Genesis Noir Review
Genesis Noir is a one-of-a-kind gem–the kind of experimental art-game that unfolds into something far bigger than a puzzler or a vehicle for exploration. Its creative direction is exquisite, and for the most part, the execution dazzling. But it’s also the sort of experience that prompts many instances of neurotic self-reflection, with the recurring smooth brain echo of “am I actually a dumbass because I didn’t pay much attention to my roommate’s insufferable obsession with string theory in college?”
I am a dumbass, but for so many other reasons. Mercifully, Genesis Noir can be as cerebral as you want it to be–if you want to fully unpack the astrophysics metaphors, existential navel-gazing, and inspiration from writer Italo Calvino (particularly, it seems, from his short anthology Cosmicomics), go wild. But, but! If brain simply goes brr because of the art and geometric madness (it’s truly a sensory feast) you’re free to do that, too.
Genesis Noir, for all its crisp minimalist lines and neatly organised chaos, is also an exercise in thematic maximalism, dressed in the moody, monochromatic trappings of jazz-drenched noir. The loose narrative circles around the crossroads of the most intense experiences one can have–love, jealousy, passion–on a grand cosmic scale.
As unassuming watch salesman No Man, you must save your lover, the sultry jazz singer Miss Mass, from getting shot by her pompadour-rocking saxophonist, Golden Boy; all are godlike beings that transcend time and space. No Man searches the universe for a way to stop this literal and figurative Big Bang, but how, and at what cost?
When I first heard of the game, I came strictly for the jazz. And I wasn’t disappointed–gameplay and movement flow beautifully with so many of the motifs, call-and-response elements, improvisational nature, and technical quirks of the genre. The exploration-focused interludes and chapters offer moments of ASMR-laden reflection (the Hunt and Gather chapters do this especially nicely) that give No Man–and the player–some much needed breathing room between wild chases across the universe. Beguilingly simple but satisfying, the puzzles, too, are neat, well-made tributes to the game’s overarching physics theme; I especially enjoyed manipulating waves in the scientist’s lab.
The shining star of the whole experience is undoubtedly the art and creative design–the hand-drawn feel echoes the linework of illustrators like Jules Feiffer. Delicate gradients and textures are carefully, methodically used to create emotional nuance around every scene and interaction. The chapter cards–each detailing a relevant expository idea around the Big Bang, are, for the first three quarters of the game, the closest thing to dialogue you’ll get. And in a brilliant stroke of humor, a section of the game that’s specially designated for its Kickstarter backers, is styled as a series of space vessels–mausoleum ships, pleasure cruisers, and emissary craft–leaving Earth, each bearing a message from backers (backers who didn’t submit a message were all packed onto a ship named “Suspicious Lack of Communication”). There’s everything from heartfelt messages to alien species, Smashmouth lyrics, “dril lives,” Harris Wittels quotes, mundane everyday advice, snippets of poetry and dad jokes.
Like a jazz solo
It’s a little jarring, then, to hit the final act of the game, which channels enormous Oscar Isaac energy from the impromptu dance scene in Ex Machina (this one, which doesn’t have quite the same impact if you’re viewing it in a contextless vacuum) and probably an entire phone book worth of acid. An androgynous ur-god type figure emerges from the chaos to guide our hero, No Man, toward the concept of free will, which also introduces color and spoken dialogue into our world–tried-and-true visual effects that seem a little too on-the-nose for a game that generally does a lot to avoid narrative simplism (there’s also a weird Japanese-themed chapter which threw me off, complete with kintsugi and samurai, that seemed very thematically out of place).
There are a few slight details that made my descent into the end of Genesis Noir really stressful, namely the color-drenched record/mandala sequence that marks an enormous existential epiphany for No Man. Mousing over sections of this enormous “record” area to fill in color became a test of endurance. I replayed this part four times because the colored graphics eclipsed crucial nodes that I had to hit with my cursor. After finally, successfully completing this giant hallucinogenic analogue of the Golden Record, the game invoked the spirit of the Death Stranding ending: that is, it didn’t end. I have complicated feelings around this, because Genesis Noir isn’t an ordinary game, and it doesn’t owe the player anything, especially not an ordinary coda. Were some of the sequences simply, unnecessarily there as a showcase of artistic ability? Yes, absolutely. Does it detract from your experience as a “player”–however you might define this? Your mileage may vary. At this point though, I was exhausted.
As with many art-focused games, it’s painful to discuss a work’s aspirations and pretensions without degrading the ambition of its ideas, especially in an industry where art-games are often relegated to the sidelines of mainstream discourse. Genesis Noir is at once a remarkable creative achievement that embodies the best and brightest of the art-game genre. But as the game unfolds in all its zany glory, it also loses its way at the end–the message gets through, but the repetition becomes tedious. Perhaps the best way to reinvent the Big Bang isn’t in one harried review sitting. Play it slow and savor it.