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Tribecca Talks: L.A. Noire

redlipstickmurder.jpg

It may have seemed an odd choice, for the 2011 Tribecca Film Festival to feature a videogame, but when the title in question is Rockstar's L.A. Noire, it makes a lot more sense. As part of the Tribecca Talks program, a special "screening" of L.A. Noire was held, followed by a discussion and Q&A.

The screening was in fact just watching Nick Patterson from Rockstar playing through one of the homicide cases in the game, but after the first few scenes where PR Director Simon Ramsey took the time to explain to the uninitiated how the gameplay worked and what Nick was doing at certain moments, the audience just settled in and watched the mystery unfold before them.

While the case demonstrated was the same one Rockstar was showing at PAX, "The Red Lipstick Murder," the extra time afforded to them at this screening allowed them to play through the entire mystery. So instead of just cutting the demo short after an interrogation of a suspect ended in fisticuffs, the action continued as the player followed up another lead that led to the actual killer. And after a chase sequence that started out on foot on the rooftops and ended up on the streets in cars, the murderer was arrested, and the chief offered his congratulations on a job well done.

Oddly, watching someone play through L.A. Noire was more like watching a movie, which made it a good fit with the Tribecca Film Festival. And seeing the entire mystery unfold was fascinating. This time through, the dialogue was the same, but there were new clues that they found searching the locations that they didn't waste time with at PAX. Some of which seemed to have nothing to do with the case, but at the end, it seemed that there was another interrogation you could have done that they skipped, so perhaps those clues factored into that conversation.

During the discussion that followed, some more questions were answered. First was how Rockstar managed to achieve such a brilliant amount of detail in the facial animations during the interrogation scenes. That's due to a new multi-camera performance-capturing technology. "This was a technology that was developed for the sole purpose of making games better," said producer Rob Nelson. "Traditional means of capturing facial performance for films and games can be done a couple of different ways. You can put a camera in front of an actor's face and then you just get one 2D video that you then map onto a 3D mesh to make it move. And it works to varying degrees. And then another way is you can put markers on people's faces and you track the motion of their muscles and that also works to varying degrees. And this is called MotionScan, and it's basically a room with 32 HD cameras set up around the actor at all different angles and they're all capturing this 2D HD video and then they reconstruct that video into a moving 3D mesh and then the game compresses that down into something we can run."

And while in this case they've been demoing, the suspects are very obvious with their facial tics when they're lying, Ramsey assured us that in later cases, suspects will get better at lying and you'll have a harder time deducing whether or not they're telling the whole truth. We'll just have to see about that.

In addition to revealing that there will be plenty of side cases to tackle and hidden items to discover in the brilliantly recreated 1947 Los Angeles, they mentioned also that detectives who are looking for more of the adventure instead of the action will be in luck. "We work from a design perspective to try and make it as accessible as we could," explained Nelson. "Particularly with the twitch-based reflex timing action elements of it. For instance, when he was sliding down pipes or climbing ladders, all that stuff happens automatically as you approach it. It feels really good. We worked hard to get that feeling right. And in terms of the chases and the shooting, we have things in there where, if you fail the chase three times in a row, we'll bring up a message and just say 'Do you want to skip this?' So you can skip these action elements and still experience the main bulk of the narrative."

This is intriguing, because the interactive-movie feel of L.A. Noire could bring in an audience who may not be equipped to deal with the typical Rockstar firefights and car chases. So giving a more casual gamer another option to reach the end of the storyline will help them from getting too frustrated while still giving the hardcore gamer enough challenges to keep them busy.

It was also interesting to hear them talk about the different pathways that can be taken to get through each case. While their demo obviously took the shortest route, if a license plate number wasn't obtained during a particular questioning, another location opens up where you will still be able to get your hands on the crucial clue. So there are different ways to solve each case, some easier than others. And because L.A. Noire was developed solely as a single-player experience, multiplayer is decidedly not an in-game experience. "The multiplayer aspect of this game is sitting in a room with other people and talking about it," Nelson declared, "and then talking about it the next day saying, 'Did you go to the diner and talk to the guy about the license plate and it almost got robbed?'"

I was already excited for L.A. Noire, but this "screening" at the Tribecca Film Festival only served to whet my appetite further for Rockstar's latest open world game. The case we saw had a suspiciously pat ending, but perhaps the later cases in each division are less straightforward. The attention to period detail, from locations to wardrobe to props, is exacting and beautiful to look at, and the motion-capture and voice acting is first-rate. And from what I've seen of the gameplay, it looks like it's going to be just as solid. May 17 can't come soon enough!

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