I walk through the black and white corridor and walk down to my office. The stench of black coffee and whiskey greet me like the warm embrace of a ghostly lover, the kind who kisses you on the forehead and whispers that everything will be all right. I walk to my desk and take a seat, turning around so I can lift the blinds. The flashes of red, blue and yellow spill in, the neon beacons heralding the bars, clubs and XXX stores on the street. This city wasn’t pretty or friendly, but somewhere out there was a quest giver who was more than willing to give me a hit of XP and gold for completing whatever dirty job he had in store for me. I was a level 29 private eye and only needed a little more grinding before I hit that magic 30. I could already taste the sweet, sweet skill points that would let me unlock the next piece of my skill tree…
What is noir? Is it a genre, a mood or a style? The stylistic black and white noir as we know it originated from crime fiction, which was then adapted into several films that marked the birth of Film Noir. Noir is known for its hard-boiled B-stories, where tough war veterans, private eyes or insurance investigators entangle themselves in a web of secrecy, danger and conspiracy. Their worlds are filled with mystery and peril, where a beautiful woman might actually be a deadly viper. Noir is extremely well developed in both literature and film, but how has it influenced video games? Are there games out there that we could classify as being noir games? The answer is of course.
The themes usually explored in noir revolve around immoral behaviour, sexual deviance and paranoia. Traditional noir stories usually centered upon a lonely, hard-boiled, down on his luck private eye who explores the dark underbelly of society. He encountered a brutish thug, a rich and powerful man and a sultry femme-fatale. Then as time moved on noir as a genre began to change, with revisionist films, like L.A. Confidential, turning certain tropes on their head yet at the same time keeping elements that made noir so engrossing to begin with. This is called neo-noir. An example of a video game that homages neo and classic-noir is Team Bondi and Rockstar’s excellent L.A. Noire, which is in many ways a throwback to both classic noir films and more contemporary takes such as L.A. Confidential.
Los Angeles in 1947 is a city full of corruption and mystery, where Cole Phelps chases the threads of shadowy mysteries, while also trying to find his place in society itself. L.A. Noire perfectly encapsulates the spirit of noir – and also follows some nuances that might have been previously explored in the genre. The dialogue, setting and gameplay all give the feeling of what it would really be like to be a detective struggling to unravel a case.
Noir is also defined by its strong contrast between high and low lighting, also known as chiaroscuro. This lighting is used to dramatically portray a brooding feeling throughout the world and highlights the feeling of paranoia and mystery that surrounds the protagonist. There’s no better example of chiaroscuro in gaming other than Limbo. Although we might not consider it a piece of classic or neo-noir, there’s no denying that Limbo’s strong contrast of shadows and light perfectly exudes a feeling of uncertainty and menace that is commonly felt while watching a noir film, that stays with you throughout the experience.
Noir isn’t limited to fancy lighting effects, $100 suits and fedoras, however. There are plenty of different examples of noir protagonists. This is especially true in gaming, where a plethora of different noir heroes exist. As time went on, noir tropes began to combine with other genres, producing interesting pieces of work that took the ideas of traditional noir and transformed them into something new and unique. Blade Runner, for example, is a film that takes place in a futuristic sci-fi universe. It follows Rick Deckard – a hard-boiled noir hero/cowboy gunslinger who becomes embroiled in a dangerous investigation. The same can be said for Adam Jensen in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a game that mirrors Blade Runner in terms of thematic and visual style. Adam Jensen’s journey takes place in a futuristic cyberpunk universe where Jensen is forced to delve into a conspiracy filled plot where everything isn’t as it seems to be.
Throughout the game Jensen questions what sort of person he is and what sort of person he is becoming. Much like Cole Phelps, Adam Jensen is also forced to deal with the ghosts of his past. This theme of noir heroes dealing with their prior history is also a common trope in the genre.
Other examples of heroes who are influenced by noir are Max Payne and Batman. Max Payne is the epitome of a wise-cracking, hard-boiled-to-the-bone noir hero, whose narration and inner-monologue are as well written and zingy as Philip Marlowe’s or Walter Neff’s.
Like the dark wilderness of Limbo, the shadowy streets of New York capture a menacing feeling about Max Payne’s world, one that follows him wherever he goes.
Though there are a plethora of Batman interpretations, Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City both heavily borrow from Batman: The Animated Series, which was very much inspired by noir techniques. While Batman and Max Payne are both inspired by other influences, particularly graphic novels and Hong Kong action cinema, the noir elements found in both franchises adds to their overall style.
Noir is a genre that has influenced certain video games. While it might not be always very obvious, its touch can be felt in many popular games. As we move forward into the future we might hopefully see more games like L.A. Noire, which will further develop how an interactive experience might work when imaginatively combined with a hard-boiled narrative.