In the 1946 film adaptation of The Big Sleep, ace detective Philip Marlowe famously quips, “Such a lot of guns around town, and so few brains … you’re the second guy I’ve met today that seems to think a gat in the hand means the world by the tail.” The line, delivered by Humphrey Bogart in his inimitably sarcastic style, speaks volumes about the noir genre – not to mention the videogaming world’s sadly mistaken interpretation of it.
Noir, at its heart, is about atmosphere. An atmosphere described by Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader as “fatalistic, hopeless.” Protagonists often find themselves betrayed (Double Indemnity), murdered (The Killers) or usually some combination of the two. Yet for all the corruption and death, noir often remains astonishingly low on violence.
Classic noir protagonists like Sam Spade do indeed carry guns during many of their cases, but for all their skill, they might just as easily go unarmed – the ultimate strength of Marlowe, Spade, Hammer or The Continental Op is their intelligence and their ability to think three steps ahead of their enemies, rather than their efficiency in committing violence. Even the novels of Mickey Spillane, formerly considered one of the trashiest writers in the genre, rarely contain body counts reaching double digits. Yet setting aside the considerably large detective noir genre, the other subsections of noir (insurance noir, blackmail noir, infidelity noir) share an equally strong respect for atmosphere and thought over violence and gunplay. Films like Key Largo or stories like Blackmailers Don’t Shoot concern violent people and situations, but focus much more heavily on characterization, mood and thoughtfulness than outright gun-blazing action.
But today, there are a considerable number of videogames that define themselves as “noir” with little or no respect for the source material from which they take their namesake. Self-professed “noir” titles like Max Payne or The Darkness take the aesthetic sensibilities of noir but utilize gameplay much more evocative of a John Woo film than a Dashiell Hammett paperback.
On the surface, it would seem like Max Payne 2 has all its noir bases covered: It contains a brooding, isolated detective hero; a duplicitous love interest; a dark and grimy version of the New York underworld; and a heapin’ helpin’ of omnipresent voiceover narration. Max Payne himself is a character whose inner demons might initially seem reminiscent of a protagonist in a James M. Cain novel. This makes it all the more tragic, then, that the aesthetics are the only noirish thing about the game. Max Payne walks the noir walk and talks the noir talk, but he is, for all intents and purposes, a balls-out action hero: Max’s strength as a character is measured in bodies, and his skill as a detective never goes any further than the skill with which he aims a gun.
As fun as it is to dive through the air in bullet time and blow away hundreds of men in ski-masks, it is most assuredly not what the noir genre is built on. Payne, to put it simply, is Woo in Chandler’s clothing.
This isn’t to say it’s impossible to create a true noir game – quite the opposite. There is one genre that has repeatedly and somewhat efficiently utilized noir’s sensibilities beyond their simple visual attractiveness: the adventure game. Whether collecting clues as an anthropomorphic crime-fighting duo or traversing the globe as an American tourist turned murder witness, adventure games have almost always prioritized thought and planning above force and rash acts of violence. It may feel unusual to draw a parallel between Guybrush Threepwood and Sam Spade, but at their cores, both adventure gaming and noir protagonists deal with similar problems (namely, mysteries and murders) and must handle them in nearly identical, thoughtful ways.
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.