Noir. It’s one of those words people use without really understanding what it means. Like plethora, anathema and ensconce. And it’s not even English.
As a French word, it means “black,” which is why the filmmakers and writers who took the term as the definition of their genre liked it so much. Noir fiction is dark in practically every way, the essence of “black” fiction.
The movies were originally black and white, and the method of lighting these films relied heavily on shadow to create mood. The subject matter is also dark, featuring gruesome murders, unrepentant evildoers, moral dilemmas of the highest order and crime where you’d least expect it. The heroes of noir are also dark, often plagued by memories of their own crimes, which can be worse than those they seek to solve.
Noir as an English adjective means all of this and more; a small word with many meanings. We call films that reflect the noir hallmarks “noir” to identify them. We call heroes with a checkered past “noir.” We call movies, even if brightly lit, and in color, “noir,” if they strike us a certain way. There are a plethora of uses for the term. Indeed, noir is well ensconced within the language as shorthand for a complex interplay of mores and themes. We find attempts to more precisely define the term to be anathema.
Is every movie, story and game featuring a down-and-out private eye, on his last legs, drinking himself dry and wishing he were dead noir? What if there’s also a lady with a secret to keep, murder in her eyes and legs up to there? What if we add a corrupt cop, a murder by the pier and a dark and stormy night?
Well, we still haven’t achieved noir. This is the danger of cultural shorthand. The movie I’ve just described is Turner and Hooch, a light-hearted comedy/drama starring Tom Hanks and his St. Bernard sidekick.
This week, The Escapist tackles the subject of noir games. What are they, and why? Newcomer Anthony Burch looks at the history of noir in games, Allen Varney looks at party games that could get you killed, Kieron Gillen talks to the man who made Bioshock creepy, Shannon Drake looks at noir via webgame and I’ve spoken to the creator of a noir game designed around two words: “girlfriend” & “rat.”
It’s Issue 107, “Dark and Stormy Night.” Now get out of here kid, you bother me.