Noir in Gaming, Part 3

Article by Wesley Fenlon? | Posted January 8, 2011

When you distill it to its essence, noir is a simple genre. Plot elements such as rugged detectives, murder mysteries, frame-jobs, double-crosses, and sultry dames constitute the pulpy foundation of virtually any work of noir, be it literature, film, or game. After the pieces have been plucked from the shelf and arranged in the proper order, the rest is mere atmosphere.

In detective fiction, it’s all about writing style, snappy dialogue, hiding the truth between the lines, maintaining the mystery until everything unravels in the final moments (must-read example: Red Harvest). Cinema, on the other hand, relies far more on the power of sounds and shadows, though that same clever dialogue remains just as vital—and doubly powerful, when delivered by skilled actors. And thanks to the popularity of the voiceover, both books and film often successfully weave in themes of moral ambiguity and social corruption (Must-see examples: Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity).

While those genre-specific thematic embellishments make noir the one-of-a-kind niche that it is, they’re essentially window dressing for a story type that has been around for over a century. All those commonplace plot elements originated in hardboiled fiction before noir writers lavished them with layers of style.

Which brings us to the NES. The technology of the time couldn’t adequately reproduce the heavy layer of style of silver screen noir, but in the ’80s and ’90s game developers began to experiment. Some simply aimed for the hardboiled heart of the genre, emulating the gritty detective stories of the 1920s within a new interactive format. Others went further, doing their best to reproduce the high-contrast look of noir within the limited scope of the NES cutscenes. In the end, all the games featured here laid the groundwork for classics like Grim Fandango and Max Payne that would flourish in the 3D era. Their graphics and music may be hopelessly dated, their scripts may be cramped and compressed, and their puzzles may be opaque, but these are the 8-bit building blocks of gaming noir.

Déjà Vu
Format: Mac/NES | US Release: June, 1991
Developer: MacVenture | Publisher: Kemco

The progenitor of the MacVenture series of point-and-click adventure games, Déjà Vu begins with the most classic of storytelling techniques: amnesia! Private dick Ace Harding (who doesn’t know he’s private dick Ace Harding) awakens in a dingy bathroom stall, completely unaware of how or why he’s there. And after a few minutes of exploration, he discovers a dead man—a man he may or may not have murdered.

In addition to being perfectly named (just think of the possible layers of meaning, there), Déjà Vu leverages its amnesia-driven concept quite effectively. It taps into the moral gray area of detective fiction, dropping the player into a hunt for both identity and purpose. Are you a murderer? Have you been framed? And where is everybody? Though Déjà Vu plays out in the afternoon with nary a shadow to be found, it’s still surprisingly ominous -- the utter emptiness of the game’s first few locations, coupled with Ace’s empty mind, casts an eerie pall over the mysterious circumstances of his awakening. The slow, jazzy soundtrack only reinforces how quiet everything is. Only the narrative text, which describes our actions and surroundings and occasionally breaks the fourth wall for humor’s sake, keeps us company through the search for answers.

As we explore the environment in the traditional point-and-click manner Déjà Vu helped pioneer—examining and picking up every item we can find—more and more of the setting comes into focus. It’s Chicago, 1941. And things look bad for Ace. Real bad. Déjà Vu’s greatest strength is how excellently it encourages detective work to unravel its short, tightly wound mystery. Notes, keys, clues, guns, and drugs abound, and it takes all of them to recover Ace’s memory and discover why he was dumped in a stall.

Ironically, Déjà Vu’s age is telegraphed more by the lack of a mouse than through any failing of design. The interface is a bit clunky, made doubly so by the NES, but for a game ported in 1990 -- five years after its original Mac release -- it handles itself remarkably well. Déjà Vu no doubt played a part in the development of noir videogames in the 1990s, many of which relied on the point-and-click format until 3D really came into its own. The writers also clearly held film noir dear to their hearts -- the names Doghouse Riley and Sternwood are taken from Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, and the Sternwood mansion (butler included) bears more than a passing resemblance to the one featured in Howard Hawks’ film adaptation.

Déjà Vu II: Lost in Las Vegas
Format: Mac/NES | US Release: Unreleased
Developer: MacVenture | Publisher: Kemco

After delivering a surprisingly thoughtful game with the cliché plot catalyst of amnesia, you’d think developer ICOM Simulations might have recognized their luck and steered clear of Ace Harding’s memory.

They didn’t, and Déjà Vu II picks up shortly after the original, though this time Ace isn’t quite so bad off. He remembers his identity and his past... but he again awakens in a bathroom, and this time a mobster’s henchman is going to make his bad day worse if he can’t come up with 100 grand.

