Two police detectives burst into a filthy apartment. A woman is cowering on the floor amid upturned furniture as a group of hired thugs search every drawer and cupboard. A fist fight ensues, the heavies are dispatched and the officers are left to question the traumatized victim.
How do they start questioning her? How will they know if she’s telling the truth? Well, that’s your problem. You are the cop and this is a whole new type of video game.
LA Noire is the latest offering from Rockstar Games, the notorious publisher of Grand Theft Auto and last year’s brilliant western shooter, Red Dead Redemption. The action takes place in the seamy, crime-sodden LA of the late 1940s; the familiar hunting ground of Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy and Dashiell Hammett — all huge influences on the game’s director, Brendan McNamara. The player takes on the role of rookie detective Cole Phelps as he investigates a series of kidnaps and murders, studying crime scenes, talking to witnesses and interrogating suspects. Gamers are able to choose the tone of each question-and-answer session, playing nice and going in gently, or challenging every word the subject utters. Vitally, progress is made by watching characters as they stutter and squirm, judging whether they’re lying or terrified; it’s not killing people, it’s reading them.
The realism of these virtual humans is incredible. In one scene the gamer has to question an actor who has been drugged, shoved in the back of a car and wheeled down an embankment in a thwarted murder attempt. Her eyes dart about, she shifts uncomfortably, her brows furrow in agitation — she’s hiding something. These aren’t the gross caricatures of facial expressions we’re used to in video games, they are subtle and natural. Later, the gamer talks to a weasely prop house owner who has been caught running a seedy casting coach. He snarls his way through the session, but after a few threats he wilts, his expression droops. At times, it is almost photographic.
What LA Noire represents is a new era for interactive entertainment. Over the past 30 years, games have been based around challenging the player’s hand-eye co-ordination — the ability to react quickly with a controller. But in LA Noire, the main skill is emotional perception, being able to judge body language and facial “tells” — the little nervous tics that betray liars. These are the same skills we use in real life and that allow us to engage with characters in TV and movie dramas. Suddenly then, games are a universal medium.
They have hinted at this before. Last year’s grueling psychological drama Heavy Rain required players to engage with troubled characters and carry out simple detective work, while the Mass Effect series of science-fiction adventures has provided a rich, emotional narrative. But the naturalism, the human drama of these games, has always been held back by slightly lifeless character models.
Central to the human realism in LA Noire is the motion-scan technology, a new method of capturing facial expressions, researched and developed by the game’s creators, the Sydney-based studio, Team Bondi. Standard motion-capture means that the actor’s face is covered in small, reflective balls, which are tracked by a camera. “The problem with that is that having little balls on someone’s face doesn’t really capture the muscles or the skin movement,” says McNamara. “It just captures skeletons and there aren’t that many joints in the human face.” But with motion-scan, each actor is surrounded by 32 cameras, which record every intricate movement at the rate of 1,000 frames-per-second, creating a three-dimensional animation of the actor’s face as they deliver lines. All of this is captured in a special studio, complete with stark, white lighting: “When we first described this weird process to the actors, they thought they were going to be reprogrammed, like Alex in A Clockwork Orange,” jokes McNamara.