Though violence is almost always present in adventure games, it usually serves only as a catalyst to start the plot, or as an intermediary step in solving a larger puzzle. Adventure heroes are frequently nonviolent and often portrayed as physically weak: Brian, the hero of Runaway: A Road Adventure, is an above-average college student, but a physical weakling; April Ryan, protagonist of The Longest Journey, is hardly much of a fighter; even in a game like Full Throttle where the protagonist is a gruff brawler, the vast majority of puzzles do not utilize the character's violent nature. Granted, this parallel isn't perfect: Noir, with its emphasis on double-crossing, multiple motives and the living city itself as a character in the story, lends itself more to nonlinear storytelling, while all the aforementioned games are extremely linear.
Which is where The Last Express comes in. With its increased focus on nonlinear clue-gathering and its gorgeously immersive graphics, The Last Express is simply the most noir game ever made.
Instead of collecting dozens of items that must be used in specific areas at specific times, TLE allows the player to roam freely around the interior of a train, meeting suspects, spying on people and gathering verbal clues - real detective work. TLE's control and HUD layout is pleasantly minimalist, as well: Everything takes place from protagonist Robert Cath's point of view, which means no obtrusive inventory layouts or LucasArts style command buttons ("Talk," "Give," etc.). The suspense in TLE is derived not from solving esoteric engineering puzzles, but in talking to characters, figuring out their motives and using what you've learned against them. As many characters move about the train on their own personal schedules, engaging in potentially revealing secret conversations at their own leisure, it's up to the player to wander the train, spy on every character and assemble the clues that will allow Cath to unravel the mystery of who killed his friend.
The Last Express is deadly serious, totally nonlinear, and absolutely original in the freedom it gives the player; while there are one or two short combat sequences, the ratio of thinking to violence is on par with the vast majority of detective noir. To put it bluntly, no game has ever encapsulated noir sensibilities in the way TLE managed to.
If there's one game that has come close, however, it's the LucasArts cult classic Grim Fandango. While a totally conventional RPG in many respects - unlike TLE, it is completely linear and almost wholly reliant on inventory puzzles - its atmosphere is intentionally, wonderfully and unmistakably noir. Though set in the Mexican land of the dead and filled with a great deal of cartoonish humor, the characters in Fandango walk around in 1940s-era attire, the lighting is stark and expressionist and all of the characters smoke (a prerequisite for any film noir character worth his salt).
The game mechanics, which blend seamlessly with the game world, improve upon the visuals. When Manny Calavera wants to take an item out from his inventory, he seamlessly pulls out each item in his possession, one at a time, from his coat pocket; no "inventory screen" is necessary. When something catches his eye, there is no bright yellow text explaining what Manny is looking at - he simply turns his head slightly and looks at the item. These design choices may seem insignificant, but they go a long way in linking the aesthetic noir atmosphere with the intrinsic gameplay mechanics - something the Max Payne games could only hope to do.
Even though Mike Hammer never had to engage in a round of insult sword fighting, and Philip Marlowe probably never once solved an inventory puzzle, they nonetheless have more in common with Sam and Max than they do Max Payne. Unfortunately, games in the Sam & Max style are vastly outnumbered by those of Max Payne's in today's gaming world. Still, despite the popularity of pseudo-noir like Max Payne, titles like The Last Express prove noir can and has been efficiently executed in the realm of videogames. As it stands, it's only a matter of time before the rest of the gaming world realizes what Philip Marlowe knew so many years ago: A gat in the hand doesn't mean the world by the tail.
Anthony Burch is a filmmaker and associate editor for Destructoid.com. He posted a game idea for a nonlinear noir title two weeks before Rockstar officially announced LA Noire. Coincidence? Probably.