There’s a musical sequence in Genesis Noir which rivals the best in recent video game memory. The game’s protagonist, referred to enigmatically as No Man, meets a busking double bassist. The pair lock eyes and start to jam; call and response at first—he tells me what to play and I mirror it on the saxophone. But then, with the groove established, the performance erupts into spectacular improvisation. No Man fades from the picture and instead, the entire screen becomes a musical instrument. I slide and scrawl the cursor across it and cascading, jazz-inflected notes appear. Better yet, the notes I hit assume a visual form, transformed into the apartment blocks and skyscrapers of the game’s illustrated riff on New York. It feels like I’m harmonizing with the computer, playing an entire musical city into existence.
Like its New York inspiration, which is also the home of developer Feral Cat Den, Genesis Noir, out now on PC, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, is a melting pot of influences. Aesthetics borrow from film noir while mechanics loosely resemble the point and click adventure genre. Sound is vital; every mouse click or button press results in pleasantly chiming tones, an approach reminiscent of David Kanaga’s work on games such as musical walking sim Proteus and, more pertinently, tactile puzzler Vignettes. And there are a lot of puzzles in Genesis Noir, most of them requiring the player to manipulate on-screen objects. These are spread across time and space in a story which draws on Italian writer Italo Calvino’s 1965 short story collection Cosmicomics. Like I said, there’s a lot going on.
Not that you need to know any of this going in; the game’s opening 30 minutes is lean and confident. A short introductory text sets the scene: “Sometimes reality is too complex for visual perception… but imagination embodies the dark unknown in myth.” Romantic piano rings across a cityscape of art deco-inspired buildings; the protagonist enters the frame, a rakish man whose long overcoat looks like that of a private investigator. Two events then unfold which are fundamentally linked: the break-up of a love triangle and the big bang of the universe itself. It’s a set-up rich in metaphor but Feral Cat Den, initially at least, veers towards the latter mystery: how did the cosmos begin, how might it end; eventually, what gives life meaning?
To answer these questions, Genesis Noir accelerates through a succession of shots, scenes, and interactions. Part animated comic book, part interactive puzzler, its minimalist monochromatic style is accented with a dash of luxurious gold. In one sequence, I’m planting seeds from which stars will grow; in another, discovering the dawning of cellular life in prehistoric oceans. The game’s soundtrack is mostly trad jazz, but, as a whole, it’s firmly in touch with the celestial spirituality you find in the music of the great John and Alice Coltrane. This all occurs while the camera cuts with freewheeling abandon; image after image of beautifully rendered illustrations, each more striking than the last. Genesis Noir possesses an exhilarating sense of forward motion.
I couldn’t help but think of the work involved in putting together its gorgeously drawn landscapes, characters, and interactions, the last of which are often used only once. The game has little interest in dwelling on these moments, instead speeding through its own space-time continuum. The work feels decidedly indulgent, not in a negative way, but the sheer mass of sights and sounds it extends to the player. I’m not surprised the game has been in development since 2014; honestly, what a way to spend the greater part of a decade.
It’s such a different conception of video games than what we’re used to. Look to blockbuster open worlds and you’ll find greater digital indulgence: hyper-detailed textures in environments that stretch into the distance. But these spaces are designed, if not for outright habitation, then certainly revisitation; their visual splendour is designed to keep us engaged as we return. Genesis Noir doesn’t really have traditional levels to explore, much less entire worlds, and what you do see flashes by in an instant. It’s an almost flippant approach to design—an almighty flex—and one which feels refreshingly counter to the underlying economic logic of so many titles.
Despite its experimental sensibility, the game is notably polished and lengthy. All in, I played for roughly five hours, but the breeziness which defines its opening sequences, as well as the sense of wonder, isn’t quite sustained. Sections dedicated to the game’s central romance resurface but they begin to feel like a drag; Genesis Noir is a much better mystery than it is a love story. So too are the puzzles occasionally finickity; as it progresses, the interactions also begin to feel a little restrained. They’re always pleasantly intuitive—popping bubbles by running the cursor over them, rotating the analogue stick to fast forward through time—but when the look and sound is so punchy, it feels like the mechanics of the game should be similarly inventive; they aren’t quite.
Still, there’s handful of dazzling set pieces in the final third of Genesis Noir, none less so than the crescendo itself. I don’t think it's a spoiler to describe this as a dance across the cosmos, or that color does eventually explode into the game. Like the earlier duet, it offers another opportunity to wild out, to simply throw the cursor across the screen and see what emerges. It gets close to the loose-limbed and improvisatory nature of jazz—an opportunity to revel in the game’s singular and beautiful kind of cacophony. While an undeniable audio-visual marvel, the moment also transcends spectacle, hinting towards something profound about the act of creation, be that cosmic or indeed personal.