Thanks to Chris at Shacknews for publishing a sister piece to this article.
There are already games that pull from noir in story, characterization and tone. One was released just weeks ago, and I'd go so far as to say that it constitutes a "modern noir," in the same way you might classify Chinatown, Blade Runner, LA Confidential or Brick as such. It's a crime tale, a story of one man's futile attempts to atone for his past and reconnect with his family, and a modest production that doesn't overstay its welcome or try to out-epic Epic. It's Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, an unpolished gem to be sure, and one that hasn't connected with the popular reviewership. It's extraordinary for reasons that don't necessarily equate to a high numerical score, but it deserves better than this.
Kane & Lynch eschews what usually appeals to the public's adolescent "cool" factor: the protagonists aren't the usual posable action figures with huge muscles, bulky body armor, or the latest high-tech equipment. They're two grisled, middle-aged men, over the hill for mercenary work, both balding, world-weary, clad in muted suit and tie. The story takes place in alleys, diners, and city streets; in metropolitan banks, prison blocks, dance clubs and corporate towers; finally, in the Cuban capitol under siege and a mercenary camp in the jungles of South America. The guns are simple pistols, rifles, and shotguns that might be found in a pawn shop or at a common shooting range. The game focuses on the criminal underworld, and what happens when these elements show themselves on the surface of society. There is simply nothing fantastical about it--think of how rare that is in action games today--and the effect is all the more powerful for it.
The following section discusses the game in a way that includes full plot spoilers. (Scroll down to the next bolded marker to skip spoiler section.)
The flawed protagonist, mundane settings, and tragic arc of the story are what make it a modern noir. The game casts the player as Adam Marcus AKA "Kane," an old-school mercenary criminal who, as the story begins, has fucked up for what he thinks is his last time. His most recent job with his long-time criminal syndicate, "The 7," went wrong, leaving 25 civilians and (he thought) the rest of The 7 dead, with only Kane left to take the blame. He took the money and ran, leaving it with a business associate before being picked up by the police. Now he's on his way to the gas chamber. In the prison transport van, Kane carries with him a letter he's written to his estranged daughter Jenny. He abandoned Jenny and her mother 14 years earlier to pursue (protect them from?) his life of crime, and his letter expresses all the regret he's bottled in since then.
But halfway to death row he's busted out by agents of The 7, who it turns out didn't die in Venezuela after all, and are a little irked that Kane ran off with the loot from the failed heist before being apprehended. So, they've kidnapped that estranged family of his and give him three days to bring back their score. They call him a traitor, saying he double-crossed them to run with the cash; if he doesn't bring them what they want before time runs out, his family is going to die. In Kane's tow they send along Lynch, a fellow death row inmate they've hired to keep an eye on Kane during the job, while The 7 stays safely in hiding.
The rest of the story portrays one man's attempts to right all his past wrongs, a road paved with good intentions but ending up in hell despite it all. Kane is trying to "fix everything": to prove he's not a traitor as The 7 say, and to fish his family back out of the fire; most of all, to express to his daughter Jenny all the regret he's felt over abandoning her so long ago. Each mission in the game illustrates another attempt at redemption being stopped in its tracks for one reason or another. Kane tries to simply retrieve The 7's loot like they ask, but finds that it's been swiped before he could get to it; he tries to bargain with the mysterious figure who's stolen the loot by (ironically enough) kidnapping that man's daughter, only to have the extremely unstable Lynch kill the hostage at the last moment, completely screwing the pooch. When Kane misses the deadline and The 7 goes through with their threats to execute him and his family, he manages to free himself and Jenny, but not before The 7 kill his wife right in front of his daughter's eyes. Jenny escapes, only to later be tracked down and apprehended by The 7, held hostage to keep Kane under their thumb.
The game takes a turn toward revenge tale as Kane chases the rest of The 7 all over the globe, now out for payback against each one of them, and moreover to free his daughter from their grasp once and for all. To aid in his search, Kane busts his old crew of underworld buddies out of maximum security prison, promising them a new lease on life and a cut of the action if they help him out. Though he does manage to exact revenge on one member of The 7 after another and to finally secure Jenny in a daring airstrip raid, most of his old crewmembers also fall to gunfire one by one along the way, leaving the player to wonder whether they wouldn't have been better off back in prison.
The climactic scene of the game finds Kane at a crossroads: he has Jenny as well as a chopper to escape with, but the remaining members of his crew are holed up under heavy enemy fire in a nearby church. Does he take Jenny and run, leaving his men to die and proving himself to be the traitor they've all accused him of being, or does he do the honorable thing and risk Jenny's life to save the men that are counting on him?
