LOS ANGELES — 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’s 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.”
McNamara and his core team of developers previously worked on Sony’s racing video game series the Getaway. In 2004 they formed their own studio in Sydney, Australia, called Team Bondi and set to work on L.A. Noire. As a fan of Humphrey Bogart films, the books of Raymond Chandler and the man he calls “Mr. Ellroy,” McNamara thought the then-in-development PlayStation 3 could for the first time create the genre’s foreboding shadows in a video game.
Developing the story and setting was the easy part: In 1947 Los Angeles, a World War II-veteran-turned-police-detective is haunted by his actions at the Battle of Okinawa while he investigates crimes based on infamous real events, most notably the Black Dahlia murder. From music to lighting to case names like “the silk stocking murder” and “the red lipstick murder,” L.A. Noire was designed from the start to embody its title.
The problem was what the gameplay would be. McNamara knew he wanted to center it on interrogations but wasn’t sure how to translate that into something compelling for the player. Verbal sparring was too technically complex, and letting players beat the truth out of suspects resulted in almost comical barrages of smacking.
At the same time, however, McNamara had begun working with researcher Oliver Bao, who was developing a system called MotionScan to more accurately capture facial movements. Starting with two cameras in a shed, Bao’s dream was to re-create every nuance of the face in digital form without the help of an animator.
McNamara’s intention had been to use Bao’s technology for the narrative scenes in between the action. But he eventually realized that lifelike facial performances could be at the heart of it — players would analyze suspects’ facial tics and attempt to determine who’s telling the truth, who’s lying and where to take the investigation.
“The first half of developing this game was basically stick figures and texts,” recalled Barerra. “When the heads started coming on-line, it was a ‘Hallelujah!’ moment.”
Those heads were portrayed by Australian stand-ins until late 2009, when video production began in Los Angeles. More than 400 actors performed in the game, first by acting out their characters’ movements on a stage and then in the Culver City offices of Depth Analysis, where Bao is head of research.
It has taken more than a year of on-and off work to make it through a script that weighs in at a staggering 2,200 pages because of the multiple paths each investigation can take. The game features 20 cases as Phelps works his way through the Los Angeles Police Department’s traffic, robbery, arson and homicide desks, investigating crimes. In one, a boxer goes missing after winning a fixed fight he was supposed to lose. In another, a young woman comes to Hollywood with dreams of stardom and ends up raped and nearly dead.
On Day 82, according to a call sheet taped to the studio’s white walls, Staton was one of several actors wearing orange T-shirts who were going through hair and makeup before sitting in the blindingly bright room with the expensive cameras. Bao was proud to show off his technology but also paranoid about letting strangers get close. The last time someone accidentally tapped one of the cameras, he explains, it took nearly four hours to recalibrate the system.
Reading a teleprompter and staring at a mini-“Mona Lisa” as his eye line, the 33-year-old Staton rattled off lines like the video game pro he has become, though McNamara occasionally had to remind him to stop blocking his face with his hands. Speaking later on a bench outside, he acknowledged it has been a bizarre process as an actor and not at all what he expected when, in November 2009, he was offered a part in a game code-named “Hard Boiled.”
“With a television show or a movie, you have an idea of how it’s going to look because you were there,” he said. “In this, you feel very removed because the physical process was separate from the line reading. I have no idea how it will look when it all comes together.”
McNamara has a pretty good idea after all the time he and his colleagues have put into the game. The question is how many consumers will be as fascinated as he is in the underbelly of L.A. in the late 1940s. “The detective story has always been great in literature; it’s always been great in films,” he said.“We’re asking: ‘Why hasn’t it worked in video games?’”