Rockstar Games' Dan Houser on 'L.A. Noire's' Selection by the Tribeca Film Festival

LA Noire Game Still 2011

Houser also discusses the convergence of Hollywood and video games, and why we haven’t seen a "Grand Theft Auto" movie yet.

The 2011 Tribeca Film Festival has broken with tradition and included the first video game to be honored as an Official Selection. Game publisher Rockstar Games’ L.A. Noire, which was developed by Team Bondi, allows players to enter the violent world of 1947 Los Angeles as an LAPD detective fighting against the criminal underbelly that ruled the streets during Hollywood’s Golden Age. 

Rockstar Games will also present an exclusive preview of L.A. Noire as part of the Tribeca Talks series, taking place on April 25. The presentation will feature a live interactive screening of a case from L.A. Noire, followed by a Q&A exploring the crossover between filmmaking and interactive entertainment. Geoff Gilmore, Tribeca Enterprises’ Chief Creative Officer, will moderate the session, which will focus on the making of the game and the technology behind it.
The game, which ships May 17 for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, follows in the wake of the publisher’s critically acclaimed and commercial success like the Western Red Dead Revolver and the modern day crime story Grand Theft Auto IV. Dan Houser, vice president of creative, Rockstar Games, talks about L.A. Noire, the convergence of Hollywood and video games, and why we haven’t seen a Grand Theft Auto movie yet in this exclusive interview.
How did LA Noire become a part of a film festival?
Being long term residents of downtown New York and long-time fans of the festival, we’d had many discussions over the years with the festival’s core team about the potential for videogames to tell stories in new ways. Independently of us, Tribeca’s Geoff Gilmore had been thinking along similar lines, and when he saw what we were working on with L.A. Noire, he immediately understood that this was something genuinely new and different that would appeal to fans of cinematic storytelling. Tribeca made the decision to include L.A. Noire within the festivals’ programming, which is a great honor.
What do you think this says about video game as an art form today?
We try very hard to avoid the debate as to whether games are art, as it tends to attract people with too much time on their hands. That being said, we obviously feel that games are an amazing creative medium that have unique rewards and unique challenges. Games today are moving towards creative maturity, as both people’s skill at designing them improves and the underlying technology to build them makes more and more possible. Production values have improved massively in games over the last five years. We have tried hard to ensure that in our games, an extra layer of gloss and polish is used to make the interactivity more interesting, the world more vibrant and the characters more nuanced. If we do that, we create an experience that is very engaging for people and entirely unique to the medium of games – the chance to live in a world that does not exist and experience life as someone you are not.
What films inspired this game?
Classic film noir, in particular, The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, Naked City, Out of the Past, and more recent classics like Chinatown and LA Confidential. We have a long-standing love of American culture, and Noir is perhaps second only to the Western in creating a profoundly American narrative form, each based around a mixture of location, theme and characters. With both Westerns and Noir, we have really enjoyed bringing an interactive element to what was previously merely a literary and cinematic tradition.
How did this game employ Hollywood talent?
The game, like many of our recent games, has been an absolutely enormous production. With L.A. Noire, we employed a massive number of actors in the game – over 400 – along with hair and make-up artists, a great television director, and as the game is set in the golden era of Hollywood, a lot of original costumes, props and other research from the studios themselves.
How has technology allowed you to bring a classic Hollywood noire story to life?
In three key ways. Over the last few years, high-definition televisions and game consoles have allowed us to make game worlds that are a lot more detailed, better-lit and more beautiful. This allows us to make a game which features searching for clues at a crime scene and interrogating possible suspects. Improved motion capture technology has allowed us to make characters that seem much more life-like and make action/car chases that are more engaging. Lastly, the unique facial animation technology in this game, which brings an actor’s face to life in 3D, allows us to make a game about lying and about reading people’s reactions, something that has never been done before. It is something that is cinematic in some ways, but also very interactive. That is what interests us most – we are proud to be making games that have the production values of movies, but we are not making interactive movies.
Can you talk about some of the things you'll explore in the panel at the film festival when it comes to the convergence of Hollywood and games?
There isn’t much production convergence. The process and form are too different – one is a linear, two hour experience that is fully curated and managed by the director, while the other is a 30-hour plus interactive experience in which the player has far more control over what they see, so the environment has to be transformed from a set into a fully realized world. That being said, there will be increasing talent convergence as games continue to become a more interesting creative medium that requires a greater number and variety of Hollywood talent. Actors, writers, directors, make-up artists, production designers, musicians, sound engineers will all work in games alongside movies and television.
Another hot topic these days is transmedia -- what are your thoughts on the role video games play today in launching new properties that span all sorts of entertainment?
No one has done it very successfully yet. Virtually all movies made from games are awful, while many games made from movies are also pretty horrible. This will change, but with an ever more discerning audience, the goals of taking something from film-to-games or game-to-film have to be more than financial. If you feel the property has something about it that is universal or could work in another medium, and it is not simply about making easy money, then that is something worthwhile. Too often, however, the aim appears to be to cash-in on the success of a particular game, book, pop singer, website, etc., and that usually produces mediocre results.
Why haven’t we seen a movie based on any of Rockstar Games’ blockbuster franchises? 
We have explored a lot of movie deals, but we have just chosen not to make a movie. We love movies, but we also love games and that is what we remain focused on. If we were to attempt to make a movie, we would like to make it ourselves, or at least work in collaboration with the best talent, so at least if it is bad, we can know we failed on our own terms. But doing that takes time, and making games properly takes a lot of time. So, we may make movies one day, with the right property and the right partnership, but we have not found the time to do that yet.
Would something like LA Noire work on the big screen today?
Well, we spent a long time being told Westerns were dead, then we made Red Dead Redemption, which along with True Grit showed that well-made classic Westerns have life left in them in any medium. The same could be said of classic Noir - a great film could be successful now, just as Chinatown and LA Confidential were long after the 1940s.