pong and breakout of only 35 years ago. Will they ever be “art”? I think no, but they will push the boundaries of what we consider gaming.

    • Tim

      You provided the exception. If there’s an exception, there’s a possibility.

      Oh and your comment is small minded and Defeatist. A painter can only re-create something real or imagined. Regardless, their creations are only a recreation of what they see. Doesn’t mean its not art. Just means you’ve limited your own experiences.

    • Chris

      So by that logic, you’re saying that most mainstream movies aren’t art either? Most are remakes or sequels without much original thought. If you don’t think games are art, fine, but don’t be a pretentious jackhole about it.

    • MrBo

      You’re cluelessness is acually funny.

      buahaha!

      • MrBo

        *your

  • J Grinshaw

    @Felix What a closed minded, short sighted, narrow view…Yes and Hollywood is full of original ideas isnt it…re-hash after reahashed sequels,prequels and badly written “re-imagined”. et alone movies based on comic books….wow how original. I think the same was said when Movies came along to replace theatre..the writing in LA Noire looks gripping and second to none..

  • Kevin

    Looks awesome. Too bad all I have is a stupid Wii that serves no purpose other than Netflix InstantPlay. Maybe this is the year I get a PS3

  • rsnation

    All I know is my son was upset for days after he thought he finished Red Dead Redemption. Found out there was a little more and played it out. It helped a little but he was still distressed. Guess games can be emotional.

    • Kevin

      Sure hope you knew that was an R rated game

  • Big Walt

    What’s the status on new systems? I’m still stuck in the PS2 world but I suspect I would like Agent enough to buy a PS3 but I don’t want to if PS4 is going to be out in another year.

    • Monty

      We’re 3-4 years out on the next gen. Consider the motion controllers and Kinect the next step up. These systems will be out until close to 2015.

  • rambo

    NO PC version like another member postet Rockstar should change tehir name to consolestars and socialclub to consoleclub you guys just turned your back on your old customers.What happend to the PC version why your not making a pc version !?! All i can say Rockstar is dead and hopefully each old PC costumer will spit on your games from now on

  • m

    Nobody plays games for the “art” you little dweeb.

    We play for the gameplay, the story is just a pleasurable bonus

    and movies are about the most diluted bs excuse as “art”

    it’s the movie business after all

  • Sheli

    We have really been looking forward to this game.

  • Gaucho420

    Games surpassed movies as art a while ago. Give me a break…anyone been to theatre lately? I have and its all utter garbage. I’ll take Heavy Rain, Red Dead Redemption and Alan Wake over the pure crap that are movies.

  • Karine

    Um, not that I could find. If you don’t like Rockstar, well, fine. But if you’re going to lampoon EW for covering upcoming ENTERTAINMENT (hey, look, the word’s in the magazine’s title!) then at least include a link to substantiate your claims. Heavy Rain was a huge hit, and this seems to be in the same vein- why shouldn’t it get a blog post?

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