Noir in Gaming, Part 2

Article by Wesley Fenlon? | Posted November 10, 2010

“Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men, and their perfume has the rotten sweetness of corruption.”

The early days of noir reflected the styles of the times: Mobsters in trenchcoats cracking wise, slick private eyes sporting pinstripes and fedoras, and femme fatales, sultry and seductive, dressed to kill. The literature of noir was racier than you might expect out of early 20th century material, given our latter-day stereotypes of a prim and proper, white picket-fence America. But as a genre meant to expose the seedy underbelly of society, it makes sense that authors like Dashiell Hammett and James Caine would be pushing the boundaries of propriety.

Hollywood did its best to follow suit in the ‘40s and ‘50s, though it was more bogged down by conservatism than the novels and pulp mags it drew from; still, the on-screen chemistry between actors and their innuendo-laden dialogue often left noir films brimming with sexuality -- brewing beneath the surface, but definitely there.

Over the next several decades, noir continued to evolve with the times, though it never abandoned the urban slums, private detectives, or trenchcoats that defined the genre on celluloid. Films such as Chinatown set the tone for neo-noir in the ‘70s, but the maturation of science fiction led to more interesting advancements for the genre. The cheesy flying saucers and little green men of the ‘50s gave way to cyberpunk and darker, more advanced creations in the ‘80s, perfectly suited for an infusion of bleak noir imagery.

These trends were reflected in gaming, as well: Noir-infused games explored a mix of traditional gangster drama and futuristic hard boiled science. Funnily enough, though, with these game examples the Hollywood trend is reflected in reverse chronological order—the more futuristic the content, the older the game. Everything old is, eventually, new again?

Max Payne and The Fall of Max Payne
Format: Windows PC | US Release: July 23, 2001/Oct. 14, 2003
Developer: Remedy | Publisher: GOD/Rockstar

“The night groaned with cold, the garden lights flickering nervously. In their light the falling snow was dead white before the darkness ate it up. I had heard the stories. The Trio were mad dogs. They’d have hung the heads of their enemies over the Manor gates if the Capo had only let them. Punchinello wanted Payne, he’d see the pain. The trick in my situation was that there was no trick, no matter what the movies tell you. No rules, no secret Mantra, no road map. It wasn’t about how smart or how good you were. It was chaos and luck, and anyone who thought different was a fool. All you could do was hang on madly, as long and hard as you could.”

When it comes to video games, Max Payne may well be the quintessence of the classic noir milieu. Nearly every element of Remedy’s 2001 third-person shooter harkens back to the old standbys of pulp fiction. Undercover detectives. Frame jobs. Mafiosos. Drugs. Max Payne prowls the shadowy streets of New York City, hunting down the darkest secrets of the corrupt and leaving only a trail of bodies in his wake.

Max Payne’s perfect ambiance owes more to its script than its trigger-happy action; writer Sam Lake penned a story rife with vivid language and bizarre, overwrought metaphor, delivered in the classic voiceover monologue form of ‘40s and ‘50s Hollywood. Max’s internal dialogue, delivered in a husky drone barely louder than a whisper, adds a touch of the surreal to the corrupt city, and makes his descent into a kill-or-be-killed hell all the more personal.

It may seem odd that a Finnish developer so expertly captures the essence of noir, but Max Payne is reminiscent of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. Some of the most genre-defining creations in popular culture come from artists outside the US devoting themselves to American genres, molding them into something both uniquely fresh and faithful to the work they pays homage to. The game is chock full of pop references, from The Usual Suspects’ Keyser Soze to “playing it Bogart.”

Like any great homage, it doesn’t take itself too seriously -- though the story is mainly one part angst to two parts bloody vengeance, there’s a sardonic edge to Max’s ramblings, and the game even breaks the fourth wall with a nudge and a wink.

The same holds true for Max’s gunplay, which passes up realism for a far more entertaining bullet time gimmick. The Matrix may have popularized bullet time in cinema a couple years before, but Max Payne brought the concept into playability in a big way. The gameplay mechanic took the shooter genre by storm, and it wasn’t until Epic released Gears of War? five years later that a new mold developed for third-person shooters to adhere to.

The Fall of Max Payne delivers the same experience as its prequel, but Remedy put special care into building a more cinematic experience in every respect. The shooting gameplay throws in a few more weapons and doesn’t punish Max quite as viciously as the first time around. Fewer enemies pop around corners unexpectedly, or throw grenades down stairs. Bullet time comes in ample supply, and Max’s damage resets between levels, so pain pills aren’t quite so crucial. But everything will feel instantly familiar -- only the addition of a badass slow-motion reload animation, with a 360-degree camera sweep, adds something surprisingly new to the framework Remedy established in Max Payne.

Though The Fall of Max Payne is an easier game, the amount of hardship and torment Max experiences in the shorter sequel outpaces the traumatic events of his first descent into the underworld. Where Max Payne is like a novella, full of twists and turns, The Fall is more of a vignette -- briefer, but with as much death and disaster crammed into its shorter, tighter running time. It takes no time at all for Max’s life to fall apart, for his romance with Mona Sax to escalate and crumble, for his body to be shot, crushed, and shot again.

It’s closer, more personal, a “noir love story” with less mystery than the first Max Payne. The same surrealist comic book format does most of the storytelling, the hues moody and forlorn, and the voice acting once again delivers on the same classic overwrought noir style. Only this time, the game briefly switches to Mona’s point of view, and Max’s unique way of speaking suddenly stands out as seriously odd -- as if, after staring into the abyss of corruption for so long, he’d finally fallen over the edge into madness.

