Rockstar Games‘s highly anticipated detective thriller, L.A. Noire is making history, being the first video game to be showcased at the Tribeca Film Festival. With their latest title, it would seem Rockstar is really trying to push the boundary of cinematic and engaging storytelling in video games. This, combined with the transparent film influences in the game, is why it makes sense to show the game at the well-known film festival.
One of our most anticipated games of this year, L.A. Noire has gotten plenty of coverage for it’s stunning facial animation technology, but the game’s inclusion at the young festival isn’t focused on tech.
Rockstar’s Simon Ramsey and Rob Nelson demonstrated some of their game in front of an audience and chatted about it with Geoff Gilmore, a festival host. They showcased one of the early cases in the game called ‘The Red Lipstick Murder’ in which a woman has been killed with a tire iron. Cole Phelps, newly promoted to Homicide division, is put on the case.
One of the glaring and most immediate differences between movies and video games is the HUD. In order to point out interactive items and important locations in a game, developers often employ something like a target reticule placed on screen, or other artificial methods. This makes sense in terms of gameplay, but it breaks the cinematic illusion. In an effort to work past this problem, Team Bondi sought to make L.A. Noire‘s visual cues as subtle as they could without making it entirely unplayable.
The game’s vaunted facial animations, for example, will be used to augment the story and the player’s unraveling of mysteries. The developers paid attention to how cinematography in films is used to draw attention to particular things in a shot, and used those same tricks to direct the player’s attention.
For example, making an object take up a major section of the game screen until the player approached it. They also noted that small objects like keys and rings will give off reflections that players will be able to notice. Nelson described the difficulty they had in balancing gameplay with cinematic presentation:
“It was tricky setting up crime scenes. We didn’t want to have a bunch of distracting, game-y kind of things on the screen. We wanted it to feel fairly clean and it was tricky to make something that would catch your eye and you would just know instinctively that you could interact with it.”
Gilmore criticized the digital acting in the game, calling it “clunky”. Which is just the unfortunate limitations of technology to portray humans. People praise Avatar for having lifelike CGI, and it did come close. Of course, those were aliens. When someone tries to simulate a human being, the tiniest cues tip us off, emphasizing the shortcomings of the simulation.
Digital actors just can’t simulate all the subtleties a real human being unconsciously inject into their performances. And other game studios are quickly realizing that same fact. With that being said, LA. Noire is far ahead of the crowd.
Video games and movies have had an uneasy partnership over the years, with a long run of horrible movie tie-ins, and terrible video game adaptation movies. However, game developers are constantly trying to emulate the way that movies seem to draw in viewers and make a lasting impression with their presentation as well as story.
Every year we see more and more games adapting Hollywood conventions into gameplay, as the past few Call of Duty titles have borrowed plenty of famous set pieces, and the Modern Warfare games in particular seeming to have sprung out of Michael Bay’s imagination.
Mass Effect 2 put a great deal of effort into the cinematic presentation of its dialogue, but still remained well within the convention of a conversation tree. Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain succeeded in being one of the most cinematic experiences on a game console, but even the game’s creator doesn’t want it classified as such.
It seems that developers these days must walk a thin line when trying to bring the flavor of the big screen to the video game experience. Too little and you fail your objective in making a cinematic experience, too much and you fail to deliver a satisfying gaming experience.
This fact was on the minds of the developers at Rockstar and Team Bondi, and as a result it appears that they are treading that line with all the grace and skill of a seasoned tightrope circus performer.
We’ll see how it turned out when L.A. Noire hits store shelves May 17th for PS3 and the Xbox 360.