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L.A. Noire and the state of interactive storytelling: Are we there yet?

Why is effective storytelling, done so well in television programs such as "Mad Men" or "The Wire," such a difficult task for video games?

Rockstar Games

For all the accomplishments of the video game industry, there are still barriers that interactive entertainment has yet to break. Many games look fantastic and play well, but with few if any exceptions, there remains a stubborn wall between the player/observer and the characters in the game world (sometimes linked to the evolving "Are games art?" debate). There are many symptoms of this phenomenon, from stiff animation to stilted dialogue to unconvincing voiceover work, and the situation now is only marginally better than it was when I started writing about games more than a decade ago (many players can name a handful of choice performances, but these are the rare exception, rather than the rule).

Coming closest, in recent memory at least, to bridging that gap (which is much deeper than the typical explanation of an "uncanny valley" between near-photographic images and reality) is L.A. Noire, a gritty detective story set in 1940s Los Angeles. The combination of careful writing (much rarer in interactive entertainment than it should be), a cast of competent professional actors, and a few bits of new technology, puts the game leaps and bounds past the typical action/adventure experience, where it usually feels like most in-game conversations exist only to push the kind of dull exposition that would make David Mamet's head spin.

I've criticized some of my otherwise favorite games for this very problem, saying of Dragon Age, for example, that the game was buried under uptight, wooden characterizations that come off like the dated, stagy delivery of an old fantasy film. Arguably among recent games the inventive detective thriller Heavy Rain probably came closest to surmounting these obstacles--or at least bravely attempting to.

So, why is effective storytelling, as seen in television programs such as "Mad Men" or "The Wire", such a difficult task for video games, where paradoxically nearly any setting, character, or event imaginable is just a few keyboard strokes away for an able team of programmers and artists?

Perhaps because, despite being exposed to the daily acceleration of technology hardware and software (see how ancient these relatively recent laptops look now, as an example), creative mediums tend to move at their own pace. Making a comparison to the timeline of cinema, we're maybe in the 1940s now, nearly 40 years from the birth of the commercial games industry (equating early attempts such as Tennis for Two and Spacewar with the earliest projected motion pictures from Edison and Lumiere).

What stands out in the films of that era of cinema history, well into the age of the talkies (a breakthrough technological development perhaps on par with real-time rendering of 3D graphics), is the start of the slow transition from stagebound acting and directing styles, with static shots and exaggerated delivery, to a more naturalistic form of acting, as personified by (stop me if you've heard this one before) Marlon Brando in films such as "On the Waterfront." The idea of Method Acting may sound like a cliche now, but the impact it had on cinema is impossible to overestimate, and it freed writers, directors, and actors to pursue realism and emotional honestly--both qualities video game storytelling is not yet known for.

The technological advantage L.A. Noire has over previous games is found in its MotionScan system for capturing the facial expressions of the in-game actors more accurately than ever before. It's essentially a 360-degree camera rig that captures an actor's performance (from the neck up, at least), and the results are amazingly lifelike, even if only compared with the static photos of actors' faces with animated mouths we're used to.

When combined with the serviceable noir-lite script (closer perhaps to a modern police procedural TV show than the classics of the film noir genre), the end effect is an impressive step in the right direction. There's still something of a disconnect between the facial animation and dialogue and the onscreen action, as they were recorded separately (similar to how films often loop an actor's voice after the fact), but the game sets a new standard for placing real-world actors on a digital stage.

But the game also shows us how big that gap still is, and also how that uncanny valley concept applies to stories as well as animated characters. Even in a carefully crafted piece of interactive fiction such as L.A. Noire, there's still a sense that much of the dialogue and interaction exists for expository purposes, violating the cardinal rule of good genre writing--show, don't tell. There's more light than heat, as players are prodded to produce the correct combination of button presses, rather than feel an emotional impact (this is where games with so-called morality systems, primitive as they are, are doing some interesting work). Still, that criticism is only in comparison with the great works of crime fiction in other media--for a video game, this is near the bleeding edge of interactive storytelling, and hopefully a sign of a future development.