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LA Noire developer interview - Telegraph

le 23 janvier 2011

Les créateurs de LA Noire, le prochain jeu de Rockstar Games, se confient au Telegraph (en anglais).

Set in 1940’s Los Angeles, LA Noire is looking to break new ground for video games with its revolutionary motion capture technology and in depth detective gameplay. I visited the City of Angels to chat to Team Bondi’s founder Brendan McNamara and Vice President of development at Rockstar, Jeronimo Barrera.

The first I heard of LA Noire was a trailer I saw of a rooftop chase in the game back in 2006. It looked like fun, but it didn’t really prepare me for what I saw last week. So how did you get from there to here, and was facial mo-cap technology always at the forefront of the game – because there’s no hint of that in the early trailer.

Jeronimo Barrera : Well, it was definitely in the plan (laughs).

Brendan McNamara : Definitely. When I was at Sony I was doing research on how you could capture people without using markers and balls and all that sort of stuff, because I was never that interested in skeletons. I was more interested in what people’s faces look like and you could never really get that in games at the time.

Even back then on the PS2, most of us knew a lot about building pretty buildings and cityscapes and that sort of thing, but we didn’t really know how to inject a lot of humanity into our games. It was still a work in process.

When I went to Rockstar and met with Jay and Sam (Houser) and pitched the game at them, the whole idea behind we thought it would work – and why it hadn’t worked previously – was wrapped up in those interrogation scenes that you get in TV shows or film, when the audience is able to read people’s faces. They work because the audiences have to be able read their faces and see whether they believe them, or sympathise because they’re breaking down and that sort of stuff.

So, we’d done a lot of research and a lot of tech demos. We’d come to New York every few months or so, and the guys there would see us coming through the door and go, ‘oh man ! Not another head demo !’ That happened for a while. It wasn’t in context yet – we could just show these disembodied heads which showed what the tech was capable of…

JB : But we were building the game at the time…

BM : Oh yeah, all the game was happening in the background, but that facial capture was the main thing that indicated the game was going to work the way we wanted it to. That was all risky and difficult too ; it meant that the game was going to be different from anything we’d done before – and anything Jay had done before.

JB : Yeah, but we didn’t set out to make another, you know, crime GTA style game based in Los Angeles. We knew we were going to use some pretty revolutionary technology. Through that process we believe we’re pretty much creating a new genre of video games.

I think people are going to be surprised by the pacing of it – and in a good way. This game opens up a lot of potential for new gamers to come in and found out what the medium’s all about. We don’t necessarily have to have a high body count anymore for a game to be fun. You can have something that’s far more cerebral and engaging and compelling, because you’re watching human performances on screen.

Is that ‘easy access’ aspect what prompted the casting of jobbing Hollywood talent ? A new gamer can look at say, Aaron Staten and feel a bit more at home with the game ?

BM : I think…The main thing about coming to LA was, there’s a great body of talent we can pool out here. Did we want a big star in the game ? No, not necessarily, but we do want quality actors.

For me… well, Dan (Houser) had been watching Mad Men and he thought Aaron would make a great choice for the lead in the game and that was a little left field for me. But when you look at it, it’s quite an inspired choice. The character Aaron plays is conflicted and has quite a bit of depth and Aaron is great at conveying those things.

The real choice wasn’t just star power, it was acting quality. I mean, in the past you’d stick your development team in your game. You can’t do that anymore in a game like this using the technology we’ve got currently. It just wouldn’t hold up.

Rockstar’s used Hollywood talent in the past and it’s brought Hollywood production levels to its games as far as the audio goes. Now, with this Depth Analysis technology, the game requires very believable characters and that’s only possible through great acting. We’ve got that, by the way ; the cast of LA Noire is incredible.

Does using Hollywood actors and actresses present you with a new list of challenges in making the game ?

JB : I think there’s a new challenge in the way we’re developing this game because of the nature of the technology, we have to do the development in a very linear way – the way you would in Hollywood.

Once the actors come in and do their line, boom, we’re done. We don’t manipulate anything after the fact. That’s the great thing about the tech ; it’s very plug-in and play.

BM : What you see is what you get.

JB : Exactly ! It’s not like we can go in there afterwards and say “oh, we don’t like that line, so we’ll manipulate his mouth a little so it looks like he’s saying something else”, because the tech doesn’t work that way.

We had to be very sure of what we want to capture, so the whole game was done and in the can story-wise front to back with static heads and subtitles. Then we started filming and now we’re doing the pickups for areas where we need to fill in some holes.

BM : To answer the rest of your question, yes – we’ve had to deal with casting agents and such, but then again, Rockstar’s had to deal with that sort of thing in the past. But yeah, it does add to the already very complicated process for making a video game.

I notice you had a director on the project too. Do either of you take a part in the directorial process as far as the actors are concerned ?

JB : Yeah, we do. We had Mike (Uppendahl) do some of the directing for us. And that was good because he’s very familiar with the process. The thing about the actors – this generation of actors – a lot of them play games and they know the medium very well.

There’s a bit of a shock value to the game for the actors ; when they see themselves on the screen, they’re completely surprised as to how close to life the graphics look.

I imagine the two-tier process of the mo-cap and face-cap is pretty new to them though.

JB : Oh yeah.

What attracted you to the setting of LA Noire ? Did you always want to set an adventure during this period ?

BM : Yeah, I’m a huge fan of James Ellroy and I just finished his last book recently. I’m also a massive fan of Chandler and Hammett. Film-wise and literature-wise I’ve always been interested in the period. The challenge of setting a game there was finding a hook – or a number of different hooks – that would kind of work in that setting.

