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Opinion: Is The Industry Ready For Its 'Game Noir'?
Opinion: Is The Industry Ready For Its 'Game Noir'?
December 31, 2007 | By Steve Gaynor

December 31, 2007 | By Steve Gaynor
More: Console/PC

In a hit-driven industry that requires millions of dollars brought to the table just for a title to make the qualifying round, TimeGate Studios designer Steve Gaynor opines that the lessons of film noir will pave the way for games to develop a new and engaging kind of interaction, opening the field beyond just the BioShocks and Halos.

In the late 30's through the 50's, American film was a spectacle-based business. The market was dominated by the studio system, and blockbuster epics and musicals ruled the public consciousness. The stars, budgets, and sets were enormous. It didn't take long for the entire enterprise to become very bloated. Eventually, pricetags began outstripping profits in an arms race to sensory overload. It was during this era that film noir was born.

Film noir was a pragmatic school of filmmaking, rebelling against popular big-budget fluff out of pure necessity. These were B-films, low investment projects quick to produce and intended simply to fill out an evening's double bill. Under the constraints of little money or time to build unique sets to shoot on, or to stage scenes featuring armies of extras, or to exploit complex lighting, camera setups, or special effects, noir filmmakers had to seek out new ways to build tension onscreen and keep their audience engaged.

They did so by focusing on flawed, unpredictable characters living out street-level conflicts between individuals in the mundane, modern-day urban world. They drew from pulp novels and crime fiction for their source material, and benefited immeasurably from the influx of expatriate German Expressionist filmmakers fleeing the Nazi expansion throughout Europe at the time.

Instead of building a fantastical set, film noir would film in vérité city streets and back alleys. Instead of dousing dozens of dancers with massive lighting rigs and filming them with a drove of whirling camera cranes, noir filmmakers would frame individuals frankly in dramatic up-shot, a single spotlight casting ominous silhouettes across the ceiling.

Film noirs like Out of the Past, Kiss Me Deadly, and The Big Combo made a new kind of entertainment out of the very limitations that constrained them, and went on to influence everything from the writers of Cahiers du Cinema and the French New Wave of the 60's, to the Coen brothers' films of today. Necessity being the mother of invention, film noir created something unique and affecting, something that has lived on, out of the need to engage people without relying on the spectacle of the day's million-dollar blockbusters.

Maybe you can see where I'm going with this.

We are currently a hit-driven industry, and the games that get media and player attention are those with the most money behind them to provide the biggest spectacle. In the commercial sector, everyone is vying with the likes of Mass Effect, Bioshock, and Halo 3 for mindspace; if you want to be taken seriously by "the gamer public," you have to hit not just the game design mark, but the whizz-bang cutting-edge graphical mark as well.

You have to bring millions of dollars to the table just to qualify, which leads to extreme risk aversion by publishers and developers, and a tendency over time to lose players who are tired of the same old thing dressed up in more and more expensive clothes. When your game is backed by tens of millions of dollars, you can't use it as a testing ground for wild new mechanics and dynamics never tried before; however, when you're building a low-budget 2D platformer, even your successful experiments won't make an impact on the medium at large, the "big games" that get everyone talking.

What we've got left is a huge gulf between popular, full-experience 3D action/adventure games that need to be financial blockbusters to survive, and marginalized casual/handheld/movie licensed games that don't register on the mass consciousness radar.

We need our B films. We need that freedom to explore truly meaningful new avenues of interaction, quickly and nimbly, without the pressure of an eight-figure budget and multi-year dev schedule weighing down on the whole enterprise. Noir already scouted this territory for us.

Noir begs game developers to reign in the scope of their production budgets, and the conflicts they depict. The noir approach promises games wherein the player isn't saving the kingdom, world or galaxy; wherein the ubermensch doesn't mow down a thousand men; wherein we can experience familiar settings in a new way, and infuse the everyday with the extraordinary.

The noir approach promises games that are direct, visceral, and intentionally oppose epicness-- games that deliver their entire message with immediacy, before you lose sight of how the story of their interactions began.

Games that take film noir as a cue shouldn't emulate the surface-- trench coats, cigarettes, femme fatales and old LA. Games should emulate the structural and emotional underpinnings that made noir work as an experience. We can do this with readily-available, inexpensive tech; we can leverage older 3D engines and simpler lighting & shader models in the same way noir filmmakers used location shooting and expressionistic cinematography.

We already have our Gone with the Winds and Wizards of Oz, and a dozen Busby Berkley spectaculars to fill in the gaps; we need our Asphalt Jungles, our Kiss Me Deadlies, our Gun Crazies and Double Indemnities and Out of the Pasts. We've proven we can do big. Noir shows us how to take the small road, explore its every twist and turn, and connect with our audience in new ways.

[This article was originally posted on Gaynor's personal weblog, Fullbright.]

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The whole design would have to evolve. Just reuse a bunch of old graphics, maybe make them black & white. Since you're not going to be killing or fighting 24/7, the game would probably need to be shorter. Portal length. And cheaper too. 19.99 type of stuff.

