Just weeks after L.A. Noire released to stun gamers and movie fans around the world, a brand new batch of games arrived to steal the spotlight and publicity from the Team Bondi production. But that isn’t keeping the creative team behind the game from looking to the future, and how they can improve upon the technology used to power the facial animations of L.A. Noire. According to the head of the studio, the next generation of consoles won’t just offer better graphics, but the chance to take video games to the same level as film and television.
There was no shortage of publicity in the lead-up to L.A. Noire‘s release, and a large part of that was due to the groundbreaking method of rendering the facial animations of actors’ performances in the game world, resulting in more realistic characters than many had ever seen.
And if you’ve played a few games since then, there’s a good chance that the standard quality of facial animations has drawn a cringe or two in an otherwise great game. It’s only when you look at other games that the importance of Team Bondi’s MotionScan technology becomes clear, if we ever hope to climb out of the uncanny valley in video gaming.
The game’s systems weren’t executed flawlessly though, as the incredibly sophisticated levels of facial animations made the unrealistic body proportions and movements of characters seem that much more ridiculous. But rather than looking at the discrepancy as a negative, the developers are just taking things one step at a time.
L.A. Noire‘s creator and writer Brendan McNamara has already explained that capturing an actor’s entire body is their next step. But the steps they’ve taken aren’t without their opponents, as plenty of game developers – most notably Heavy Rain creator David Cage – have their doubts about the team’s technology. In speaking with CVG, McNamara explained that while their process has yet to be perfected, their method is unquestionably the most effective:
“There’s things about the motion scan process that don’t look as good as some other things, but there’s nothing like it in terms of capturing the spark of life. You don’t look at those faces and go ‘there’s a perfect representation of a person’ – we’ve got a way to go with it. But do we actually capture humanity and life? Absolutely. You feel like they’re living, breathing people in a way you never have before. There’s that kind of dichotomy between games who are prepared to go down that route, you know we had Hideo Kojima come into the studio and come and have a look. He loved it, and he’s a storyteller too, so we’ll see whether they want to go with it or not. And then there’s the other side of it with the David Cages where they believe you can essentially match that performance using an animator. I suppose the thing in the end is that people will vote for it with which games they buy.”
And vote they did, giving the top sales to L.A. Noire for both May and June. So the fans themselves made it clear that Team Bondi’s tech and compelling gameplay is something they would like to see more of, but where does that leave the technology? Some might say that the development team would be best to come up with a sequel fast, correct the mistakes most criticized, and see if lightning can strike twice.
But that isn’t the case, according to McNamara. The development studio isn’t just trying to come up with a way of capturing an actor’s entire body in the same way as their face, but looking to the future. Next-gen consoles are alluded to quite often these days, representing the next frontier of video game visuals.
But for Team Bondi, the next generation of consoles isn’t seen as a platform to deliver a full-body representation of a human, but a means to exhibit artwork at the same level as film or television. Capturing an actor from head to toe in real time is just the first step in a much larger challenge, but McNamara doesn’t seem swayed:
“We are doing that and it’s just started getting underway now, and I don’t think it’s necessarily something that’s going to be possible on this generation of consoles because what it does is gives the actor some freedom, it lets them be in a costume. So Phelps would be in there in his suit, tie and jacket in brown felt with a gun in the holster, and they can just give the performance there and then and you’ve got everything – head, eyes all that kind of stuff. So I think it will just bring a level of freedom, but what I hope it does is bring a level of fidelity to the point where, especially with next-gen consoles in the next couple of years, that it’s sort of interchangeable between film, TV and what sort of performance you can drop into a videogame.”
The day when video games can offer the same level of realism as film or television – or something close to it – may still be years away, but it’s groups like Team Bondi that may get us there. There may be some skeptics who say that the very nature of video game hardware could never present a real human performance while being controlled by the player, but why not? Considering how far L.A. Noire took the realm of facial animation in a single leap, we’ll place our bets on them surprising us before too long.
What do you think of Team Bondi’s goals? Have you also noticed a startling gap between L.A. Noire‘s performances and those of other games?
L.A. Noire is currently available for the Xbox 360 and PS3, with a PC release coming this fall.
Follow me on Twitter @andrew_dyce.