When we were changing console generations from PS2 to PS3 I was interested to see that we could do lighting properly for the first time – that opened up the possibility of doing a film noire genre game properly because lighting’s such a huge factor – the technology opened up far more possibilities.

Story-wise, the game’s about the same length as two full seasons of a TV show, so there’s ample space in there to develop a rich, lush plot which of course makes use of what was going on at the time in LA.

JB : We love to explore all sorts of period settings so for us it’s a perfect match.

I imagine there’s some pretty heavy subject matter – race, sex, police brutality – that you could use to inform the plot…

BM : There is, yeah…

JB : Oh yeah, if you read anything from that time period – news articles or crime scene photography – it’s incredibly gruesome. I think that a lot of people have a very rosy view of the past during that period but it wasn’t like that at all. It was very dirty…

BM : Definitely. When we were doing the research for the game it was an eye-opener. Back in those days you could literally have a picture on the front page of the newspaper of a woman who had been cut in half. There was a level of brutality that was accepted in that age ; people had got used to it during the Second World War and that allowed for that sort of editorial judgement in a paper, which over time changed. You would never see something like that now. Plus newspapers were coming out three or four times a day at that time and they weren’t just news, they were a sort of entertainment back then too.

People had a harder life back then too. When we were sourcing costumes for this game we got to look at the costumes of people like Judy Garland and Humphry Bogart – and it’s amazing how small they all were. But this was a generation that had been through the depression and it had been through the war, so they’d had it a lot tougher. Still, they can out of it all with an amazing optimism. After all, they built America after that, so there you go…

That sense of optimism that the country had post-war was appealing to me. I’m from the Vietnam generation so when I was growing up, America was kind of a pariah. But they’d gone from this point at the end of the Second World War where they’d defeated the bad guys I was interested as to how everyone’s perception of them had fallen so far.

I was also interested in including the early days of Hollywood. That place, growing up, was presented to the world as filled with glitz and glamour and we all just lapped it up, but the underside of that was totally different.

JB : From a gameplay point of view, the player’s taking the role of Phelps – who’s a good guy, and he’s your moral compass of the time. So you have the role of someone who’s trying to do good in increasingly bad situations.

It’s a bit more of an mature experience. When we show LA Noire to people – who are all familiar with GTA – they play it a different way. They keep the same car, they stick to the speed limit. The avoid fender-benders and they stick to the assignments they’re tasked with. They behave, more like they would in a real world setting.

The whole feel of the game is like you’re in a time machine and you’re exploring an earlier period in time. You lose yourself very quickly…

It’s very immersive. I wasn’t sure to begin with in the demo which parts were being played and which were cinematic.

BM : We get that a lot. That’s what we’re going for. We wanted you to feel a part of the world.

Do you think LA Noire is indicative of the fact that open-world sandbox genre games are growing up ? This is nothing like the cartoonish world of GTA III. Now with games like this and Red Dead Redemption, do you feel you have more potential to explore more mature themes with your games ?

JB : Well, this isn’t really a sandbox game. You’re not going to go out and create your own gameplay. This is story-driven. The world is open for the player to explore and there are activities which may allow you to deviate from the straight and narrow – for example, on the way to a crime-scene you may get a call that a bank heist is in progress and you may want to head over there and stop it. You can explore the city and find LA landmarks and such.

But what’s compelling about LA Noire is how you’re been driven through the game. This game is about picking up objects and connecting them with someone who is lying to you. It’s about collecting evidence in parts. It sounds simple but it’s insanely compelling.

The city is a backdrop to the story and the crimes in the plot and the overall narrative arch, rather than a playground.

It’s an evolution in game design, that’s for sure. We’re taking an old genre, but we’re not revitalising it. This is open-world with some classic adventure elements, but we’re using new technology to connect characters with the player in such a way that has never been done for. To me, this is the next step for games of this type.

It’s quite a bold move for Rockstar making this game. You’re asking players to connect on a level they perhaps haven’t previously with characters in games, and the pace is a lot more sedate…

JB : That’s the trickiest thing to get right. Blending in the action in such a way so it doesn’t feel like it’s just been crow-barred in there for the sake of it is pretty tough. It’s paced like a TV show. If you watch CSI or Law & Order there might, for example, be an alleyway chase ; those are the sort of bursts of action we’re talking about here. We knew we had to get it right so it wouldn’t feel tacked on.

BM : We know we’re asking a lot from players. We’re asking them to connect with characters and remember names and faces and events. The cases are long – they can last from just under an hour to an hour – and players will have a bit more of a cerebral experience because they’re going to be more than pulling a trigger.

JB : There’s still elements of gameplay they’ll recognise, but the experience is altogether different. The thing is, you won’t actually understand until you play it yourself.

When the trailer came out a lot of people asked us when we would reveal the gameplay footage and we were like, the trailer is all gameplay footage. People are still sceptical that this is the case because in the game industry there are a lot of examples where publishers have released these great trailers of pre-rendered cut-scenes and then consumers have bought the game and it’s turned out to be rubbish. With our trailer, it’s not canned, and what you see is what you go.

BM : It is risky, but hell, Rockstar has been taking risks in this industry since GTA III.

JB : With all our games… they’ve all been incredibly cinematic experiences, but it’s been a challenge to be viewed as a legitimate medium. We’re definitely blurring the lines now. I want this game to be the flashpoint where people start to think of games and film as being on the same level as entertainment, because I’m confident they already are.

BM : Sam Houser keeps on asking where this medium can go. It’s key for every game we make.

By Nick Cowen 12:35PM GMT 05 Jan 2011