Brendan McNamara interview: creating LA Noire and destroying Team Bondi


In issue 66 we interviewed LA Noire creator Brendan McNamara about his work past, present and future. Here he talks about creating LA Noire, his relationship with Rockstar, moving to Australia and the fallout from the death of Team Bondi.  

OPM Going a bit further back than LA Noire, why did you decide to move to Australia after making The Getaway?

BM Just totally personal reasons, really – my wife’s English and we had two kids. We had to decide whether they were going to grow up in London or Sydney, and I kind of misguidedly thought that Sydney was as much fun as it was when I was a kid. We’re really happy there, though, and now we have four kids. I was just lucky that some of the people that actually do get along with me came out there at the same time – such as my art director Chee Kin Chan, who I’ve been working with for 16 years now, and production designer Simon Wood. There’s a bunch of us who really like working together.

OPM Did you always plan to do a film noir style game as your next project?

BM Yeah, even at the end of The Getaway I had a screensaver picture that was a viaduct in Los Angeles, which showed the first freeway being built – one car going down it, with one small chunk of freeway that just dropped off at the end! I just couldn’t imagine LA without all the freeways, so I wanted to do a Chinatown-style story about them. That’s what the game ended up being about.

OPM How do you start piecing together the script and story for such a massive game as LA Noire?

BM Usually, you start with an outline, four or five pages long. That gives the team an idea of the overall line of the main characters [in the game] and what actually happens to them, and then you get feedback from the team on whether it’s good, believable or stupid. We wanted to base the plot on factual stories, because we went to the LA public library to read the newspapers of the day, and the stories in there were more interesting than ones you could make up yourself.

OPM That’s what many classic Hollywood studios told their gangster film directors to do – make movies based on stories in the news…

BM Yeah, that’s how Scarface came about. In our case, we read this story about a guy in Santa Monica who was driving a four-engine plane down the road at night to get to an airfield, and had an accident because he didn’t have any lights on. All these cars just ploughed into this aeroplane! So even the first traffic case in LA Noire, where the guy tries to fake his own death, [was] a true story. In the end, his wife took him back anyway, which is pretty amazing.

OPM Did you have a vision from the start for what MotionScan could be?

BM Yeah. I’d been doing research when I was at Sony, as we had a certain amount of money that we could spend every year on university projects. We’d fund different things, such as AI. I had this clip from the University Of Glasgow with a guy’s head – which was a mush of porridge, but there was something in it. You could see straight away where the texture really worked – it looked real – so I pursued it when I got to Sydney. That’s what’s really interesting about it – there’s something amazing about the moving image. When you look at it, you don’t consider whether someone is alive or not: they just are. I think the MotionScan process really gets that – the images just feel alive. Most of the time, characters in games feel kind of robotic.

OPM Did you have a hard time convincing Rockstar about the tech?

BM Oh yeah, it was in doubt all the way along. The fallback was that we’d do what everyone else has done, in games such as Red Dead Redemption or what Rockstar is doing now in Grand Theft Auto. Rockstar’s process is different to ours – it’s writing, recording and changing things right up to the end, whereas ours was more of a film process, where we’d get it written, get it all ready and then shoot it. Once you’ve got it and it’s in the can, you don’t change it. That’s hard for a lot of people, as they don’t work that way. But in the end, it worked and everybody got it.

OPM So Rockstar was pretty hands-on, and you worked together on ideas?

BM It was a collaborative process – Rockstar has the fairy dust, doesn’t it? It makes games that sell 21 million copies for good reason – it knows its audience, has fun with them. The humour plays to its audience and [Rockstar is] really good at what it does. We learned a ton from working with Rockstar, and I think it learned a lot from working with us, too.

OPM You’ve said before that LA Noire is very much a personal statement. ’70s cinema coined the phrase ‘auteur’ for a director with a singular vision – would you consider yourself a games auteur?

BM Well, whether I would or not, in the games business if you set out your stall like that, you’d get slaughtered! You’d just be torn to pieces. But it’s what gets you out of bed – if you want to write stories and present [them]. As much as I’d like to say yes, if I did, I’d be annihilated. But I think games are really collaborative – more than movies, which are a straight hierarchy. In games you have designers, artists and so on, and everybody gets together, makes something and decides whether [that’s] good, bad or indifferent.