Overlap - Investigations in new and forgotten storytelling

Interactive Drama and the Pixel-Perfect Performance

Last month, Rockstar released its gritty detective game LA Noire. Accompanied by an anthology of short stories, the console game sold itself on its use of narrative, 1940s setting and the talent involved in its creation. With a cast including Mad Men’s Aaron Staton, Heroes’ Greg Grunberg and Fringe’s John Noble, many of the game’s 400 actors are recognisable from their television roles in both voice and appearance. However, one of the  game’s largest innovations is its use of “MotionScan”, a new form of facial motion capture. The technology can reproduce nuances in performances that previous systems are unable to – crucial to a game where body language is used to detect the truthfulness of suspects’ testimonies.

LA Noire isn’t new in its attempt to combine traditional performance with gameplay; voice acting has long been ubiquitous in the videogames. There is also a long history of interactive dramas, movies and cut scenes attempting to close the gap between between games and film. Over three decades, this use of performance has influenced opinions on how games fit with more traditional media.

Deus Ex Machina was an oddity when it emerged on 8-bit computers in 1984 – and still is. The game charted the rather abstract life of a mutated creature living in “the machine” and took themes from Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man”. The experience was backed by a cassette tape soundtrack and featured a cast including Ian Dury, Jon Pertwee and Frankie Howerd. The player was required to pause and resume the tape at various points to augment the onscreen experience. A sequel is planned for autumn 2011, featuring sir Christopher Lee.

Aside from Deus Ex Machina’s accompanying soundtrack, many early games featuring speech used speech synthesis. In 1980, Atari’s Berzerk used the technique due to the high cost of digitising real actors but by 1983 games such as Impossible Mission were already using small amounts of real vocals. Dragon’s Lair offered movie-quality animation and sound when it hit arcades in 1983, using laserdisc technology to create the first commercial “interactive movie”. The technique offered little control, with players’ actions triggering a series of video clips. Despite these limitations, the game saw huge success in arcades thanks to its lavish visuals. Laserdiscs brought rich content to arcade games through the 1980s and into the 1990s, when American Laser Games released games including Mad Dog McCree and Who Shot Johnny Rock. The latter, a 1930s-set detective story, featured a mixture of live-action interrogation scenes alongside shooting sequences.

The shift to CD-ROM brought big changes to home console and computer games in the 1990s, including the introduction of “full motion video” content. Dragon’s Lair and Who Shot Johnny Rock made the transition from expensive arcade machines to home consoles such as Philips CD-i, Panasonic’s 3DO and Sega’s Mega CD peripheral for its Mega Drive console. Full motion video was used to controversial effect in Sega’s interactive horror movie Night Trap, kickstarting discussion on the classification of video games. Entangled in the same debate, Mortal Kombat used digitised animations of real martial artists in gruesome fights to the death. Videogames were seen to have the same emotional effect as traditional media, in no small part due to the inclusion of real-life performers.

Over the rest of the 1990s, animated and live-action cut scenes became the norm for games. Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger marked a watershed moment in 1994, with a cast that included Star Wars actor Mark Hamill. The game was frequently compared to an interactive movie, although the gameplay revolved around a 3D space combat simulation. The difference between gameplay and movie segments in games could be jarring, with the quality of graphics in pre-rendered clips vastly superior to their in-game counterparts. As computers and consoles became more powerful, developers began to focus on integrating performance and cut scenes into the gameplay environment. In games like Grand Theft Auto 4 and the Uncharted series, characters are taken out of the player’s control and act out a crucial scene of the story before control is returned. In rare cases where video is still used for cut scenes, parity between in-game content and pre-rendered content is preserved, or a completely different style is employed as with the 2D cartoon segments in Mirror’s Edge.

Voice acting, character motion capture and character appearance are usually created separately in videogames. Heavy Rain, released for PlayStation 3 in 2010, deviated from this. The game was billed as an “interactive drama” and featured gameplay that took a different approach to both interactive movies and traditional adventure games. Voice, motion capture and visual appearance where provided by its cast, as with LA Noire. This created emotionally engaging performances in a game that demanded a lot from its digital actors.

Like games before it, LA Noire uses performance to tell stories and aid immersion. The game ambitious plot and technical achievements in capturing performance have fuelled speculation about the future of performance in games, and whether LA Noire can influence Hollywood’s view of the industry. From Street Fighter to Doom, Dead or Alive to the live action Super Mario Bros (above), the treatment of game worlds changes drastically when adapted for movies. As the talent and performances used in videogames converge with the film industry, the film-of-the-game may become little more than a sit-back part of the interactive experience. It could become common for stories and characters to shift media intact and narrative arcs to span formats, just like LA Noire’s ebook crime thrillers. This is already happening, albeit the opposite way round. The BBC released the four-part Doctor Who: The Adventure Games in 2010. Existing in the show’s canon and penned by two of Doctor Who’s scriptwriters, the downloadable games represent four additional episodes of Doctor Who’s fifth season, with more planned in 2011. Perhaps one day we’ll see a television series produced as an extra chapter to a game. In the meantime, we can look forward to games with a much more human cast of characters.


Category: Transmedia, Videogames

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  • Rob

    Funny or Die have just done LA Noire - http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/a4fd788ce7/real-life-l-a-noire?rel=player

  • http://www.umbeehosting.co.uk/managed-hosting/ Peter@Managed Hosting

    La Noire, the best interactive drama in most games and such the best gameplay I’d ever know! It’s real 3D made a true copy from man.

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