Format: PC-8801/Sega CD | US Release: Nov. 1994
Developer: Konami | Publisher: Konami

In 1984, William Gibson’s Neuromancer catapulted the burgeoning cyberpunk genre into the literary mainstream, popularizing the dystopian mixture of fancy technology and gritty urban subcultures. Gibson was particularly influenced by ‘80s Japan, and his ability to predict and depict the course of tech evolution made for a strong Japanese presence in Neuromancer. Unsurprisingly, Japan reciprocated, latching onto cyberpunk with enthusiasm and eventually producing some of the genre’s most celebrated works, Akira and Ghost in the Shell.

Few Japanese game developers have a passion for American pop culture like Hideo Kojima. While the Metal Gear series has its share of tongue-in-cheek references, Snatcher is Kojima’s ultimate homage, a “cyberpunk adventure” that primarily owes credit to Blade Runner and Gibson (who’s lucky enough to have a character named after him). It’s the story of a new, hotshot Junker (read: blade runner) named Gillian Seed tasked with hunting down and eliminating the dangerous Snatchers (read: replicants/Terminators) infiltrating the city of Neo Kobe in 2046. Gillian Seed bears more than a slight resemblance to Blade Runner’s Rick Deckard, and the bioroid Snatchers he hunts, much like Blade Runner’s replicants, blend with the human population of a dystopian metropolis.

Snatcher’s strong sci-fi elements make it identifiable more as a work of science fiction than noir, but cyberpunk, itself, owes much to the hard-boiled detective stories of old. Blade Runner is often labeled “future noir” for its high contrast lighting and world of urban decay. And Kojima’s own creation delivers on the same motifs: The seedy underworld of Outer Heaven, the ruins of decades past sliding into neglect and disuse, the dark, pedestrian-packed streets juxtaposed against a backdrop of shimmering neon and advertising.

But it’s Kojima’s unique touch that makes Snatcher especially memorable, as frequent moments of self-referential humor and goofy dialogue interrupt the serious mood of Gillian’s investigation. The patrons of the Outer Heaven nightclub are a spread of classic Konami characters, Gillian’s sidekick is Metal Gear Mk. II, and his interactions with Neo Kobe’s sultry ladies playfully tease at the dating sim genre.

Snatcher also foreshadows Kojima’s slow descent into heavy-handed storytelling; as a graphic adventure, it’s more like an interactive story than a game. “Playing” Snatcher means utilizing a menu to navigate through linear areas, and using the “Look” and “Investigate” commands to interact with environmental objects. Sometimes it can be a bit frustrating repeating the same actions or dialogue choices over and over again; the point-and-click interface of PC adventure games offers much more in the way of actual gameplay. But even as a menu-driven experience bogged down somewhat by the limits of a controller, Snatcher offers a cinematic experience rare for a game of its time. It’s only at the very end that it hints at the absurdly long cutscene syndrome that consumed Kojima by the time he worked on Metal Gear Solid 4.

Format: Super NES | US Release: May 1993
Developer: Beam Software | Publisher: Data East

Where Snatcher’s noir roots plainly peek out from beneath the loam of cyberpunk grunge, 1993’s Super Nintendo Shadowrun drives full-tilt into a bizarre mélange of cyberpunk and magic-infused fantasy. Borrowing even more liberally from William Gibson than Snatcher, Shadowrun is actually one of several games based on a pen-and-paper RPG, and a plethora of terminology from the RPG finds its way into the video game. Technology -- the matrix and cyberdecks, inspired by Gibson’s writing -- strikes an unusual balance with Orcs, magical spirits, and shapeshifters.

Even the main character, Jake Armitage, owes a nod to Gibson for his name and occupation -- like Johnny Mnemonic, he has valuable information stored in his head that makes him quite the hot commodity. None of this cyberpunk and urban fantasy has much to do with film noir, exactly; Shadowrun is much further removed from noir classics like The Big Sleep than Remedy’s Max Payne. But that doesn’t stop Shadowrun from being interesting -- in fact, seeing your character gunned down in the street 20 seconds into a game is quite a way to make an opening.

Few video games hand the player an utterly perplexing mystery like Shadowrun. Jake has amnesia due to his close brush with death, and the goal from the get-go is to find out why a band of street thugs filled you full of bullets -- and who hired them. Unlike Snatcher, which offers a fairly limited number of environments to explore at any given time, Shadowrun drops you in future Seattle with hardly a clue about where to go or what to do, and piecing together Jake’s identity takes some serious detective work.

As if to ensure Shadowrun was a hybrid of as many unusual elements as possible, developer Beam Software took the unusual approach of melding a point-and-click adventure interface with stat-based RPG elements. It would be weird in a PC game—on a console, it’s downright freakish. Without a mouse, the point-and-click interface used to interact with the environment and NPCs genuinely sucks, and so does the combat. Moving around with the D-pad is easy enough, but that’s a small consolation.

Nevertheless, Shadowrun is worth playing simply because it’s so unusual. The world is remarkably interesting and fleshed-out for a game more than 15 years old, the characters are diverse and well-written compared to just about anything else from the time period. And in true noir spirit, the mystery gives you just enough of a taste to latch onto, but there are no hand-outs. If you want the answers, you have to earn them with plenty of exploration and a touch of level grinding. The setting may be futuristic, but it seems some RPG fundamentals are timeless, whether you’re grinding for gold or nu-yen.

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