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L.A. Noire plays in the shadows

The upcoming Rockstar Games release is more investigation than shoot-'em-up — a risky move. What's the big idea? The faces will tell the story.

April 24, 2011|By Ben Fritz, Los Angeles Times
  • Thirty-two cameras are aimed at actor Aaron Staton to capture his every move for transformation into Det. Cole Phelps in the video game "L.A. Noire."
Thirty-two cameras are aimed at actor Aaron Staton to capture his every… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

Aaron Staton is used to being in front of cameras. But it wasn't until the actor best known as ad account executive Ken Cosgrove on "Mad Men" starred in the video game L.A. Noire that he acted in front of 32 of them.

On a winter morning in a warehouse in Culver City that has been turned into a makeshift acting and game development studio, Staton was wrapping up his last day on the job. Sitting alone in a small room surrounded by the dozens of cameras and pupil-shrinking lights that eliminate any hint of a shadow, he worked his way through one gritty line after another — the type most people haven't heard since the days of, well, noir.

"A 15-year-old girl told me she was drugged and molested at a casting house with a mermaid out front," Staton growled. On the other side of a thin white wall, Brendan McNamara talked into a headset. "Make it a little more urgent," the game director said with his Australian accent. "This guy throws his rival off a roof."

By the next day, a bank of servers helped transform the performance into Det. Cole Phelps, an animated character who isn't so much based on Staton as possessed by him. Every dart of the eyes, tilt of the head and crinkle of the skin caught by those 32 cameras can be seen in the game, making for an eerily lifelike performance.

It's not uncommon for video games to feature professional actors doing voice work and even motion-captured movement. But McNamara was searching for something different in L.A. Noire: a video game in which players spend less time shooting people and more time interrogating them. "People hear about this game and they wonder what buttons they press, but it's not about that," McNamara explained. "It's doing what your brain has been doing for millions of years: Reading faces."

Seven years in the making, L.A. Noire (due out May 17) is the latest release from Rockstar Games, the company forever associated in most people's minds with its blockbuster Grand Theft Auto series. However, the New York publisher has long struggled to find another series that could stand behind it, with titles such as Bully and Manhunt falling well short. Rockstar finally hit the jackpot in 2010 with Red Dead Redemption, which sold 8 million units and swept industry awards.

It also revived the western at a time when it was virtually dead not only in video games but the larger pop culture. The company has mined different angles of the crime drama with its GTA sequels and is now looking to do the same with noire. "This is a very risky game, but it's also consistent with what they are known for," said Adam Sessler, co-host of the video game news show "X-Play" on cable network G4. "There's no other game developer with Rockstar's interest in mining American mythologies."

L.A. Noire shares traits with GTA and Red Dead such as a huge, open world — in this case 8 square miles of 1947 Los Angeles, from downtown to Hollywood, faithfully re-created with the help of a cadre of historians. But it stands out from most big-budget games for one simple reason: It's not a shooter or a fantasy role-playing game or any of the other industry-standard genres on which publishers are typically comfortable spending tens of millions of dollars. Action, in fact, is minimal, and there's no online multi-player, a de rigueur feature for most big-budget games nowadays.

Making a game centered on investigation is inherently a chancy proposition. Players raised on a diet of fast-paced shooting and epic action sequences might struggle to stay interested with the more methodical tasks of investigation and interrogation, no matter how stylish the backdrop is. With the exception of sports simulations and a few long-lasting and well-known brands such as Super Mario and the Sims, hit games in the U.S. not centered on shooting, stabbing or stomping are rare. Other games that emphasize style over action, like last year's murder mystery, Heavy Rain, have been modest sellers.

"This is a very bold move in that most people won't really be able to understand what it is until they play it," said Andy McNamara, editor in chief of the gamer magazine Game Informer (and no relation to the game director). "I don't think it could have gotten made at any other company."

But Rockstar, about to kick off a significant marketing campaign for its latest creation, believes L.A. Noire can be a hit among an audience much broader than the typical young male gamers. They're going after people who watch police procedurals like "Law & Order" and "CSI." "I think it's going to appeal to a very broad audience that is familiar with this type of thing in television or movies but never before in interactive entertainment," said Jeronimo Barerra, vice president of product development for Rockstar.

And Brendan McNamara said that if nothing else, he's confident L.A. Noire takes his chosen art form in a much needed direction. "If the future of games is only about body count," he said, "then it's not a very interesting future."

Going on a hunch

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