It’s not often you can say that you’ve seen a game that actually, factually shook the landscape in its design or use of technology. There are few titles that can claim to have been that kind of jaw-dropping experience - a reminder of how fast game technology was moving. That said, it feels safe to say that L.A. Noire was such an experience. By use of cutting-edge facial capture technology at the time, L.A. Noire was a shocking development in the experience of video games and, on its 10th anniversary, it still feels like a turning point for showing what games could do or convey.
The crux of L.A. Noire was a detective story in which crime scene investigation and witness interviews played a massive roll in the overall rollout of the game. Team Bondi worked themselves to the bone to ensure that the details, from the extravagant to the absolutely miniscule, were the best they could be with what they had at the time. And at the center of this crime noire investigative narrative? Facial animation that could properly convey emotion like we’d never seen before.
Team Bondi first revealed the debut of the technology it was using to achieve this result, as reported by Gamasutra in 2010, when the game was still in development. By utilizing the MotionScan technology from sister company Depth Analysis, Team Bondi was able to produce real-time scans of character actors’ faces for use in the game. This created faces and animation that portrayed incredible nuance. We got to see confidence, anger, sadness, fear, shock, fragility, and more on a level of incredible realism for the time. I remember playing the game when it first came out and thinking this was it. This was the new apex of what games could be and there was no going back.
Heck, most outlets and critics of the time couldn’t deny the sheer effect of this technology regardless of their opinion on the game. The Guardian, PlayStation: The Official Magazine, and further critics compared the overall production and quality behind protagonist Cole Phelps’ investigations to feature film and television. Even critics of the game had trouble avoiding praise for the facial animation feature. Eurogamer ran an interview several months after L.A. Noire’s launch that positioned the game’s issues in such a way that the quality of the facial capture actually made lesser aspects of the game stand out that much more (sort of a backhanded compliment in a certain light). It seems pretty clear, even if you liked nothing else about L.A. Noire, the work Team Bondi did on bringing its characters to life was beyond impeccable for the time.
Wildly aggressive in old-time Los Angeles
Pretty much anyone who played through L.A. Noire will likely recall two major aspects of the game after the facial features. For one, the sheer quality Team Bondi poured into recreating a late 1940s/early 1950s was pretty amazing. Driving around L.A. in that game was quite a trip to say the least, thanks in no small part to Team Bondi going out of its way to collect reference content from both modern day and of-the-time photos, news clips, and further material. It doesn’t quite stand out the way the facial animation does simply because the latter was front and center at all times, but it was clear that Bondi put effort into creating an outstanding realistic representation of the setting and its time period.
The other thing that stood out to me and likely many others was just how silly aggressive Cole Phelps was in his investigative style. Remember the first time you hit the ‘Doubt’ option in L.A. Noire and Phelps laid into the suspect as if they’d just kicked his dog and spilled hot coffee on his lap before he started questioning them? Yeah. It was a source of much surprise and many a joke well after the game’s launch.
Again, in Eurogamer, director Brendan McNamura would go on to try to explain why that was the case. What would become “truth, doubt, and lie” choices in the final version of L.A. Noire was once “coax, force, and lie.” In a sense, this change confused the matter of player input. It seems pretty clear that the original set of choices would dictate the attitude in which Cole addressed subjects. What we got instead seemed more like quizzes on what we thought of a suspect's testimony. It was one of those things that could sometimes take a player out of the game, but looking back, the ridiculously over-the-top responses you sometimes got out of Cole also became an ongoing joke and part of the game’s charm.
Ten years removed from the big case
L.A. Noire came out on May 17, 2011. It was hardly without flaw, but one thing was clear: Rockstar and Team Bondi set a new bar for games that couldn’t be denied. The emotive quality of the technology used in L.A. Noire took it to a tier in storytelling and narrative expression that we hadn’t yet seen in video games of its type at the time. Like it or hate it, the dour journey of Cole Phelps and the characters that surrounded him in L.A. Noire had an effect that would shape the way we thought about 3D animation and games for the time that came after. For what it did right, L.A. Noire’s impact was undeniable, and it belongs among the titles we talk about when it comes to the conversation of turning points in the advance of games and the technology we use to create them.
TJ Denzer posted a new article, L.A. Noire 10 years later: Changing the face of the game
The faces were impressive but the hands on the other... Hand.
<Crosses fingers for LA NOIRE 1985 to be announced this summer>
(Note that I am just making that title up, but based on rumours a 70s or 80s era game could be in the works?)