Matt Glanville
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Anon, funny you should mention Portal as I was just thinking that you could consider it the game equivalent of a B-movie or 'game noir'. I first thought of it because of the fact it was bundled as a sort of 'extra filler' with the Orange Box. Aside from that though, it's a short, low(ish)-budget game based on an existing engine using minimal resources (as far as voice actors and script-writing goes at least) and - most importantly - it makes the most of its ability to experiment with ingenuity.

I'd love to see more B-movie equivalents in the form of small games bundled with blockbusters, possibly even tying in.

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Thank you for this wonderful article. I see a lot of potential if the games industry were to break free of the current paradigm for production standards. One game that had me really excited at first was Indigo Prophecy. That game starts out on a small dark street in a diner, and then takes you back to the protagonist's apartment, which felt really detailed and authentic. I thought the storyline would play out really effectively on that scale, but then they pulled in the whole scenario with the gods battling over the cosmos or whatever and it just felt like a great opportunity was missed. Not every game needs to wind up with the salvation of the entire universe.

Doug Cherner
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Blizzard seems to be thinking with this mentality with World of Warcraft. The game did cost many millions of dollars to produce but the graphics were not anywhere close to state of the art when the game was released. I love the cartoony art style they used but it was a change from previous MMOs where each new MMO tries to one up the one before graphically. WoW instead of playing that game went for using just good graphics rather than spectacular and focused on the game play. I think this is the key to making a successful noir game. They need to make sure the graphics are good (meaning not state of the art but still fun to look at) then focus the rest of their attention on game play.

Chris Rock
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While I would love to see a truly noir approach to games and I appreciate the plea Gaynor is making, this summary of the genre does not do it justice. Noir was not created as a means to an end. There was no group of directors that didn't know how to make a film with a small budget except "by focusing on flawed, unpredictable characters living out street-level conflicts between individuals in the mundane, modern-day urban world."

Low budgets may have helped kickstart noir, I'm sure they did. It can't be denied that big budget projects tend to lack experimentation because the backers don't want to take any risks with their bank books. Still, noir is more related to artistic innovation than business strategy.

Film Noir was a movement which sprouted from an increasingly dark outlook in American filmmakers, reflecting an increasingly dark outlook in American culture (due to the Depression, the rise of organized crime and eventually the WW2 environment). It was influenced by German expressionism of the 20's, but came from American filmmakers; not an "influx of expatriate German [Expressionists]."

Being noir has nothing to do with low budgets or pragmatism and it definitely is not "vérité" (try a couple decades later). Noir is about abstraction, the blending of reality and fantasy, truth and lies, good and evil, light and shadow. Open up any book on it and you'll find the phrase "moral ambiguity." Noir is about beauty contrasted against ugly minds in an ugly world. It's always cynical and sometimes nihilistic.

Games can be noir, but not until we start taking them seriously and try expressing some ideas. It can be done. It should be.

I do agree about game budgets, but for different reasons. All of the experimentation will take place with small budgets because that's where you can afford to take risks and because the standard for games as of today is pathetically childish, risky experimentation is a must.

The short, tightly crafted game is also a format that will need to be explored for further innovations and better structured games, but it will require a completely different perspective than the current one. The dominant theory on game design is Raph Koster's oversimplified view that a game must be a string of shiny lessons for the player to bat around like a kitten with yarn. Keep them untangling your ludemes as long as possible because that's all a game is, yarn to a kitten.

There's a whole universe to explore and we've just seen the beginning. Start simple with what we know; a coming of age story told in 3 acts. That's simple enough that most designers use do it intuitively, but this is the real trick: make sure that when you build it, you don't just take the easiest path or the traditional one, but the one that grows organically from the story, expressing it and exploring its many facets.

In film, it's the cinematographer and editor that must learn to construct images to convey ideas, a job that does not come naturally to most people. The challenge to the game designer is a hundred times more complex. It'll be hard and confusing, but worth it.

Daniel Lopes Parra
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The things that make small budget movies really compeling are the ones that require new-fresh technology to look good.. performance capture/urban scenery ... games are upside down as far as production cost goes.. In cinema, style costs your money and realism is free .. in games realism is what costs the most.

The logical step would be go down to "cartoon/stylizated" work as animators (2D/3D) do in movies/series...

David Lettier
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So true. A smaller scope with a more intense beam of inspirational and intriguing game play/mechanics to hold an audience. The large highways of creativity are crowded, frustrating, and bland. Time to travel the smaller back roads allowing you to slow down, divulge in the minute details, and get to know what is truly real.

Al Witenberg
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Actually, the "game noir" subculture you are talking about already exists in the form of modding, specifically – Neverwinter Nights and Neverwinter Nights 2 modding on There are literally thousands of modules there, and best of them employ this short and efficient "noir" approach quite well. And don't be afraid of this fine pieces of free, non-commercial creativity – let me assure you, the quality is already there, modding just needs more publicity from game-related websites like Gamasutra.

