Friday, May 27, 2011

Outside The Bit: The Face of Innovation

Hey everybody! It's time, once again, for a heaping helping of one of my favorite features, Outside The Bit! For those who don't remember, this is the time where a guest writer comes in and enlightens all of us with a fresh gaming perspective. After all, Heaven knows that a person can have too much BitNick... Even I stop listening to me after a while.

That's why we're saved today by Warza, an old friend of mine, and the man who gave us our last OTB, Gaming in the Cold (War). His last contribution was a great read, and if you haven't had the chance to brush up on it yet, I would heartily recommend it.

That said, the article Warza has for us today tackles some thought-provoking issues about technology and games, and it's a fantastic read.

I hope you all enjoy the article, and, as they say in Los Angeles, "Let the 8-Bit Show begin!"


The Face of Innovation:
L.A. Noire and the Future of Gaming

By Warza

I've experienced a revolution in video gaming this week. I've been playing L.A. Noire ever since it came out on May 17th, and I like what I've seen. The game is very "L.A.", and it's very "Noire", and that is a good thing. But the unique thing that this game brings to the table is also what makes it such an engaging experience: L.A. Noire features a groundbreaking new technique for animating faces in-game, and it is this technology that has forever changed the way I think about what video games are capable of.
If you're not familiar with what L.A. Noire has done, it goes kind of like this: Instead of animating character's faces by hand, with an animator tweaking every facial movement from lips to eyebrows, L.A. Noire's development team used dozens of high resolution cameras at various angles to record actors and import their performances into the game. Rockstar's official video showing this process can be found here:

If you haven't seen this before, I recommend watching it somewhere with a soft carpet. The first time I saw it, my jaw hit the floor like a sack of quarters.

In the game, you play as a detective who investigates, interviews, and interrogates people, all in the name of finding culprits and catching crooks. The facial recreation technology at play has a purpose in L.A. Noire, and that purpose is to give each character a face so real that you can scrutinize them to determine if they are telling you the truth, or if they're lying through their teeth... You know... like we're used to doing to our elected officials.

The developers of L.A. Noire have incorporated reading facial expressions into their game as a new gameplay mechanic and it feels as fresh and original as they hoped it would. I haven't experienced a new gameplay mechanic that's as fun, and works as well as L.A. Noire's facial expression interrogations since the first time I shot a Portal gun in Valve's puzzling masterpiece.

Because our brains are built to evaluate faces, interviewing people in L.A. Noire, and changing your interviewing style in order to determine "truthiness" (Thank you, Stephen Colbert), is incredibly engaging. From cases of people with very specific brain injuries who have lost the ability to recognize faces but not objects, and vice versa, scientists who study the brain have been able to determine that a certain portion of our brain is dedicated to recognizing, and evaluating faces. (Side note: is there anything that makes you sound more intelligent than being able to say you are a brain scientist?) Flipping through the manual for L.A. Noire, I came across some tips for the interview sections of the game. The manual suggests that you trust your instincts. "You have many years of practice at reading... subconscious-signals." I rebelled for a second. "Many years? I just got this game today!" And then I stopped and thought. It wasn't referring to any experience I had playing games; it was referring instead to my experience as a human being, reading the faces of other humans. This was intriguing to me on an entirely new level.

Faces in games have gone from this...

To this! Look how far we've come... And yet, where are
the jet packs! We were promised JET PACKS!
This new way to portray non-player characters lends itself to a new way to tell stories. Being able to read the subtle tics in the faces of even the most minor character fleshes them out in a way that has never been seen before in games. Even the minor-est of minor characters in L.A. Noire feels more realized than the protagonists of many contemporary releases. Combine this with the fact that L.A. Noire is easily the best written game of the year, and you're set to get an immensely compelling narrative. I haven't cared this much about a game's storyline since Red Dead Redemption.

When L.A. Noire is being itself (i.e. innovative and paradigm shifting), it is fantastic. When it's trying to be something else, the result is not as inspiring. L.A. Noire is kind of like two games: a genre-pioneering detective story, and a mediocre free roam game. When you're not investigating, sometimes you have to chase people on foot and by car, and even *groan* shoot stuff. These sections of the game are repetetive, run-of-the-mill, and the play-control is as stiff as an Englishman's upper lip. I can guess why the quality is so poor, but I can only speculate as to why there were included in the first place.

