Genesis Noir review
Life, the universe and everything – it's all up for discussion in Genesis Noir. This experimental point-and-click noir-seeped adventure sees you travelling through the entire history of the Earth and mankind as well as in and around outer space in a quest to prevent your lover's death. If you think that sounds like an ambitious plot thread for a roughly four-hour game, you'd be right. Much like life itself, the game is at its best when you're able to just sit back and admire its incredible beauty. It’s when it starts to overthink its grand message and what it might mean that it starts to feel a little more like a matter of style over substance.
You play No Man, a watch peddler living on an unnamed planet who is caught in a love triangle with two other cosmic beings, Miss Mass and Golden Boy. The game proper starts when you walk in on a confrontation between the two, the scene freezing as your rival for Miss Mass’s affection attempts to shoot her at point-blank range. But this is no ordinary gunshot. In fact, it's actually what we humans would (eventually) call The Big Bang, the event that scientists commonly believe triggered the creation of our universe.
Your mission is to jump into spots along the timeline of the universe created by the gunshot, from meteors striking the Earth to warriors pouring tea in feudal Japan. There is usually no clear goal provided, so you’ll simply explore each chapter until reaching its conclusion, earning yourself a trinket from that particular era, such as an instrument after swapping tunes with a jazz musician. Each trinket translates in turn to a mechanism on your world that looks a little like an upside-down bass clef. And just why are you hopping around space and time collecting objects shaped like musical symbols? Well, all these mechanisms combined together will be able to create a black hole able to reverse the gunshot that's about to hit your beloved. The only slight problem is it'll also reverse the entire creation of Earth and its surrounding universe, and all those you've visited in it, too.
To say there's a lot going on in Genesis Noir is therefore an understatement. But whilst it might sound like it’s throwing all kinds of ideas up in the air, there is a clear structure to the game. The room where Miss May is shot at acts as your hub, with both her and Golden Boy frozen in place and the trajectory of the gunshot acting as a scrolling, horizontal timeline of chapters that are unlocked in a linear order. Once you've played through a chapter you can't replay it again through the timeline, but you can select it again from the game's menu, though there isn’t a lot of gameplay incentive to replay here. The eleven total chapters all have names like “Singularity” or “Seeding,” each beginning with quite wordy and at times a little too long-winded paragraphs setting the scene of the time period you're entering.
Genesis Noir is a third-person game, varying between side views and overhead perspectives. You'll move through the chosen areas using WASD on the keyboard, while the mouse is used to both control the camera and click objects around the screen to see what you can interact with. There's no map, hotspot highlighter, or often any objective as to what you should be doing in each section, which can get slightly confusing at times, so your best bet is to click as many things as possible until something happens. Rather than solving many puzzles, the world of Genesis Noir is instead all about interacting with your current environment – from picking the petals out of a sunflower with a simple click or rotating the entire Earth by dragging it – until a new path is revealed or something new is unlocked for you to interact with. Only one scene in a laboratory, which sees you flicking buttons and switches of different machines to match the appearance of a sound wave, requires you to do any real hard thinking, and it feels a little out of place in a game mostly about spinning and swivelling rather than solving.
The joy in these interactions is in their unexpected nature and the game's pleasure of taking you into both the macro and micro perspectives of the universe and existence itself. One minute you're bouncing along the stars, the next you’re digging a pathway through the Earth to make a passage for a flower to take root. In one particularly entertaining segment that feels much more grounded amongst all of the other cosmic goings-on, you'll find yourself jamming with your saxophone alongside a double bass musician, repeating patterns he throws at you by clicking different on-screen giant piano keys until you create a jazz symphony.
When these interactions work, they're great fun, but every so often the imprecise controls mar the experience. Trying to drag a sun from daytime into night can take ages using a mouse, whilst I found the left and right directional keys allowed me to get it done in seconds, with no instruction or prompt as to which method I was supposed to be using. Really this is the case with the gameplay in general. It's very tactile in style, meaning you're encouraged to experiment by clicking and dragging most things in the current landscape. But rarely is there even a little clue as to what you might need to do to progress. There are no visible prompts or objectives, which can leave you trying the wrong things for far too long before you realise what you should be doing to continue the story.
What keeps these interactions feeling enjoyable for the most part is the sheer gorgeousness of Genesis Noir's artwork. Made up of simple line art and mostly black and white with the odd stroke of gold – and one late psychedelic sequence that is truly magical – the noir theme is unmistakable, yet never oppressive. Instead, the light and dark shades only complement the game's introspective, reflective nature. I've never felt wistful about space travel before, or Earth's place amongst the stars, but you can't help but find yourself breathless and a little taken aback on such a grand journey, plunging through different points in time and space.
The designers have taken an interesting approach to the game's aesthetic by means of a process called generative art – in other words, an autonomous process that can create random graphical elements rather than a predetermined display each time. Here that basically means that your interactions with the world result in their own abstract versions of the environment (different shapes and sizes of stars, for example) instead of a planned, programmed outcome every time. It's another aspect of the game that feeds into its experimental, surprising nature, and thankfully supports rather than detracts from the gameplay.
The rich, jazzy soundtrack also befits the noir theme, with plenty of melodic brass, pensive piano chords and plucked strings, while sound effects from the objects you interact with, like sprouting plants or galloping deer, breathe more life into the world. There's no voice acting, or much written dialogue, with the music often left alone to convey the emotions of each scene. It does this well, with skittish drumbeats highlighting fear or terror, or a solo saxophone melody emphasising your character's loneliness.
I found myself understanding the story and its grand concepts for the most part, the chapter headings and lengthy introductory paragraphs helping to illustrate where in Earth's history I was heading. That is, I did until about an hour from the end, when everything became decidedly more Lynchian than what had come before and shifted towards the utterly abstract. Although I enjoyed the colourful psychedelic scene set to a joyous song about life, this bombastic number wasn't the climax of the game as I had assumed. In fact, there were still several scenes to follow, mostly hammering you over the head with the decision you face about your lover's predicament (an actual choice that you will have to make at the end). These felt unnecessary, as the crucial dilemma before you has already been made very clear by this point and the added scenes merely dragged out the inevitable.
One particularly tedious section sees you having to hold down the mouse button through the timelines of different characters you've met along the way, and then holding it again to move all the way back through the same timeline to get to your present self. This gets tiresome by the third or fourth character and doesn't really seem to add any extra meaning to the storyline. Whilst the game grapples with big ideas and concepts throughout, it still manages to mostly make sense and follow a cohesive structure until the sudden frustration of these final sections. It feels as if the developers had extra scenes they wanted to work in but couldn't fit them anywhere and so added them just before the end, rather than editing them down or doing away with them altogether, which would have made for a better, tighter experience.
It's a shame these last few scenes left me feeling impatient for the ending rather than wanting to bask longer in the game’s dreamlike ruminations, because to that point Genesis Noir had been a thoughtful and often very beautiful game that tackled some big topics rarely explored, from the universe around us to our very existence. With so much to admire here, I just wish the developers had the courage to trim down one or two of the final few sections to truly let the game's grand intentions go out with a bang rather than a whimper.