How Video Games Gave Noir New Life

By Gareth Monk on at

This article contains spoilers for Grim Fandango, L.A. Noire, and Subsurface Circular

I’ve always had a soft spot for noir but, much like watching a cigarette burn down to a stub, there’s something predictable about it. We all want to play the part of the detective, just like we’ve seen it all on the big screen before: the private eye throwing back slugs of whiskey; the crooked official at city hall taking bribe after bribe; the murky resolution in which simultaneously nothing and everything is resolved. Noir’s influence is everywhere, but this more traditional style has waned greatly in popularity ever since the sleuths have had to contend with more than two colours.

But it's a mantle that games have readily taken up. Interactivity adds an element of volatility not available to other mediums, and revitalises a format. From a certain angle it looks like noir survives as a modern genre largely through video games, with its cinematic influence much more dispersed.

LA Noire is the most obvious example of noir fiction in games, because the game seeks to slavishly replicate the aesthetics and tone of traditionally staged noir works like The Big Sleep and LA Confidential. The game sees up and coming detective Cole Phelps quickly rise through the ranks of the Los Angeles police force, continually trying to do good amidst a sea of corruption. Phelps is eventually undone by his own fallible human nature, and the game ends with the truly evil amongst the city’s higher echelons prospering from his death.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should, because it is paint-by-numbers noir. If you have even a minor interest in the genre you can predict every beat of LA Noire. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the game’s slavish dedication to its source material means that it even emulates those parts of noir that belong in the 1950s. Women are either portrayed as career-destroying cleavage-devils or blubbering wrecks who need a tough man's protection. Any characters that aren't middle-class and white are relegated to secondary roles and are also, for the most part, portrayed as devious and unlawful.

Some might argue that these aspects are crucial to noir as a genre, or L.A. in the 50s, and avoiding them would be 'unrealistic' or 'immersion breaking.' But these untouched themes in LA Noire feel lazy and disingenuous precisely because noir has been a vehicle for criticism of its own tropes in the past: see Sidney Poitier’s numerous turns as a hardboiled detective challenging attitudes to race (No Way Out and In the Heat of the Night), or neo-noir works like The Long Kiss Goodnight showing that women are capable of more than just seduction and deceit.

This all might suggest that LA Noire is not a great example of modern noir, and something more akin to an old record of tired genre tropes stuck on a loop. Narratively and thematically this is true, but the fact it's a game means there's much more to get excited about in the mechanics at play. The much-lauded interrogation scenes, while sometimes comically exaggerated, still hold up as astounding technical achievements and give the player a real sense of satisfaction following their deductions.

LA Noire also successfully replicates the slower place of noir fiction — the long drives through summer evenings and the plodding nature of police work. There are no edits in LA Noire, no cuts to another scene. The game forces you to examine every clue and to make the journey to every point of interest. In one of the game’s best sequences you are tasked with tracking down a serial killer by finding cryptic notes, deciphering the clues, and then painstakingly examining a city map for your next destination. The tension on each drive is palpable as you gradually unwind the mystery. Will the next stop be the one you need? Having to pound the pavements, to wear down the tarmac as you drive every mile is an experience that no rerun of The Maltese Falcon could ever deliver.

What happens then when games decide to ditch the tired setting of post-war America, the stereotypical detective determined to do good in a city conspiring against them? Well you end up with something like Grim Fandango, a game that takes these classical influences and transports them to strange new places. If LA Noire is a note-for-note pub covers band, Grim Fandango is 'Hurt' by Johnny Cash; influenced by the original but taking it somewhere unique and special. It plays on noir’s obsession with death and ambiguous morality and weaves this into a macabre black comedy.

The mechanics of point-and-click adventure games lend themselves well to aping detective fiction, and in Grim Fandango your work is all in service to pastiche. The puzzles, the items needed to solve them, and the characters you interact with are all punchlines in waiting and the dialogue's barbed quips are worthy of Philip Marlowe. It’s fascinating to see every element taken seriously by LA Noire ripped to shreds so masterfully here, and it might only be in games that this parody of every component part works so well.

The setting of Grim Fandango encapsulates everything. Noir fiction is obsessed with death and mortality, and characters trapped by circumstance that often lead to their untimely demise. Lead character Manuel Calavera’s role as a travel agent for the recently deceased really picks through the bones (sorry) of this idea. The game’s metaphorical and sometimes literal journey through the five stages of grief brings about a more complete ending than we’re used to in noir, the arcs resolved rather than ambiguously drifting to a close. Noir’s tendency to focus on loss and losers makes this reversal all the more interesting: we’ve had the untimely death prior to the story actually starting, so instead this builds to a happier finale. The characters in Grim Fandango grow and find a true sense of identity by the game’s end, the opposite of how many noir tales end with the reset of the status quo.

And identity plays such a big part in noir fiction: the hard-boiled detective, the femme fatale, the corrupt politician. It’s rare in older works that characters seek anything more, and often stay confined within their roles in an oddly inhuman way. Subsurface Circular takes this unnatural prescription of identity and runs so far with it you might struggle to keep pace. The game casts you as a 'Tek', a robot assigned a specific career upon their construction. In this vision of the future you and your fellow robots have slowly been taking on work responsibilities previously given to humans. In order to investigate a case handed to you by a mysterious individual, you have to interrogate other Teks: the Calculator, the Soldier, the Priest. The game plays out as a series of text-based interrogations on board a subway train, and key terms you collect are then used to tease out certain facts from those you meet.

This structure is classic noir, in an ingeniously small space. But as you speak to each of these people, you begin to learn that they are far more than that which has been assigned to them. The Soldier? Part of a potentially bloody uprising. The Priest? Questions faith and the relevance it holds to the modern day. And you? By following this case you are expressly going against the wishes of 'The Management', and the game allows you to explore the degrees of compassion you might have for each of these Teks. Subsurface Circular challenges noir’s stereotypes by showing its characters grow: your Tek grows as all the others do. No character is fixed and all are shown pushing and clawing against the constraints of their programming. Subsurface Circular wants the player to feel like the traditional sleuthing detective, and then strips back all the trappings that come with it. It asks which you value more: the role you were or the person you’ve become.

Initially you'd be forgiven for thinking that Subsurface Circular is a more traditional story. The Management are a shady cabal of the rich and powerful who rule over society and govern its progress. There is a sinister plot that underlines a simple missing persons case, the hint of an uprising in the air. This all sounds very familiar. Subsurface Circular is setting us up, however, using our expectations of noir to confront the modern issue of workplace automation. In true genre style the issue is never presented as black and white, and the player character is expected to inhabit the murky shades of grey.

The Management want things to stay as they are, and many Teks agree. Then there are the Teks who feel a huge social shift is needed to ensure humans still have an equal role in this new world. This debate ties back to the core theme of identity and a neat duality: the Teks have been assigned a role and grown from there, while humans have grown into their roles and then had that stripped away by The Management. The ultimate message may be the same as any good detective story — no one is what they seem — but the fact the Teks are consciously working against their programming also shows noir's traditional rules being rewritten.

Games will continue noir’s upheaval, constantly turning a mirror inward, and tearing up the monochrome playbook that previously propped up Raymond Chandler’s coffee table. By allowing the players to manipulate aspects of the mystery, and experience the journey themselves, they’re allowing stories to break free of the genre's history and feel modern again. Who knows where things might go next, but as Manny Calavera says:

“If there's one thing I've learned, it's this: nobody knows what's gonna happen at the end of the line, so you might as well enjoy the trip.”