Genesis Noir can often feel less like a video game and more like an interactive Experience, with a capital E. It’s an abstract journey through time and space presented as a brooding noir tale about a watch peddler who witnesses the murder of his beloved Miss Mass at the hands of a jealous third party. The gunshot that kills her is the Big Bang, and thus our humble seller of time desperately combs time and space in a bid to find a way to stop the Big Bang itself and save his lady love. It is at times evocative, striking, jaw-dropping, exciting, and at other times is awkward and dull and pretentious. Above all else is unique and creative, a passion project created by a dedicated team across years of their life. I’m just not sure that Genesis Noir is for me. Or for you.
Your brooding, drunken watch seller is never properly named throughout the game, so for the sake of convenience, I’m going to call him as No Man, something which he is referred to at one point during the story.
Without a doubt the game’s strongest and most alluring feature is its striking visual style. At its simplest, I could best describe it as being like animated drawings done on a blackboard using white chalk. The characters, planets, buildings, streets, plants and No Man himself are sketched in white using simple lines. But it’s once everything is animated together that Genesis Noir reveals itself as something truly special, and I can’t find the words to adequately describe the astonishing madness of it all, so instead I’d advise watching the trailer below.
I especially love how No Man often looms over plants and planets alike with a quizzical look on his face as he, like us, watches all manner of amazing things. I mean this in the best way possible; Genesis Noir would probably be a hell of an experience if you lit one up and go yourself just gently baked. Without the aid of certain mind-altering items, Genesis Noir is still a surreal journey filled with barmy imagery.
Although the game describes itself as a point and click adventure, it doesn’t quite mean it in the way you’re most likely thinking of. The term conjures up images of pocketing dozens of items like a professional kleptomaniac and attempting to combine them with various other objects in a bid to solve the puzzle. Logic tends to be involved somewhere along the way, although sometimes in the most convoluted ways possible. But Genesis Noir’s developer once stated that puzzles within the game tend to be less about logic and more about experimentation. That’s entirely accurate – there wasn’t a single puzzle that I was able to think my way through before even touching the controls. No, you have to fiddle around to figure it all out.
You might grab the sky and then start moving your controller or mouse in a circle to make time fast forward, or you might wind up making new lifeforms out of shapes in a bid to get some reproduction going. You’ll pop bubbles, move sliders to find just the right frequency to make plants grow, poke a variety of things in a variety of ways and even create a couple of black holes. Most of it is abstract, feeling somewhat disconnected from what’s actually happening.
Every action you take is accompanied by an array of visual and audio cues that make them weirdly satisfying to do, which is good because sometimes trying to figure out what Genesis Noir wants you to do this time can be annoying. It doesn’t help that the PC version’s controls are loose and clumsy.
I appreciate the concept of experimental gameplay, but at times I wondered if being able to play Genesis Noir was actually making it better. Once the novelty of the interactions wore off I began to find them a bore. They’re so simple that they barely add anything to the game, and frequently the puzzles feel disconnected from the story. Perhaps this tale of No Man might have been better told as an animated movie.
Considering the entirety of Genesis Noir only takes 3-4 hours, a lot of it feels horribly padded out and sluggish. It’s a strange situation because at times Genesis Noir feels like it’s scared to be a video game. It tries to stick in more puzzles but without committing to them, leaving you to play stretches where nothing happens outside of clicking the mouse a few times and holding down the run button. There are these moments of absolute genius within Noir where everything comes together almost perfectly, but between those brief glimpses into something better is a lot of tedious work. It feels weird to say this about such a short game, but there were plenty of moments where I said out loud, “Oh, just get on with it already.” I found myself zoning out entirely on a few occasions.
I kind of think that how you feel about Genesis Noir will related to whether or not you like modern art galleries. In so many ways it resembles the stereotypical image of modern art; a canvas with one half painted blue and the other half painted red, and a crowd of people talking about how it’s so smart and how everyone can take such different meanings from it. And I’m standing at the back thinking the reason everyone can take something different from it is because it doesn’t have any real meaning. It has no substance, no depth. It’s so vague that any meaning can be derived from it, and that doesn’t interest me, personally.
Genesis Noir is like that. It looks like it should have a deeper meaning behind its imagery and its narrative, but I don’t think it actually does.
For such a short game I ran into quite a few major problems. At one point I spent 45-minutes on a puzzle believing that I was probably missing something obvious, only to discover that the puzzle was completely broken. I got trapped in the map at one point and had to restart the game. Another time I clicked on an object and the game got stuck, refusing to display the item or let me back out.
For all of its beauty and grand ideas, Genesis Noir ultimately felt hollow, to me. For the entirety of the game, I felt disconnected, nothing more than a passive observer looking through a window at a pretty scene. The characters meant nothing to me, and because of that the story was flat and emotionless. Like No Man himself, I gazed curiously at it every now and then, and maybe loomed dramatically, but I had zero investment in any of it. I had hoped the finale might be able to bring it all together into something that felt more cohesive and impactful, but that wasn’t the case. The ending seeks to give you a choice that the rest of the game never feels like it’s building toward, and neither option felt…satisfying. Neither choice seemed to reflect the rest of the game, almost like a Mass Effect 3 situation where all your prior experience didn’t seem to tie into the final moments.
And that’s the theme of the game. Underneath the gorgeous animation and the wonderful jazz music is a journey that lacks substance. Perhaps I’m just the wrong target audience, and loads of other people will find a deeper meaning that I missed entirely within Genesis Noir. It’s difficult to review a game this abstract and this artistically focused with any certainty. All I can tell you about is my experience with it, and my experience was of a game that amazed with its visuals but that dragged across its short runtime, that had flashes of real brilliance mixed in with humdrum puzzling and a story that never resonated with me. Since Genesis Noir is on Game Pass, though, it’s an enticing prospect, one that I’d recommend checking out if you subscribe to the service because you might just find something that speaks to you. And if you don’t, well, all it has cost is a few hours.