Thanks to Simon Carless for graciously posting about "Noir" on GameSetWatch, and re-publishing the essay as an article on Gamasutra.com

In the late 30's through the 50's, American film was a spectacle-based business. The market was dominated by the studio system, and blockbuster epics and musicals ruled the public consciousness. The stars, budgets, and sets were enormous. It didn't take long for the entire enterprise to become very bloated. Eventually, pricetags began outstripping profits in an arms race to sensory overload. It was during this era that film noir was born.

Film noir was a pragmatic school of filmmaking, rebelling against popular big-budget fluff out of pure necessity. These were B-films, low investment projects quick to produce and intended simply to fill out an evening's double bill. Under the constraints of little money or time to build unique sets to shoot on, or to stage scenes featuring armies of extras, or to exploit complex lighting, camera setups, or special effects, noir filmmakers had to seek out new ways to build tension onscreen and keep their audience engaged. They did so by focusing on flawed, unpredictable characters living out street-level conflicts between individuals in the mundane, modern-day urban world. They drew from pulp novels and crime fiction for their source material, and benefited immeasurably from the influx of expatriate German Expressionist filmmakers fleeing the Nazi expansion throughout Europe at the time. Instead of building a fantastical set, film noir would film in vérité city streets and back alleys. Instead of dousing dozens of dancers with massive lighting rigs and filming them with a drove of whirling camera cranes, noir filmmakers would frame individuals frankly in dramatic up-shot, a single spotlight casting ominous silhouettes across the ceiling.

Film noirs like Out of the Past, Kiss Me Deadly, and The Big Combo made a new kind of entertainment out of the very limitations that constrained them, and went on to influence everything from the writers of Cahiers du Cinema and the French New Wave of the 60's, to the Coen brothers' films of today. Necessity being the mother of invention, film noir created something unique and affecting, something that has lived on, out of the need to engage people without relying on the spectacle of the day's million-dollar blockbusters.

Maybe you can see where I'm going with this.

We are currently a hit-driven industry, and the games that get media and player attention are those with the most money behind them to provide the biggest spectacle. In the commercial sector, everyone is vying with the likes of Mass Effect, Bioshock, and Halo 3 for mindspace; if you want to be taken seriously by "the gamer public," you have to hit not just the game design mark, but the whizz-bang cutting-edge graphical mark as well. You have to bring millions of dollars to the table just to qualify, which leads to extreme risk aversion by publishers and developers, and a tendency over time to lose players who are tired of the same old thing dressed up in more and more expensive clothes. When your game is backed by tens of millions of dollars, you can't use it as a testing ground for wild new mechanics and dynamics never tried before; however, when you're building a low-budget 2D platformer, even your successful experiments won't make an impact on the medium at large, the "big games" that get everyone talking. What we've got left is a huge gulf between popular, full-experience 3D action/adventure games that need to be financial blockbusters to survive, and marginalized casual/handheld/movie licensed games that don't register on the mass consciousness radar. We need our B films. We need that freedom to explore truly meaningful new avenues of interaction, quickly and nimbly, without the pressure of an eight-figure budget and multi-year dev schedule weighing down on the whole enterprise. Noir already scouted this territory for us.

Noir begs game developers to reign in the scope of their production budgets, and the conflicts they depict. The noir approach promises games wherein the player isn't saving the kingdom, world or galaxy; wherein the ubermensch doesn't mow down a thousand men; wherein we can experience familiar settings in a new way, and infuse the everyday with the extraordinary. The noir approach promises games that are direct, visceral, and intentionally oppose epicness-- games that deliver their entire message with immediacy, before you lose sight of how the story of their interactions began.

Games that take film noir as a cue shouldn't emulate the surface-- trench coats, cigarettes, femme fatales and old LA. Games should emulate the structural and emotional underpinnings that made noir work as an experience. We can do this with readily-available, inexpensive tech; we can leverage older 3D engines and simpler lighting & shader models in the same way noir filmmakers used location shooting and expressionistic cinematography. We already have our Gone with the Winds and Wizards of Oz, and a dozen Busby Berkley spectaculars to fill in the gaps; we need our Asphalt Jungles, our Kiss Me Deadlies, our Gun Crazies and Double Indemnities and Out of the Pasts. We've proven we can do big. Noir shows us how to take the small road, explore its every twist and turn, and connect with our audience in new ways.


Unknown said...

excellent thoughts and an enjoyable read

Anonymous said...

Excellent historical description, well scribed to boot!

Certainly agree with the key points versus contemporary interactive storytelling. One difficulty is working through the mindset that a story based game must be linear and rife with cut scenes to create that perpetually sought after "cinematic experience." Although there are successful examples of said approach, the more canned the experience, the less of an interactive experience it is. An interactive narrative that would let a player experience, interact with, manipulate, affect, and react to characters with layers of agenda, hopes, dreams, regrets, ambitions, etc. would be a refreshing thing indeed. Imagine strolling around inside a modern take on Hitchcock or Lynch or Coen Brothers or Elmore Leonard.

Some lessons could be drawn from the dynamic s of RPGs, and from emergent narratives that happen in MMOs. But I've yet to see a truly enriched narrative that truly has a noir sensibility, putting character development and narrative richness foremost over glitz and explosions, for many of the very reasons you've already mentioned.

We struggled a lot to try and have some emergent evolution of relationships between characters in a recent game I worked on, but between constraints of the IP and realities of remaining commercially viable within the market we were after, we barely scratched the surface. What we did discover however were methods and systems under the hood that could empower dynamic and reactive situations, could staff out an environment with characters that give the player a sense of consequence, of having different routes to accomplishing their agendas, thereby creating the beginnings of positive emergent experiences. Taking what we we've learned, and we're discovering more all the time, our next game has emergent and interactive depth of experience as foundational goals.

Noir classics were clever for making sure even peripheral characters seemed to have more to them below the surface. As our form and technology matures, no reason why we should strive to do any less. Sure, content creation and wrangling is a bear. The payoff is there, though, when two players discuss very different accounts of their antics due to their respective play styles, and when each feels equally validated and enthralled by their respective experiences.


Made in DNA said...

Noir games have been around forever. Your posting of SNATCHER underscores that. I first read this article over at Gamasutra, and I came over here to reply. But you obviously know that game noir has been around awhile, so I am not sure what it is you are trying to say. Perhaps you are a little too involved in the scene (as a game developer) to put into layman's terms exactly what it is you want to say. With all due respect, it sounds like you are rambling.

Unknown said...

Strangely, I *would* actually play a game based on film noir. A MMO even. I'm so tired of sword and sorcery.. and futuristic machine gun splatterings... it'd be a welcome change.

O said...

Great article, and I totally agree. What more, I'm making good on it...
one of our next games is called The Late Call; it's a smaller noir based
3D stealth adventure game made with the specific design focus of smaller
is better and less is more.

More info + pre-release screenshots available at

Thanks again for this article!

Anonymous said...

gotta say you don't give enough credit to the cinematography of films noir - complex chiaroscuro lighting and skewed camera angles were a staple of the cycle. nice read though, otherwise.

MahaRani said...

Great Article totally agree with you
there should more Game Noir

i think the only game that came really close to noir perfection is Max Payne especially Max Payne 2 The Fall Of Max Payne

amazing storyline, a music score and effects that put you right into the darkness, captivating dialogue and script and whoever thought of the comic book style cut scenes is a pure genius

I'm waiting maybe there would be a Max Payne 3 or at least a game as awesome as the previous ones was