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.)