Would you prevent heaven and earth for the one you love?
That is the question posed by Genesis Noir. In this point-and-click title from Feral Cat Den and Fellow Traveller, the divine pair of desire and fate are melded in a poetic celestial drama depicting the birth of the universe. In it, a detective in a deadly love triangle must decide if he will stop the murder of his lover at the hands of a jealous admirer. This one choice will have eternal implications; as he walks through the fourth dimension through each stage of human evolution, from the Big Bang to the present-day, he explores the mysteries of space and discovers the secret to black holes, opening a path for him to save Miss Mass from Golden Boy’s bullet. Will he protect the sultry jazz singer from her jealous saxophone player, preventing the creation of the universe, or let her die, allowing existence to take form?
While that synopsis sounds confident, I’m still not sure I understand Genesis Noir. It’s a game that has little in the way of traditional storytelling or game structure. The story is spread out over 12 mostly-wordless chapters. Each begins with a small batch of text that, over the course of the game, linearly explains one stage of the birth of the universe. These sections are followed by an interactive stage that metaphorically mirrors its episodic pretense with puzzles, each not so much an intellectual or physical challenge but rather a means to engage with the game’s animations.
Because so much of its story is told indirectly, it’s wide open for interpretation. But whatever that interpretation, the story is beautiful. Its art direction, citing everything from early blackboard animations like 1908’s Fantasmagorie by Émile Cohl to the optical poems of abstract animator Oskar Fischinger, is a crucial part of the formula, evoking an effortless cool of 1930s noir that offers a mystique belying its existential earnestness. The improvisational style of its jazzy soundtrack meanwhile echoes No Man’s disjointed panic as he navigates space and time to stop the inevitable.
Its exploratory format sometimes works against the game, in that the uncertainty in how to mechanically maneuver through certain scenes is disruptive to the pacing. But that same quiet confusion lends itself to moments that are contemplative, allowing the player to enjoy their whimsy. In one level I tapped a series of rain clouds to release their rain until it filled a pond and burst with lotus flowers. In another, I assembled the anatomy of prehistoric simple-celled organisms, helping them find a mate. In yet another, I finely-tuned a series of dials and knobs to successfully fire off a particle collider. The absence of any greater demands on the player would almost be boring, but in the context of the game’s themes, it bears the gratifying comfort of the intentional silence between claps.
The same creative extravagance that makes Genesis Noir so poetic unfortunately falls apart in its final act, its grayscale and gold giving way to a lengthy psychedelic orgy of color that indulges itself at the expense of the audience. But despite its late-stage misstep, I appreciate what the game achieves in terms of emphasizing the strengths of the medium. Despite how inherently interactive videogames are, they often fail to form a meaningful dialogue with their audience. Genesis Noir feels as though it wants to engage me as much as it wants to be engaged with. It reminds me of the recent debate on NFTs and the presentation of art, the argument being that museums offer value by allowing the audience to perceive how a piece interacts with space and light. Genesis Noir is similar in that it invites us to engage with a display of cosmic amuse-bouche, testing and poking and prodding in a tentative exploration that lends itself to the thrill of discovery.
No Man’s attempt to save Miss Mass from being murdered, and its implications for the universe, so brilliantly mirror the self-indulgence of a tragic romance. To the people in a relationship, everything is the start of something big and meaningful, like an entire universe forming, exploding, and expanding outward. What is it that sparks abiogenesis? What is it that sparks love? Are both an accident of proximity and fire? These questions aren’t necessarily answered in Genesis Noir. But the asking is beautiful all the same.
Genesis Noir was developed by Feral Cat Den and published by Fellow Traveller. Our review is based on the PC version. It’s also available for the Xbox One and Switch.
Holly Green is the editor-at-large of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.