Matias Bernasconi
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I think if a developer set out copying the grim fandango gameplay and focuses on mystery plus a Femme Fatal they'd be on the right track.

Andres Hernandez
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I totally agree, there needs to be more B-games. Low budget, high concept, heavy experimentation. I'm actually working on a story right now for what could be considered "game noir" (just a solo project), but obviously I am not going to give it away or people just will steal my ideas. Anyone else sick of saving the world from aliens... again? Also, let WWII rest in piece, stop beating the dead horse.

Joe Schultz
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Great article, and I totally agree. What more, I'm making good on it... one of our next games is called The Late Call; it's a smaller noir based 3D stealth adventure game made with the specific design focus of smaller is better and less is more.

More info + pre-release screenshots available at http:/

Thanks again for this article!

Rick Castello
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I miss the old "Deja Vu" game and that sort.

It seems like a well-crafted game along these lines with gameplay like Portal could do very well... especially amongst the growing group of non-violent/puzzle gamers, like my wife.


Benjamin Quintero
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I think that one of the largest problems that most people don't realize was mentioned earlier in the comments but brushed over. The idea of a Noir movie is so much easier than a Noir game. Writing a script, buying a camera, and finding actors (even if it's your mom who plays "the old lady downstairs") are just about all the tools you need to get started. The world is your canvas and someone else already painted it for you. Making a game; Noir or not, requires man-months of art investment, modeling packages (or photo editing packages for 2D games), compilers, programmers, and several months supply of Red Bull.

Imagine filming (even with your aging video camera) a close up of a man nearly drawn to tears after receiving a phone call that detailed some unspeakable tragedy. His eyes deepened the story as you watch his emotions unfold. ... Now go animate that and tell me which one cost less to get the same level of emotion and fidelity of expression.

I know what the author is trying to say but it just feels all too idealistic. When you sit down to apply it pragmatically the idea fizzles. The truth is that "low budget" works in films and it could work in video games if gamers looked past the shiny pixels and accepted a lower quality of visual direction for the return of better written stories. I don't see that happening in todays market. Sam & Max is a perfect example of mid-level graphical appeal that reused environments for a return of high-bar writing and witty humor; and it flopped. If Portal had everything that is does now (humor and puzzles), but wasn't supported by a company like Valve to supply the graphical power of Source and marketing bundle of Orange Box, I highly doubt it would have even blipped on the game radar. Narbacular Drop would have just been another "cool student project" and nothing more. Sad but true.

The day that we can film the real world with a personal camera and simply click "translate to interactive world" might be the day we can seriously consider a proposal for Noir games.

David Peterson
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Tools are the tricky bit. I guess it all depends on what the objective is. Getting emotional engagement with 'realistic' characters is hard. But a game like Grim Fandango, even though the characters are simple and cartoony, still managed to engage. A good game is a good game really, the trick is getting it out into the public attention once it's done.

The Internet helps with distribution but getting people into the mindset of being willing to shell out smaller amounts for a smaller, more innovative game is the tricky big. The comment about Portal only being successful because of being bundled is perhaps a good idea - it would be cool if when you buy your next 'hit' game it was bundled with a couple of short, wacky and/or innovative games. Geometry Wars was thrown in with Project Gotham 3 I believe and went on to be a big hit on XBLA.

Rob Valdivia
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ITS UP TO THE GAME CREATORS TO CREATE THE GAMES.. no need to fret, with game technology continually improving for the next generation of clever game artist, the bloated modern day production structure will seem more and more wasteful and inefficient. Film Noir was about the artistic innovations which then changed and affected our American culture, film production, and its business strategy.

Smart and savvy game designers will find unconventional and creative solutions to making innovative AAA quality games more efficiently. cummon theres a load of "13 year olds" out there right now making kick ass mods by them selves or in a small group that look and play F-ing great. If we hope for better, funner, innovative games despite the concerns of profit driven publishers and developers then..


Brandon Van Every
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To achieve lower budgets, why are stories seen as an answer? A story with lotsa branches means lotsa labor to fill out those branches. A story with few branches is a psychological overlay; maybe it helps, maybe it does not.

Cheapen the graphics. We could be making games about worlds composed entirely of square boxes, if we could get past the prejudice of "realistic" 3D graphics being essential to gameplay. As another poster observed, our 3D worlds aren't pre-built for us. We have to build them, so build them cheaply.

Of course, some other kind of interaction has to make up for the primitive graphics. Could be stories. Could be abstract systems of game rules causing all the boxes to interact in an interesting manner. Whatever gives the player a compelling experience + is economical to produce. The game industry has this mentality that everything has to come out of a 3D modeling + animation package. This locks the game production into expensive practices. If you want cheaper games, get out of the production trap.

Bren Lynne
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We're making a B-movie/B-game bundle right now!

The movie is Blood: A Butcher's Tale. The game, which is a sequel which picks up right where the film ends, is Blood: Butcher's Block.

Check it out at