How is it that video games exist at all?
Stop for a second and ask how it’s possible that lines of code can create a sweeping interactive world, like disparate stars coming together to form a swirling galaxy.
Genesis Noir is fascinated by that same mystery, but on a much grander scale. Developed by Feral Cat Den, the stylish indie is a surreal investigation into the granddaddy of all unsolved cases: the universe’s creation. What better way to explore the unknowable than with a mind-bending video game that feels like an impossibility in its own right?
Featuring a jaw-dropping visual style that invokes history’s greatest animators, Genesis Noir is an unforgettable point-and-click creation tale. While it’s more art installation than video game, it’s every bit as mystifying as the cosmic origin story it looks to untangle.
The Big Bang
As its name implies, the game follows the basic tenets of the film noir genre. Genesis Noir is about a watch peddler named No Man who’s caught in the middle of a bizarre love triangle. It turns out that No Man is having a secret affair with the jazz-singing Miss Mass, and her lover, Golden Boy, is simply not having it. He shoots her, but it’s not any old bullet; it’s literally the Big Bang.
If you’re already baffled, strap in. That’s only half the setup.
No Man is able to see the gunshot suspended in time before it actually connects with Miss Mass. He decides to stop it from happening by collecting the symbols necessary to craft a black hole. That would be enough to destroy the Big Bang before it hits her but will wipe away eons of creation in the process.
It’s a wild premise that creates a clever opportunity to take players on a mind-bending journey through time and space.
An unorthodox setup calls for some unorthodox gameplay, and that’s sure to be a polarizing point for some players. Genesis Noir is best described as a point-and-click adventure that’s built around simple interactions. You’ll spin a galaxy around in a circle to move time forward, tap a rock to throw it at an enormous saxophone player, and move a cursor over some drunken burp bubbles to pop them.
It’s more of an interactive animation where little gestures move the story along. The real experience comes from watching Genesis Noir visualize the creation of the universe across set pieces that never cease to stun. There are a handful of traditional puzzles along the way, but players are mostly passengers on one big trip.
And boy, is it trippy.
The living blackboard
The most striking thing about Genesis Noir is its one-of-a-kind look.
The game fuses 3D environments with hand-drawn animations to achieve visuals that seem like they could only exist in an experimental short film. The stylized black-and-white images call back to classic noir cinema while lending the game an otherworldly aura.
It’s not just for show, either. The concept of creation is baked into the hand-drawn approach. Animation is the act of giving life to something. An idea becomes a mark on a page. That mark evolves into an image. Individual frames come together to create the illusion of movement. It’s a cycle of birth with that first stroke on a page acting like a cartoon’s own Big Bang.
Genesis Noir harkens back to some of the earliest animations when the medium itself was still forming. The most immediate comparison is Émile Cohl, a French animator who began making films in the early 1900s. Cohl was famous for his distinct process of drawing on white paper and printing the images on negative film. That gave his works a white-on-black look now known as the “Living Blackboard.”
Over 100 years later, Genesis Noir adopts that “Living Blackboard” style as its own. Of course, the game’s look is much more sophisticated than anything possible in 1908. The frames are busier, the animation is smoother, and the back half of the game takes a visual turn that would have made Cohl’s head pop. It has the DNA of animation’s earliest days, imbued with a distinctly modern look.
Just as Genesis Noir captures the universe’s creation and evolution, its art style encapsulates the full breadth of the medium’s history. In every frame, we’re reminded of animation’s primordial days where even the crudest movement was a miracle. In the same breath, we get to see exactly how far we’ve come since then with a video game that feels like a remarkable impossibility in its own right.
The form is the thesis.
Genesis Noir is at its best when players can melt into its surreal visuals. It’s like walking through an elaborate art installation that momentarily teleports you out of time and space, like Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone. Don’t try to make heads or tails about what it all means; the formal experiment is the experience.
There are moments where that idea, however, is interrupted, and the challenges of video games as a medium rear their ugly head. The game is buggy in its current state. Players should probably expect it to crash at least once or to hit some kind of wall that forces a reset. I had to replay one chapter three times over to finally get through to the other side.
It’s not always clear what you’re supposed to be doing, either.
Since the game avoids any sort of tutorializing to maintain a pure aesthetic, certain moments left me looking for a YouTube longplay video to figure out what I was missing. Like many pieces of conceptual art, Genesis Noir is not concerned with explaining itself to the viewer. The images make no compromises, so the game rarely signposts what to do next. That’s a blessing and a curse.
There’s an argument to be made that Genesis Noir didn’t need to be a video game at all. It most certainly could have been cleaner as a feature-length film without the eccentricities of a touchy medium.
But experiencing Genesis Noir only works as well as it does because it’s a game. It’s a form of media that’s still shifting and growing. We’re watching it evolve at a rapid pace and seeing the intermediary moments that future history books on the subject will try to preserve. Genesis Noir isn’t just interested in beginnings and endings. It’s about all the moments in between — clumsiness and all — that make this confounding cosmic journey we’re on worthwhile. 8/10.
Genesis Noir is available now for PC, Mac, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: When it comes to video games, Inverse values a few qualities that other sites may not. For instance, we care about hours over money. Many new AAA games have similar costs, which is why we value the experience of playing more than price comparisons. We don’t value grinding and fetch quests as much as games that make the most out of every level. We also care about the in-game narrative more than most. If the world of a video game is rich enough to foster sociological theories about its government and character backstories, it’s a game we won’t be able to stop thinking about, no matter its price or popularity. We won’t punch down. We won’t evaluate an indie game in the same way we will evaluate a AAA game that’s produced by a team of thousands. We review games based on what’s available in our consoles at the time. And finally, we have very little tolerance for junk science. (Magic is always OK.)