By Paul Walker-Emig
The forgotten Discworld Noir’s greatness hangs on a simple design element: the notebook. All the other artefacts of the hardboiled detective are there in this noir-inflected take on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld: the trenchcoat and trilby protagonist Lewton wears, treading through the rain that forever hammers the streets; a femme fatale straight from the big book of archetypes; storylines and characters taken wholesale from the pages of Chandler and Hammett; a cool jazz soundtrack evocative of the golden age of the PI. But it is clues and deduction that define the detective. There is the notebook, and then everything else is superficial.
The notebooks works, well, much like a notebook. As you interrogate witnesses and investigate crime scenes, each new clue you find is jotted down under headings like “suspects” and “cases”, accompanied by a smooth and satisfying jazz refrain. You can then quiz characters on these clues in conversation to wrench new information out of them, and combine clues with objects, or even each other, to make vital deductions.
The art of deduction is at the heart of the detective genre, and the notebook makes that Noir’s focus. It's a framework around which to structure your thoughts as you try to unravel the lies and uncover the secrets of Ankh-Morpork’s shady inhabitants. It’s a device that consistently serves to deliver the Columbo moments we crave in detective fantasy, each clue providing the leverage you need to get the better of suspects trying to throw you off the trail. Adventure games feel special because they make us feel smart, testing our intellect rather than our skill. Noir and its notebook tap into that with a certain purity, doubling-up on the satisfaction of working something out with the pleasure of using that information to outwit an opponent. In that sense, there may not be a game that’s better at making you actually feel like a detective.
What makes the notebook such a fantastic piece of design isn’t just its capacity to make you feel cool, however. It is that it addresses a perennial problem of the adventure genre: that puzzles tend towards being a contrivance to lock off story in a medium that is supposed to be story focused. Whether it’s an object you need to use breaking, or the need to meet a series of arbitrary conditions to access a new location, adventure games have frequently used their puzzles to stop you getting to the next part of the tale too quickly. Modern adventure games in the Telltale mould, on the other hand, have tried to circumvent that problem by cutting back on puzzles and offering branching storylines that allow you to fail to solve them and move on. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach, Noir found a way of keeping its focus on the puzzles and tying them in more closely to the tale it was telling through the notebook.
That’s because in Discworld Noir, the puzzles aren’t a gateway to the next bit of story. The puzzles are the story. Instead of dealing with rubber chickens, buckets, and balls of wax, in Noir your “items” are events, pieces of information, observations, scribbled in the notebook. When you discover that a troll named Sapphire who claims to have had a big win at the local casino is actually on a notorious losing streak, you learn something about the character in the form of their gambling problem, get a hint about why she appears to have been hiding something from you, and are pointed to the next story beat as you head to confront her about her lies. In other words that clue, and the puzzle it allows you to solve, is intimately tied to the story the game is trying to tell in a way that key items in other adventure game are not.
This approach to puzzle design wouldn’t be compelling if talking to characters and following the thread of the tale they are leading you on wasn’t enjoyable. Fortunately, Discworld Noir shines. Pratchett's irresistibly warm and sharp parodies of our world and culture are the perfect foundation for a murder mystery, as many of the books show, but Noir doesn’t make the mistake of assuming that mere reference is enough. It has sharp and witty dialogue, built around confrontational interactions where protagonist Lewton exchanges barbs with his surly, acerbic, and sarcastic counterparts.
A personal favourite is the Butler at the Von Überwald Mansion. He is a brilliant study of English passive-aggressiveness, managing to adhere to the formal rules of politeness while ensuring that he makes unequivocally clear his utter contempt for Lewton. When Lewton says offhand that the Von Überwald mansion is a “nice house”, the Butler replies: “Sir's taste in architecture must be quite exquisite to so accurately summarise the many splendoured cornices and archaic stained glass frescoes of this splendid Lorenzian building as 'nice'”.
If Noir’s notebook system is so fantastic, you might ask why it hasn’t been picked up on and developed since its release. There are a few examples where something similar has been used. L.A. Noire had a notebook, but in that case, it was one relatively small mechanic among many, not the core mechanic around which investigation is structured. A few indie titles use the idea in a more similar fashion to Noir - in the Blackwell adventure series, a notebook is used to jot down clues related to the supernatural investigations you undertake to help spirits move on into the afterlife. Unfortunately, over the series the notebook mechanic doesn't develop, and indeed becomes less important. Kathy Rain, a point-and-click adventure where you play as a journalism student investigating some strange goings on in her Twin Peaks-esque home town, is another title that uses a notebook for clues, alongside traditional item puzzles. While it has one or two nice ideas of its own, the notebook again isn’t expanded upon.
It’s perhaps unsurprising there aren’t more examples of games that have picked up on Noir’s notebook idea, because hardly anyone knows about it. Released in 1999, just as the adventure genre was going through a dip in popularity, the game was developed by Perfect Entertainment - which itself was distracted by legal disputes and would close soon afterwards. Despite the license, the game never really had a chance of commercial success. Lacking the attachment to a big-name studio and a big-name developer, the kind of thing that helped Grim Fandango acquire cult status, Noir can’t even claim to have made much of an impact. Instead it sold badly and then faded quickly into obscurity, and the difficulty of getting it running on a modern PC (it is possible) means it'll probably stay there.
That’s a terrible shame, and not just because of the notebook. Noir had plenty of other ideas that deserved a little more notice. The game, for example, takes the brave step of accompanying an important story moment with an equally significant mechanical shift. After apparently being killed halfway through the game, Lewton finds himself resurrected with the ability to transform into a werewolf.
With his new powerful sense of smell, he can pick out scents from objects and locations, represented by different colours, and link them to characters. Knowing someone has been somewhere they say they haven’t, courtesy of the distinctive whiff they’ve left behind, is just one example of how this can aid your investigation. Indeed, while the scent mechanic completely changes the way you go about your investigation, it’s important that it doesn’t stop the game being an investigation. Working out what each colour is and who it is linked to still requires deduction – Lewton is understandably reluctant to transform into a werewolf in front of other characters, meaning clues are still vital for determining what each smell is.
The smell mechanic was somewhat messily-implemented, using a smell inventory that was a jumble of colours, some of which looked too similar - making it difficult to find what you are looking for and easy to overlook something that may be important. The idea of trying to display senses other than sight visually, though, is an intriguing one and I haven't played anything else that's tried to use or represent smell in such a way since.
The particulars of the scent mechanic aside, wouldn’t it be great if more games took the risk of surprising the player with a new mechanical flourish when they are already deep into the experience? As long as this new feature doesn’t detract from the core appeal of the game – and Noir remains a detective story, just one where the detective's now a werewolf – it can add a new lease of life, whilst also being a meaningful narrative twist in a way unique to the medium.
Why, of course, would anyone take cues from a commercial failure hardly anyone remembers. But Discworld Noir deserves more of a legacy. It isn’t a perfect game – it has plenty of bad puzzles, progression occasionally requires you to visit an area when there's little logical reason to do so, there's some poor signposting, and so on – but it’s still a great detective game with outstanding ideas. The notebook is so ingenious because it provided a method for telling a story through puzzles, gesturing towards how much can be achieved when you build a detective adventure around the art of investigation. Had that principle been further developed, perhaps we would now have the definitive detective game us wannabe-Lewtons still crave. As it is, Noir spun one hell of a yarn - but there's no happy ending.