Noir games come out of the tradition of film noir, adopting the cynicism, black and white aesthetics, and other genre tropes for the video game form. Film noir came about because of Hollywood restrictions that didn’t allow for explicit violence, sexual content, or criminals portrayed in a positive light—while video games nowadays aren’t subject to these restrictions, noir games adopt the atmosphere created in that environment to appeal to fans of the genre.
Noir games often use the dramatic lighting, hardboiled detectives, and authority corruption that comprised the film genre to tell new and intriguing stories in a genre setting. These games do a particularly excellent job of turning the tropes into creative new work.
L.A. Noire Tackles Post-WWII Concerns in True Noir Fashion
No list of noir games is complete without L.A. Noire, Rockstar Games and Team Bondi’s foray into the dark and gritty world of 1950s Los Angeles. As newbie detective Cole Phelps, players must use their detective skills to root out the connection behind the deaths of several of Phelps’ fellow Marine Corps veterans.
Featuring film noir’s trademark interest in corruption and 1950s cultural anxieties, L.A. Noire adopts the interests of the genre without falling victim to clichés. While it’s among some of the best noir games for its faithful adaptation of the genre, it doesn’t simply recreate old stories or modernize them—it tells a new story in the original setting. L.A. Noire also doesn’t rely on the visuals of noir to get its point across, instead focusing on the themes and setting to do the work; the game is in full color, with few of the visual tropes that typically serve as stand-ins for the genre.
Max Payne‘s Search For Corruption is a Hallmark of Noir Games
The Max Payne franchise is an excellent crime series in its own right, but it also ranks high among noir games for its modernization of many of film noir’s more unique tropes and themes. As the titular character, players are on the trail of the distributors of Valkyr, a designer drug whose users are prone to acts of violence, including killing Payne’s wife and daughter.
The mystery and detective connections to film noir are obvious and abundant, but the game also takes on some more obscure references as well. Dream sequences, a common theme in early film noir, play an important role in Max Payne, who undergoes several drug-induced visions over the course of the series that force him to confront the guilt and horror he feels about the deaths of his family. Without spoiling too much, the game also explores the corrupting nature of power and the dark underside of established, trustworthy institutions as the hero, Max Payne, journeys further and further into darkness in search of truth.
The Wolf Among Us Explores Tropes of Noir Games in Fantastic Setting
Film noir is often concerned with gritty realism, but noir games and other modern adaptations of the genre often blend the conventions with other genres, such as sci-fi or fantasy. In The Wolf Among Us, Telltale Games creates a noir-inspired adaptation of the beloved Fables comic series, itself a reimagined fairy tale where storybook characters must deal with the harsh reality of modern city life.
Fabletown sheriff Bigby Wolf must track down the killer behind several murders of Fables, but it’s not just the hardboiled plot that puts The Wolf Among Us with other great noir games. Bigby struggles constantly with his own dark nature, fighting off or indulging in negative interactions with his fellow Fables. The corruption of the city—a common film noir theme—also plays an important role in the conflict, as the characters aren’t just combating their own folkloric natures, but also the way the darkness of the city encourages them to behave.
Grim Fandango Injects Noir Games With a Bit of Humor
Like The Wolf Among Us, Grim Fandango doesn’t rely on film noir’s realism—instead, it goes the complete opposite direction as players unearth corruption in the land of the dead. Manny Calavera, travel agent to the deceased, believes that something fishy is going on in the way the dead are being sent to the Underworld, and ends up entangled in a conspiracy.
While the game’s tone is more funny overall than typical film noir, it does pay homage to common tropes. Though Manny doesn’t start off as a detective, nor do many of noir’s characters—many prominent noir films, such as Double Indemnity and Gilda, are about characters who get sucked into a conspiracy rather than being actual detectives or private investigators. Manny’s smooth talking and snappy lingo are a true trademark of noir, and the game’s humorous tone doesn’t distract from the obvious genre influence that makes it an excellent noir game.
What are your favorite noir games?