THE WASHINGTON POST – If a crime writer, a cosmologist and a mythologist collaborated on a video game, the result might be Genesis Noir, the most conceptually audacious game to hit digital storefronts in many moons.
Unlike most games that bend over backward to deliver easily digestible narratives, Genesis Noir leans into abstraction and associative logic with unabashed zeal. A narrative log on a spaceship that appears near the end of the campaign neatly sums up its lofty conviction, “Just because something is a game, doesn’t mean that your thoughts, your feelings, your expectations are trivial, or irrelevant, or meaningless. For it is in these that lies a game’s true beauty.” Here is one of those rare titles that would not be out of place in a gallery.
Genesis Noir unfolds through a series of title cards interspersed between playable sections. The cards set out the principles of the Big Bang Theory – an explosion of energy gave birth to our universe. Like a refrain, they also circle back to the subject of myth as it relates to the human propensity to come to terms with the mysteries and verities that underwrite existence through archetypal stories. Here, these stories take the form of events that span the range of creation from the flowering of life in a bed of water to the world-devouring darkness precipitated by a black hole.
Players assume the role of No Man, a tall thin man who sports the standard garb of a noir hero: a trench coat and a hat. Late in the game he is referred to by different names: the Eternal Demon, Beat Brother, Ancestral Spirit, and Time Traveller, which reinforce the notion that he is more of a symbol than a conventional character; thus, his actions should be read metaphorically.
At the start of the game, we find him selling watches out of his coat pockets to various pedestrians on the street like a peddler of illicit goods. Returning to his home in a clock tower he finds a number written on a napkin belonging to a love interest. After dialling the number on a rotary phone he hears distressed sounds coming from the other end before the line abruptly clicks off.
Racing, falling and crawling on stairs and streets that take on impossible angles he arrives at a building where he wrenches on the door handle until the door shatters like a pane of glass. Bursting into a room, he sees another man point a gun at a woman and pull the trigger. In Genesis Noir’s cosmology, this event is the cause of the Big Bang.
The would-be victim is Miss Mass, a singer who leads a band called the Divine Jazz Section. Her assailant is her bandmate and erstwhile lover Golden Boy, a saxophone player who is made jealous by her dalliance with No Man. Viewed through the lens of the Big Bang, the symbolic relationship of these three is clear. Miss Mass held the universe of the band together until her head was turned by No Man. In a fit of jealousy, Golden Boy shoots Miss Mass and triggers an explosion of energy that echoes throughout time and space – elements that are associated with No Man, who takes it upon himself to literally peer into the explosion to see if there is a way that he might be able to reverse it.
For the first two-thirds of the game, players return repeatedly to the crime scene, where the propulsive force of the gunshot from Golden Boy’s handgun hangs in the air like a frozen, elongated balloon. Moving a cursor inside the narrowly demarcated blast radius one comes across dots or particles that can be clicked on. Some of these yield dead ends while others lead to stages that take No Man to different points in the evolution of Earth – from an ancient Greek amphitheatre to a feudal Japanese countryside to jazz-age Harlem to the laboratory of a supercollider and finally to a place of shape-shifting spirits. These places are punctuated with puzzles that see No Man doing such things as trading riffs with a musician, planting seeds in a garden and bearing witness to the killing of a mythological animal whose face becomes that of a constellation.
Genesis Noir’s hopscotch approach to gameplay keeps things fresh and unexpected. On an audiovisual level its beautiful jazz score and ultrarefined minimalist line art are entrancing. Alas, I did come across a few bugs on the Xbox version that required a couple of restarts when a puzzle broke and the screen froze. I also had to duck out to the pause menu a few times to make the on-screen cursor work. Regardless, I hope a few glitches, which will likely be resolved in an update, don’t dampen anyone’s curiosity.
As someone who plays too many conventional games, I relished spending time with something so unusual. Overall, there is a richness to the game’s aesthetic form which unfortunately leaves me with the unsettling feeling that I haven’t done it proper justice.