Anatomy of a Blockbuster: LA Noire

Anatomy of a Blockbuster: LA Noire

By Stuart Richardson

July 12th 2011 at 12:00PM

Develop's monthly dissection of a recent hit game

L.A. Noire


Publisher:
Rockstar Games
Developer: Team Bondi
Format: PC/Mac, PS3, Xbox 360
Price: £34.99 – £49.99

Develop's index of all games featured in Anatomy of a Blockbuster can be found here.

THE SENSATION

When Allied troops returned home at the end of the Second World War, they found that civilian life had changed entirely in their absence. Women had proven themselves more than capable of performing jobs previously unavailable to them. The criminal underworld had flourished under the cover of international conflict.

The economies of the world’s major financial powers were in ruins. For many, the real hardships came after the guns had been silenced.

It was to this new world that a new type of fiction was born. One of stark cynicism, mean men and cold women. Of fog and smoke, and the glint of a pistol in the dark.

Noir embodied the fears and confusion of post-war society, and it produced some of the most iconic and entertaining stories ever told. Multi-layered and wildly bleak, it was a genre that, in its purest form, had long remained absent from videogames. Then, in 2003, Team Bondi set up shop in Australia.

THE GAME

Built around the gameplay model of the Grand Theft Auto series, L.A. Noire is a significant shift in gear to its spiritual predecessor. Taking on the role of L.A.P.D.

Detective Cole Phelps, players walk and drive around a meticulous recreation of Los Angeles circa 1947, taking care to go about their crime-solving within the confines of the law. Mowing down pedestrians is out, chasing down criminals through back alleys is in. Stealing jetpacks is out, collating evidence from crime scenes and building cases against a list of potential suspects is in.

Layered on top is detailed facial animation, so suspects’ little expressions shine a light on the line between lies and the truth.

L.A. Noire is a game inspired by a wealth of source material, and a time and place stuck firmly in the collective consciousness. You hardly even need the game’s tutorial missions. You’ve known how to play it since you saw L.A. Confidential.

THE STUDIO

When new Australian studio Team Bondi began work on its first game in 2003, the idea was quickly picked up by SCEA, and PlayStation exclusivity was secured.

Five years later, the game changed hands to Rockstar Games, which confirmed it was working with Team Bondi on L.A. Noire, a PS3 exclusive, period GTA clone set for release in 2008. Expectation and excitement flourished.

A slip of the tongue on a conference call and a financial disclosure later, and the project was a PS3 and Xbox 360 game delayed until 2009. It was also, however, starting to look like an interesting, cerebral third-person title. In early 2010, it was officially revealed and a final launch date was set. Team Bondi’s long development was complete, and years of anticipation were about to be met head on.

UNIQUE SELLING POINT

MotionScan. The manner in which Depth Analysis’ facial animation technique captures the entirety of an actor’s performance is of huge importance to the game.

In a dark interview room a man professes his innocence after the gruesome murder of his wife. You think he’s lying. Size eight boot prints were found at the scene of the crime and when you arrested him, he was burning size eight boots. The man looks away and gulps. It’s his tell, you caught it earlier when you interviewed him at home. Charge him.

WHY IT WORKS

Certain cultural tropes appeal across age, gender, class and national barriers. Every major international centre of film had its own Noir period. The archetype of the fedora-wearing anti-hero struggling to save a girl who doesn’t want saving speaks in a way that goes beyond explanation. It’s just really cool.

Getting to be that anti-hero and taking on a vast, complex and ubiquitous conspiracy that holds the entire city of Los Angeles in a choke-hold is really, really cool.

TRY IT YOURSELF

L.A. Noire succeeds because of its willingness to build on the expectations of Noir that already exist, while remaining entirely faithful to its source material.

Leaps of in-game perspective and the power of historical hindsight are exploited for memorable dramatic or comic effect: “Next you’ll be telling me Nixon’s a crook!”
In transplanting such a loaded canon of material into a game format, Team Bondi understood that they had to find the threads that ran from 1947 Los Angeles to the 2011 international videogames community.

And it’s a method that will work again. Ask yourself, how does Victorian adventure fiction relate to people today? What about the Golden Age of comics? What does the Russian existentialist movement really mean to 2011?