I never saw a dame yet that didn’t understand a good slap in the mouth or a slug from a .45.

So I got a bit worked up about an Opinion article on Gamasutra by Steve Gaynor. It was discussing the concept of the noir video game (one following in the footsteps of Film Noir). Figured my response was worth posting here:

While I would love to see a truly noir approach to games and I appreciate the plea Gaynor is making, this summary of the genre does not do it justice. Noir was not created asfalconm.JPG a means to an end. There was no group of directors that didn’t know how to make a film with a small budget except “by focusing on flawed, unpredictable characters living out street-level conflicts between individuals in the mundane, modern-day urban world.”

Low budgets may have helped kickstart noir, I’m sure they did. It can’t be denied that big budget projects tend to lack experimentation because the backers don’t want to take any risks with their bank books. Still, noir is more related to artistic innovation than business strategy.

Film Noir was a movement which sprouted from an increasingly dark outlook in American filmmakers, reflecting an increasingly dark outlook in American culture (due to the Depression, the rise of organized crime and eventually the WW2 environment). It was influenced by German expressionism of the 20’s, but came from American filmmakers; not an “influx of expatriate German [Expressionists].”

Being noir has nothing to do with low budgets or pragmatism and it definitely is not “vérité” (try a couple decades later). Noir is about abstraction, the blending of reality and fantasy, truth and lies, good and evil, light and shadow. Open up any book on it and you’ll find the phrase “moral ambiguity.” Noir is about beauty contrasted against ugly minds in an ugly world. It’s always cynical and sometimes nihilistic.

The Third Man 1

In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Death’s at the bottom of everything, Martins. Leave death to the professionals.

Games can be noir, but not until we start taking them seriously and try expressing some ideas. It can be done. It should be.

I do agree about game budgets, but for different reasons. All of the experimentation will take place with small budgets because that’s where you can afford to take risks and because the standard for games as of today is pathetically childish, risky experimentation is a must.

The short, tightly crafted game is also a format that will need to be explored for further innovations and better structured games, but it will require a completely different perspective than the current one. The dominant theory on game design is Raph Koster’s oversimplified view that a game must be a string of shiny lessons for the player to bat around like a kitten with yarn. Keep them untangling your ludemes as long as possible because that’s all a game is, yarn to a kitten.

There’s a whole universe to explore and we’ve just seen the beginning. Start simple with what we know; a coming of age story told in 3 acts. That’s simple enough that most designers use do it intuitively, but this is the real trick: make sure that when you build it, you don’t just take the easiest path or the traditional one, but the one that grows organically from the story, expressing it and exploring its many facets.

The Third Man - PosterVictims? Don’t be melodramatic. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax – the only way you can save money nowadays.

In film, it’s the cinematographer and editor that must learn to construct images to convey ideas, a job that does not come naturally to most people. The challenge to the game designer is a hundred times more complex. It’ll be hard and confusing, but worth it.

-Christopher J. Rock

About the author:
Christopher J. Rock (http://)
Film student at California State, Long Beach. I want to make the gaming world a better place.
  • Film Noir is an aesthetic not a recipe.

  • Funny that you would mention “a coming of age story told in 3 acts” and then refer to not taking “the easiest path or the traditional one”. I think we’re making the kind of game that you are talking about, and it’s about coming of age, it has 3 acts and has a path as its theme and title. Have a look: .

  • There I was, all hot ‘n’ bothered and ready to rebutt the Gamasutra article when I read your rebuttal.

    Well said. Nothing more for me to add.

  • To Michaël Samyn:
    Yeah, I realized that too, but honestly the conventional formats for story structure and so on don’t need to be rejected (if you’re into that, by all means, but it’s not “necessary” at all). The “easiest path” that I’m referring to is the one lacking individual expression, the product designed to satisfy a market as much as possible with as little as possible. That is the path to boobs, muscles and guns. And you can have a great game with boobs, muscles and guns in it, but that’s where the extra effort, the difficult path, lies.

    Also, I think the market will reward games that aim for a higher standard (it has so far), but economics will not naturally give birth to a higher standard because in a market environment the goal is always to achieve the greatest profits with the least investment. The “least investment” part of that destroys our potential.

    To Ryan FitzGerald:
    Thanks man, glad to hear from a like-minded reader out there!

  • “And you can have a great game with boobs, muscles and guns in it, but that’s where the extra effort, the difficult path, lies.”

    I mean, making that flat setup great instead of shallow is what’s difficult.

    I just made a clarification for a comment meant to clarify the post. . . .

  • I wasn’t criticising you, Christopher. Just noticing an amusing coincidence. And the 3 acts in The Path are actually not at all the same as in the classical 3 act structure.

    I posted a little response to the Gamasutra article here and linked to this blog in the comments.

  • I get the feeling that the growth of the independent game industry is exactly the “game noir” movement that’s the topic of this discussion. Counter-Strike and Portal are prime examples of independent projects that experimented with new ideas and were backed by publishers that believed in the ideas. Coincidentally Valve picked up both titles and made a killing with them.

    Someone in the Gamasutra article commented that publishers need to be more willing to fund these upstarts and independent projects, I agree. My guess is that there must be difficulty is in recouping development costs or red-tape involving working out the development with an external team.

    The numbers don’t necessarily reflect profits, but the top-selling Xbox Live Arcade games are ports or remakes of classic games for the most part. I wonder how well a new mid-budget original title from the likes of Capcom or Konami would sell. Namco could take more risks like Katamari through online distribution. But no, it seems that everyone is caught up on producing mediocre $60 games (ie Assasin’s Creed).

    I don’t know about ya’ll but I’m sick of $60 games.