So begins an all-too-familiar quest. Déjà Vu II feels for all the world like a tired retread, without the tightly wrapped mystery of the original to drive it. While both games feature some tough, mystifying puzzles, Déjà Vu is awash in letters, notes, and snippets of information that clue us in to the dastardly scheme. Déjà Vu II offers little such aid, and even adds new puzzles to some revisited areas, ultimately favoring trial-and-error over logical exploration.

Even worse, Déjà Vu II essentially abandons the best aspects of noir influence its original capitalized on so well. Not only is the game less fun to play, the world is uglier, and the narrative text can’t quite recapture the same charm.

Perhaps all of this helps explain why Déjà Vu II actually never saw the light of day on the NES. A port was completed but never released, and has yet to leak online (though it was officially reworked for Game Boy Color). It would be interesting to see if the watercolor visuals of Déjà Vu’s NES incarnation carried over to its sequel, but likely even that wouldn’t add enough character to make the game worth playing.

Dick Tracy
Format: NES | August 1992
Developer: Real-Time Associates | Publisher: Bandai

As we’ve seen, most noir games emphasize story and setting over gameplay, using the wordy, slow-paced adventure genre to compensate for technological limitations. But even the gunplay-heavy Max Payne and the upcoming LA Noire have a long-ago direct predecessor in the NES action/platformer Dick Tracy, released by Bandai in 1990.

Coinciding with the dramatically stylized Warren Beatty film, Dick Tracy stars the famous gumshoe and his rogues gallery in a crime-solving campaign that plays out across five cases. Each case presents Tracy with a list of six possible subjects and their locations, and the player must hunt down the mobsters and additional clues throughout a series of side-scrolling levels.

The city is laid out in a grid that can be navigated with Tracy’s squad car via a top-down perspective that bears a striking resemblance to Grand Theft Auto. Not bad for a 1990 licensed game -- unfortunately, Dick Tracy also bears the requisite cheap difficulty of the time, with loads of henchman prowling each level and snipers blasting away at Tracy from the rooftops as he patrols.

Still, thanks to a snazzy swing theme song and a few cutscene graphics in line with the pulpy comic strip, Dick Tracy is a strong example of videogame proto-noir. And while the clue system at work is rudimentary at best, it adds a scrawny layer of detective work to a genre that rarely even provides any motivation for walking from the left side of the screen to the right.

Format: NES | January 1992
Developer: Beam Software | Publisher: Ultra

The streets were safe once. A person could walk around without any worries. The kind of place where you always knew your kids were safe. Crime feeds upon itself like rats fighting over cheese. Pretty soon the crime bosses began to fight over control of Metro City... someone had to stand up to Sutekh.

It’s time to put a stop to this plague. It’s time for Nightshade.

In a bizarro world where Tim Schafer was never born and Grim Fandango never blended film noir with the Aztec afterlife, Nightshade would likely be the strangest adaptation of noir to grace the videogame world. An odd amalgamation of pulpy detective fiction and Egyptian imagery, Nightshade places you in command of a trenchcoat-wearing, perpetually sunglassed wannabe-hero out to save Metro City from the crime boss Sutekh. Who wears an Anubis costume, naturally.

The décor of Metro City shifts from one screen to the next, at times echoing the Egyptian influence, and at times… being extremely pink. The inhabitants range from evil rats to evil ninjas to British people (also evil), and Nightshade’s idol is a fallen spandex-clad superhero named Vortex. In other words, our aspiring hero fits right in wearing his shades during the game’s eternal night.

Nightshade’s large sprite and the detailed, moody environs he traverses are excellent, though none of the other characters are lavished with quite as much attention. But the real standout here is the writing, which is consistently funny and borderline farcical. The colorful text sarcastically smarts off at every opportunity and does its best to be goofy when sarcasm doesn’t fit.

Underneath the jokey exterior, however, Nightshade is all business. There’s not much to guide you through the many objectives to be completed in Metro City, so careful exploration and trial-and-error gameplay rule the day. There’s also some touchy combat that can be frustratingly unforgiving. Nightshade has his work cut out for him.

If any of these qualities strike you as familiar, it could be because they aptly fit Nightshade’s successor, the 1993 SNES cyberpunk RPG Shadowrun. Bizarre setting, expressive writing, obscure quest design, unwieldy gameplay—it’s all there. Nightshade has even more character than Shadowrun, though developer Beam Software was clearly crafting a more serious game the second time around.

Nightshade itself is billed as “Part 1,” though it never received the sequel it so brazenly predicted. It may not have deserved a sequel, either: though Nightshade is an interesting blend of detective fiction, comedy, and mummies, Shadowrun’s noir/science/fantasy combination offers a more sophisticated storyline.

Still, since the noir genre so seldom plays host to parodies, Nightshade and its pop culture references deserve a playthrough... assuming you’ve already completed Grim Fandango a time or three.

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