LA Noire and the Uncanny Valley

Lately I have been slogging my way through LA Noire. I have not finished the game yet because I’m a completionist and I want to nail every interrogation sequence. This means that if I blow one and I don’t think it’s my fault, I quit the game and restart from the last checkpoint. So yes, I’m save scumming.

I didn’t have to do this if the game had more of a Deus Ex HR interrogation mechanic. Both games use a similar setup, where you talk to someone, and you have to determine whether or not they are lying to you, or hiding something. Deus Ex has you making the judgment call based on the content of the conversation, while LA Noie allows you to cross-reference the preps statement with collected evidence and/or watch them for facial tics, wayward glances and other indications that they are lying.

The concept behind LA Noire mechanic is quite brilliant, and the motion capture technology used to back it up is amazing. But IMHO it fails as a game play mechanic. And it’s not as much as a design problem as and execution one. I don’t have a problem with the truth/doubt/lie system. It works quite well for the interrogation style conversations you tend to have in the game. What I don’t like is that you only get one chance to get the interview right. Failing to pick the right option puts you at a disadvantage, and often will prevent you from progressing. Compare that to the Deus Ex method in which failing to persuade someone would still yield interesting insights about their character, that would actually help you steer the conversation back on track. You could take a few bad branches, but still eventually recover and win the argument. It felt very organic.

By comparison many LA Noire conversations feel like stilted logical puzzles, which they are. They miss that organic quality. In addition it feels strange that a cop would only get one shot at questioning someone about something as crucial as their alibi, or why they were in possession of a murder weapon. In a normal interrogation, police would ask you those questions over, and over, and over again in different ways just to see if your story holds water and to catch you on a lie by messing up the details. But in the game it just does not work that way. Sometimes you don’t have hard evidence to call the bad guy on a lie, and you can’t see an obvious facial tic. You use an intuition point, and it removes the obvious “lie” option that you already eliminated. You make a guess, you get it wrong, conversation ends and you are stuck and have to quit and restart from a checkpoint because the guy was supposed to give you a name of the next witness or next location.

It’s very “gamey”. I mentioned this concept when I reviewed Arkham City last week. The artificial 1 in 3 win/fail game attached to all conversations very easily breaks immersion. In Deus Ex you feel like you are actually talking to people, whereas in LA Noire always reminds you that this is a rigid pass/fail puzzle that you must nail to progress.

But, as I said – the technology they used for motion capture is amazing. I will go as far as to say that this game was really close to crawling out of the uncanny domain. If you have never heard that term, I will let the Extra Credits team explain it for you:

One of the things mentioned in this video is motion. The way your characters move is an absolutely crucial element of creating non-creepy photo realistic animations of human beings. At the same time, this is one of the most difficult things to do. A lot of games fail miserably to implement even something as fundamental as a life-like gait for their characters – not to mention facial animation. Animating a believable human face is a problem we still haven’t solved completely. It is something even Hollywood studios (young Bridges from Tron Legacy is a prime example of this). Human face has so many muscles, and our brains are so finely attuned to detecting and interpreting the tiniest twitches of these muscles that it is really difficult to fool them.

But LA Noire absolutely nails this. Their characters are stylized enough to avoid the worst Uncanny Valley revulsion effect, but detailed enough that you can actually see emotion in their face. They don’t just grimace, they furrow their brows and move their eyes – their entire faces move, just about the way you would expect normal face to move. They have subtle facial twitches, distinctive way they move their lips or jaws while speaking, and etc.

Hands down, LA Noire has the best character animations I have seen in a video game so far. Too bad this technology is rather expensive and quite time consuming. I would love to see it used in other future games, or even to become the new standard for photo realistic graphics. But it would probably increase the already high cost of making modern video games and make the process longer and more complicated.

How did you like the game? Did you think the conversation mechanic worked well? Did you like the technology behind the game? Would you like to see more of it? Let me know in the comments.

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2 Responses to LA Noire and the Uncanny Valley

  1. Rob UNITED STATES Google Chrome Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Quitting and restarting at the last save point is the only way I got through the interrogations towards the end of the game there. My only real big gripe there. They should have included ways to get back on track if you royally screw up. Otherwise I enjoyed the game and thought the technology used was impressive. I’d like to see it refined more and used in other games. I thought the story was really good too, I just was a little disappointed at how it ended.

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Rob:

    Yeah, there is no way to recover from a bad conversation choice. It really makes no sense that Cole just drops an investigation thread completely because player picked the wrong option. This is especially glaring in the “interrogation room” scenes where you would normally be able to grill the suspect over and over again.

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