Let’s get this out of the way right up front. L.A. Noire isn’t Grand Theft Auto V. Rockstar Games is thinking bigger with its latest game franchise. And that says something when you look at the 100 million units the Grand Theft Auto franchise has sold, including nearly 20 million copies of GTA IV alone. Although the game is Mature-rated like GTA IV, and it involves crime and has ESRB descriptors like violence, foul language, nudity and blood; Rockstar Games and developer Team Bondi are targeting a broader audience than they’ve ever set out to reach, and taking a risk, along the way.
“Rockstar is always trying to advance the medium in some way because we feel there’s untapped potential there,” said Rob Nelson, art director for L.A. Noire at Rockstar Games. “Before Red Dead Redemption, a lot of people thought the Western wasn’t a good setting for a video game. And we showed them that it was an amazing environment to explore.”
Brandon McNamara is best known to gamers as the director of development at Sony’s Team Soho Studio in London, which created The Getaway franchise. Now in Sydney, Australia, McNamara and his Team Bondi counterparts have been developing the technology necessary to bring interactive storytelling to the next level.
“With The Getaway, we set out to make a game where the motivation of the game was the story,” said McNamara. “The premise was your son gets kidnapped and what would you do to get him back. And I think there are a lot of people that can relate to that kind of situation. But it was an experiment.”
As an experiment, The Getaway worked, selling over 4 million copies worldwide. But after a sequel, Sony pulled the plug on a third Getaway game and McNamara left London and turned his attention to pushing games in a new direction from a new locale.
“What we really wanted to do with L.A. Noire was create a journey that took not only the audience, but the character (Detective Cole Phelps), on a journey that resulted in the character being a different person by the time he got to the end,” said McNamara. “If we can achieve that, it will be a great moment for me, personally, and for games.”
On May 17, gamers will be able to step into an open world Los Angeles circa 1947 and watch this journey unfold, making critical choices throughout the process. But Rockstar is hoping the subject matter – film noir – opens up a new demographic to not only this game, but to gaming, in general.
“The audience for this game is anyone who’s come along on the journey from Rockstar Games’ catalog and watched us become more proficient at telling stories like GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption,” said Nelson. “But we’re also trying to broaden the audience a bit more to people who are fans of crime thrillers and people who are interested in more cerebral things. When you consider that entire television networks are devoted to the crime genre, we think that audience will love this game.”
One of the keys to the potential success of this game with a new audience of gamers is that as a single-player game, L.A. Noire has been built to be a multiplayer experience. A crowd of 200 recently watched Nelson play through “The Red Lipstick Murder,” one of the game’s 20 missions, on a movie theater screen as part of the Tribeca Film Festival – L.A. Noire was the first video game ever accepted in the 10 year film competition. The fact that this mission is a fictionalized interpretation of the real 1947 murder of Jeanne French, which occurred just weeks after the sensational “Black Dahlia” murder; should also attract a wider, and older, gaming demographic.
Nelson said that the game has been created so that wives or girlfriends can share the experience with their husbands or boyfriends. Because of the game’s design, which includes a 2,200 page script, the experience players will have will be unique.
“This game is very easy to watch and we worked hard to blend the narrative within the interactivity,” said McNamara. “For someone who’s just watching the game, they might have a hard time knowing what’s interactive and what’s not. We’ve also designed the game so that each mission can be solved many different ways.”
If things go wrong in an interrogation and the player believes a lying character, the crime will eventually be solved; but it will be a far more circuitous route. In some cases, it could take twice as long for a player to discover the killer if they don’t pay close attention to all of the clues. And while knowledge of film noire is a bonus, it won’t impact how well a player solves the cases.
“We don’t want players to get frustrated in the game by failing,” said Nelson. “For example, if someone fails to catch a suspect in a chase sequence after three tries, we give them the option of skipping it and they can move on.”
So while veteran gamers, who are more familiar with gameplay mechanics and puzzle-solving, should be able to navigate this open world; Rockstar is hoping that new gamers, and even film fans, give L.A. Noire a try. Think of it as an R-rated interactive Hollywood movie experience that the player has control over.