These action elements are obviously poor because polishing them would have diverted time and resources away from developing the all-important core of the game. However, I can think of no other reason for them to be included beyond the fact that this is a Rockstar game, and when people pick up a game with the "R and Star" logo, they expect to be able to drive around, and shoot things.

"Detective... This thing handles like The Titanic."
I wonder how long it will be before we can branch out and let a game like L.A. Noire be itself. Books and movies have dozens of genres, and L.A. Noire should be in the mystery or detective genre. Instead, due to our expectations it has been pigeonholed into that overarching genre that encompasses almost all video games: shooting and fighting. Look at three of the most popular franchises (both critically and in overall sales) in the industry: Halo, Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto. The play-mechanics of those games can be summed up thus: Shooting, Shooting and Shooting cops and hookers, respectively.

We need more breakout games like The Sims. Regardless of your feelings on that series, it has accomplished the remarkable task of popularizing a new style of gameplay. The Sims developed a new goal structure that rewarded the player in a ways different from the "traditional" game structure, wherein the final boss is defeated after a slogging conflict, with or without spilling alien blood by the bucketful. If we can find ways to encourage genre-defying breakouts, we can live in a world teeming with video gaming variety, which we all know is the spice of life. I think L.A. Noire could be that kind of game, if only we had let it.

So, if you get a chance, I hope you'll avail yourself of the opportunity to try L.A. Noire. I hope you will enjoy it for the ways in which it is different and original, and forgive it for the ways in which it blandly follows the pack. This facial scanning technology has blown the horizon wide open for new ways for us to play and interact with our games. I thrill at the prospects for interactive, cinematic experiences that this technology makes possible. Now that the entrance fee in development has been paid, I hope Rockstar picks this technology up, and runs with it. Just imagining Grand Theft Auto V with these perfectly recreated faces gives my goosebumps goosebumps. Beyond that, who knows how many gameplay designs have been anxiously awaiting the ability to accurately portray people in games?
It's a brave new world out there. Let's reward the innovators, and help our medium to grow and diversify. I don't know about you, but there's only so much Halo I can take.


    It's so true!

    Great post, Warza. Hope to see you here often, you've got a great writing style all your own. :)

  2. The facial technology looks great for the game, and I always wondered why games didn't use the mapping system that movies use when doing CG characters more often...this looks like that system, but even more advanced because it doesn't require the use of the tracking points.

    As for letting a game like L.A. Noire stand on its own, I think the PC video game market is more diverse with these type of games, because the console market is harder to crack now because of the FPS appeal on them.

    Being that I own a PS3, and this seems like a "different" type of game that I may enjoy, I'll have to add it to my future list of games to play after I finish off my backlog...which may not happen though, because the world is ending in either 2012, or October 21st this year!

    BTW, watching that video made me wonder how these R&D guys get approval/money for their's gotta be pretty awesome using other people's money to come up with technology like this.

  3. @ Nick and Keira

    I'm sure Warza appreciates your kind words, where ever he is.... I'm sure it's a better place. :)

    @ Coffee

    I was especially impressed with the full-head mapping they did. You saw the actors actually getting their hair done in 1940's styles because it would show up in the game that way... That is some pretty intense tech.

    I agree with your thoughts on the PC market being a little more forgiving with allowing a game to be what it is. It does feel, however, that unless your game is a big ticket item (as in, it better have the word "craft" in the title), sales are a little bit depressed compared to the console realm. Then again, I am shooting from the hip on this one, and I could be totally wrong.


  4. As always - witty writing in this. I plan to acquire this game soon (got a buddy w/ it right now) - and I agree that it would be nice if we didn't have to bend to these sort of gaming conventions we're used to. I agree - you see a Rock Star game and you think driving and shooting - but to be honest those are my least-favorite parts of most of those games. Good to hear your impressions, as always. :)


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