How The Human Face Could Be the Future of GamingS

Disgust, fear, surprise, anger, lies.

The face is a canvas of microexpressions, twitches and "tells" that sweep across a visage in tenths of a second unveiling everything in a person's heart. And if Rockstar Games, the makers of Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption, have their way, it will also be the future of gaming.

For more than half a decade Team Bondi have been quietly working with Rockstar in their Australian studio to create an experience that could reinvent the way we play games.

L.A. Noire will have much of the trappings of traditional Rockstar video games, you will be able to explore a meticulously rendered city, gun in hand, searching for your own experiences, your own game-defining moments. But shooting a gun, driving a car, adventuring won't be the game's central mechanic.

Instead, players will be asked to interview suspects and decide, based on an extra blink of an eye, a nervous swallow, the bite of a lip, whether a person is lying.

"We always knew, when we wanted to go down this route and make a detective game, that the key part was getting the witness in the room," said Team Bondi head Brendan McNamara. "The key part is the interrogation. Can you break them?"

Rockstar's Jeronimo Barrera said the team even played around with the idea of forgoing the subtleties of the interview for something more Grand Theft Auto, the idea of beating a confession out of a suspect.

"But we realized it was actually way more interesting to watch the performance and see if they suspect is lying or telling the truth," he said.

But conventional, hand animation wasn't going to convey the emotions the team wanted to in the game.

Nevertheless Team Bondi kept working on the game, researching the noir 1940's setting and the art of reading faces. They even began development, creating a game of essentially headless actors, dummies with lines of dialog and working interactions but no faces.

"It was working as a sort of text adventure for 18 months or longer before we started shooting it," McNamara said.

The team would tell Rockstar to imagine people in the game. It wasn't the team stumbled upon a new sort of technology used for high-definition motion capture from MotionScan that things came together.

The team brought in a middle-aged actor and sat him down in front of an array of 32 cameras, all pointed at his face, and had him work his way through the scene.

McNamara calls the moment he saw the results an epiphany.

The results were so realistic the team had to unlock the game's camera so people could move it around, just to be sure it wasn't really just a movie.

"It looked like the most realistic thing we've ever seen," Barrera said.

It captured every facial tic, every little motion on the actor's face allowing the performance to come through the game in a way never seen before.

And it's not just delivered as an extra layer of graphics in L.A. Noire, it is core to the experience.

In the game, due out on the PS3 and Xbox 360 this spring, players will take on the role of a detective in the Los Angeles of 1947, exploring the city as a police officer, called out to crime scenes and asked to solve the mystery.

The game will be laid out much like episodes of popular cop shows, like Law & Order, with players having to investigate crime scenes for clues and interview suspects. Eventually players will use not only the evidence they find, but their ability to read a face, to call out a suspect and prove they're the criminal.

The game will deliver more than 40 hours of play. Barrera likens it to about two full television seasons of a show. And while each case is self-contained, there will also be an over-arching storyline that players can follow as well, he said.

L.A. Noire is more detective thriller than adventure game, a bit of a departure for Rockstar games, but Barrera says it is a good fit for the studio.

"Bully, The Warriors, Table Tennis, we are a pretty diverse group," he said. "We like to do things we enjoy making."

He also thinks that players will initially be as confounded with L.A. Noire as they were with Grand Theft Auto 3, a game that famously unleashed players from the typical linear experience of gaming, allowing them to do whatever they want to do.

"When we were originally going around to people with Grand Theft Auto 3 it was going over people's heads," he said. "I think we are delivering the same sort of thing with this. We're trying to push the medium forward. This is strange interesting stuff and I'm glad we're doing it."

It is a huge risk though, perhaps the biggest a studio built on risk has ever taken.

Will gamers be willing to put down the gun, even occasionally, for the more subtle route of investigation and interrogation? Will people be as attracted to a game that asks them to slowly guide a suspect into a verbal trap, rather than allowing them to beat a criminal into submission?

While both McNamara and Barrera acknowledge the risk, they both think it will pay off.

"There is a huge audience for these type of games," McNamara said. "We brought in all of this new stuff: Reading people and dealing with people. It's very fresh. The first five minutes most people sort of sit there gawking at it.

"It's a pretty revolutionary game."

And successful or not, it's clear the ability to deliver an actor's full, true performance into a video game will have a lasting impact on the medium.

"We are trying to do something new here," Barrera said. "We don't know if it's going to be successful or not, but I think for the industry it's going to be a very important game."

Well Played is a weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.