If malevolent aliens were designing a Matrix-style simulation to break my spirit, it would culminate in a house party. The party would be underwhelming at most. But then, in the kitchen at 3am, with only warm Tizer and Beefeater Gin left to drink, I would be cornered by a man determined to tell me all about jazz, film noir, and the formation of the universe. At 5am, he would move on to magical realism, and I would begin, stoically, to eat my own hands.
There’s nothing wrong with any of these things, of course. But they are frequently used as signifiers of being extremely clever by properly ghastly blokes. They make me wary. As such, then, when I started downloading Genesis Noir - a magical realist point and click adventure about jazz, film noir, and the formation of the universe - my hands started looking pretty tasty.
Evidently though, as you can tell from the fact I was able to type this post, I have not eaten my hands. Genesis Noir is not half as pretentious as it could be. Still - and I say this respectfully - I’m not sure it’s quite as profound as it compels you to think that is, either.
If it was a story about a bin man, entwined with a metaplot about the biomechanics of farts, and suffused with raucous polka music, it would be easier just to be honest about it as a game. But it’s not. It’s a story about a... film noir... bloke, entwined with a metaplot about the formation of the cosmos, and suffused with sultry jazz. And that’s basically critic-proof armour, isn’t it? You’d look like a proper boafus if you didn’t think it was mega clever.
I will say this without hesitation: Genesis Noir is the most beautiful thing I’ve seen on a PC screen in ages. Creative lead Evan Anthony has managed a herculean bit of art direction here, which gave me the same feeling as I got watching Into The Spider-Verse - the sudden, delightful shock of seeing something truly visually original.
This game took six years for Anthony and technical lead Jeremy Abel to make (with help from Mercy Lomelin, David Szmit, and Adria Navarro), and it really shows. To absorb all that work over the course of just four hours, makes for a right old spectacle. And while you might query my raving on the basis of the nice-but-quite-simple screenshots you can see here, I can only implore you to see it in motion.
Needless to say, the music is great too. What I should do here, is come up with some really poetic way to describe how saxophones and that sound, before namedropping a handful of semi-obscure jazz musicians in comparison. That would make me look well smart. But I can’t do that in good faith, as I wouldn’t know what I was talking about. So I’ll just say: it sounds very pleasant, and accompanies the art perfectly.
Looking back on what I’ve just written, you’d be forgiven for thinking I was talking about an animated film here. I’m 500 words into a review of the video game Genesis Noir, and I haven’t yet talked about how it plays. And that's never the sign of an absolute thrill ride, is it? I know, I know: it's absurb to apply the same criteria when assessing art and entertainment, etcetera. But I'm going to be painfully honest here and admit that I play games primarily "for a laugh", in which context I found this one a bit hard going.
"There’s been a lot of creativity thrown into differentiating the dozens of games within the game. It’s Italo Calvino’s Warioware, in short."
Slapping the fish right on the table, there’s not that much playing in this game. It is, in essence, an animated film, with bits where you borrow the main character in order to tackle strange, cosmic minigames. Each of these many games/puzzles takes a wildly different format - you might be trying to get a tree to grow by lopping off branches one minute, and trying to perform a gravitational slingshot maneuvre with a cigarette butt the next.
The lion’s share of the fun here is in orienting yourself to each new challenge. There’s been a lot of creativity thrown into differentiating the dozens of games within the game, and there’s always a dependably enjoyable bit of brainfizz as you try to work out what the operating conditions are each time. After you’ve worked out what to do, the puzzles are usually pretty quick and straightforward. It’s Italo Calvino’s Warioware, in short.
For the most part, the interactive and non-interactive parts of the game flow together very elegantly. Without offering you any instructions beyond the time-honoured “press WASD to move” at the very start, Genesis Noir pretty much always makes it clear what you’re meant to be doing.
Still, there were some failures of intuitive design, where I was left aimlessly clicking around the screen, keen to move on. It might seem mean to nitpick this. But then, if you’re aiming for the feel of a silent movie with occasional segues into player agency, you want to bear in mind that Jimmy Cagney never paused halfway through his films to stare brutishly at a desk for three minutes, prodding randomly at objects with an increasing sense of frustration.
Beyond the preternaturally good animation, and the saxophones, the thing holding Genesis Noir together is its story. Or rather, its stories. Ostensibly it’s about a watch-selling grifter, trying to prevent the gunishment of a singer he fancies by her horrid, coiffured bandmate. It’s a plot that wouldn’t be out of place on a Megadrive game, to be honest.
But then it goes all magical realism, doesn’t it. The grifter slips into a mind-bending otherspace, via the kind of “just because” that magical realism is somehow allowed to get away with, and there he witnesses the entire history of the cosmos, as portrayed by minigames. There are some mindblowers in there, to be fair.
I could say there are sweeping thematic connections between the two stories. That Genesis Noir is a self-supporting web of metaphors, positioned in graceful chiasmus across both strands of its being, something something double bass, something something saxophones. Maybe it is all that; I dunno. I could invent all kinds of semiotic structures that were either intended or weren’t, but I’d be lying if I said I was pondering them, hours after finishing the game.
I’ll finish by reiterating that this is 100% a game which you should buy. I have a strong and sincere admiration for the people who made it. At the same time, if it didn’t look so good, and if its component games were even a touch less creative, I probably would have gotten bored before finishing. It has, for sure, been designed with great reverence for all its source material. But I suspect it will only leave you with massive insights into the nature of the universe if you really, really want it to.
Or if you’re stoned. And that’s neither a weak burn on the game, nor a cheap drugs punchline. I’m being completely serious when I say that Genesis Noir would be properly transcendental to play while off your tits on edibles. The constant, unexpected transitions between visual schemes, the wild leaps in subject matter, and the sudden appearance of majestic stags, would all have slam-dunked me into the bin of my own subconscious like I’d stuck every Boards Of Canada album on simultaneously. Never let it be said I don’t appreciate the highbrow.