The player gets to choose, and there's no making it out clean regardless: if you grab the chopper and run, you've damned Kane to live up to the expectations of all those around him, to prove himself a man without honor. Kane's saved his daughter's life but done nothing to win her heart. It's an empty victory.
If the player chooses the other path, and attempts to prove that Kane isn't a traitor, all of his men die in the ensuing firefight regardless of his best efforts. Likewise, Jenny catches a stray bullet, and must finally be carried to the small escape boat that Kane and Lynch commandeer at the far end of a lonely dock. In the final cinematic, Jenny succumbs to her wounds as she lies in Kane's arms. He reads her that letter he was writing at the outset, the one that explains all his regrets, the one he never got to send. She doesn't hear a word of it. The boat drifts out to sea.
Spoilers end here.
This isn't a video game story, and these aren't video game characters! This is The Asphalt Jungle, or The Killing. Kane is the flawed and disaffected Sterling Hayden character, the weathered underworld soldier bringing his old crew back into the fold to pull off that one last retirement job. He's dragged down by his own shortcomings, and brings everyone around him down with him. The end of the story isn't triumphant or life-affirming: it's the protagonist face-down in the dirt of his family's old horse farm; it's the cash fluttering away on the tarmac and the police detectives closing in. It's a pathetic skiff crewed by two defeated old men floating off into the sea, instead of a space marine in green armor saving the universe. It's a game that explores a group of completely damaged individuals, and doesn't cop out on giving them what they deserve so the player can feel good about himself. It's unflinching and morally bankrupt. It's noir.
The game hasn't fared well with the critics, which I mainly attribute to a significant lack of polish present in the title overall. From playing it, Kane & Lynch is clearly a game that should have shipped four or six months later than it did, but was rushed out for the Christmas buying frenzy. Notable is that almost all of the reviews, even ones attributed to "Kane & Lynch PC," seem to come from Xbox playthroughs of the game. The movement, aiming and shooting mechanics are perfectly suited to the mouse and keyboard, but don't seem to have been retooled appropriately for a console controller. On a gamepad, the default aiming sensitivity is useless, and even after tweaking the settings, the aiming just doesn't work well on the consoles: the kickback of the guns is too extreme to deal with using an analog stick, and the levels aren't designed to accommodate the slower target acquisition and lack of accuracy with a controller as opposed to a mouse & keyboard setup. On top of that, across both platforms aspects of the presentation, especially scripted and prerendered cinematics, are rough at best; sadly, the endgame cinematics, while holding the most emotional weight, were given hardly any attention in execution, and come off flat despite their intended message being powerful.
In all, if you play Kane & Lynch on PC, it's an outstanding third-person squad shooter that I wholeheartedly recommend: using the simple cover system, squad commands, and visceral firearms to methodically cut a swath through your opposition is extremely satisfying, while the intense and affecting story keeps you riveted from moment to moment. That said, it's only the core experience that's so excellent-- a lack of time to apply all the necessary surface polish is readily apparent, and there are certain combat encounters that seem unbalanced compared to the rest of the game. And unless you're supremely patient, or supremely skilled at console shooters, skip the Xbox version.
In my opinion, the PC version's positives completely outweigh the negatives, and it's one of the worthiest PC shooter purchases of the last year. But what really sets the game apart is its commitment to deliver a story that we don't get anywhere else in games, to devote itself to the noir mindset, no compromises, and show us one way that games can communicate something that's not juvenile, trite, or outright embarassing like most game narratives. If the development team had been allowed enough time to polish the game to the level it really deserved--and Hitman Blood Money showed that Io is capable of that level of polish--this unique experience could have reached more people. What could have been.
Maybe Kane & Lynch is the kind of game story that never could have connected with the mass audience. But the beauty of games is that subversive property, the ability to distract the player with such an entertaining pure gameplay experience that they'll accept whatever narrative messages you want to send them. If the game's mechanics and dynamics had been properly tuned and balanced for consoles, Gerstmann might have relegated his incessant harping on the "impossible to care about" characters to a minor quibble, and given it a score that didn't relegate the game (or his career, natch,) to bargain bin status. In its current state, if you like PC shooters, yearn for video games that say something different, and love underworld noirs like Kiss Me Deadly, The Killing, or The Asphalt Jungle, you owe it to yourself to give Kane & Lynch a little of your time. For the people it manages to touch, it won't be easily forgotten.
Thanks to Chris at Shacknews for publishing a sister piece to this article.