There’s a common trope in mysteries or detective stories where the investigator stops for a drink. It serves as a lull in the case, a quiet moment – it creates some contrast in the tone, and allows us to watch the investigator reflect, without the distractions of new information or testimony. It’s often private and intimate, watching this person who’s away from work but still not able to switch off – there’s something really human about it, something vulnerable. But the aesthetics of observing that process are very different from being in that position yourself. As spectators, we savour the investigator’s emotions – uncertainty, frustration, the scrabbling need to piece things together and make some sort of sense of it. We observe those emotions with a certain detachment – with an aesthetic eye. But when we’re feeling those emotions ourselves, it’s not the same. It’s less the detached appreciation of the art gallery and more the feeling of having lost your keys. We lack the distance of being able to watch those emotions in another character.
Obviously we’re talking in part here about the difference between films and games. In the former you observe a detective story lived out by another character, and in the latter you play out the story yourself. In video games, the frustration and uncertainty of the mystery are directly your emotions. That gap raises a question for genres that rely heavily on atmosphere or mood, such as noir: can a game preserve a strong atmosphere or mood when the player is directly experiencing the protagonist’s emotions? Is it possible to sustain a genuine noir atmosphere in a video game, or does it require the emotional distance of watching somebody else do it? Does the player’s direct point-of-view experience undermine the vibe? We might not be able to answer the question categorically, but let’s at least see if we can make some inroads – offer up some tools that might be of use in forming an answer.
I want to begin then with White Night, a 2015 game from French developers OSome Studio. The game doesn’t seem to have been that well-received – it has a 68 on Metacritic, and – possibly more telling – as of writing, while 76% of Steam players have finished the tutorial, only 20% made it to the end of the first full chapter. Nobody really kinda bothered with this game. Originally I was one of those people – I purchased the game in 2015, and didn’t make it that far. But, seven years later, I’ve reinstalled it – it has a really striking visual style, and I wanted to give it another round.
So White Night is a good case study for our question. Visually it looks the part. In terms of plot, it has a detective with hat and coat stumbling around lighting matches, and a mysterious woman who sings at a jazz club – yeah, sure, noir. In terms of gameplay, it’s similar to Resident Evil: you have to find various keys and use them to open doors and overcome puzzles. At times, it’s frankly a little annoying. It’s not always totally obvious what you’re expected to do – I understand why people didn’t make it through the first chapter. The puzzles can sometimes be associative rather than logical, in a manner reminiscent of point and click adventure games. The clearest example is the game’s first puzzle, in the tutorial. You arrive at the mansion and discover it’s locked, and must search for a key. You can poke around a well and a barn, and next to the mansion’s front door there’s also a marble arm in a box. The arm has come off a statue in the graveyard, which has been recently moved – and if you move it back, light falls on the hidden front door key. There is a logical connection between the arm and the statue, but there’s no instigating reason to assume either of them are connected to the key. That evidence is only supplied after the puzzle is solved. The arm is by the front door, but why track down where it came from? Why should you think it relates to the key? It’s just slightly weird logic – it’s associative, drawing mainly on the proximity of the arm to the door.
So the puzzles don’t always contribute to the game’s noir feeling. Sometimes they are baffling and weird – and it’s hard to have a moody atmospheric noir game when you’re mad about the point and click adventure logic. I’m tempted to draw a comparison to how a modern reader might find The Big Sleep – Chandler’s femme fatales and damsels in distress can grate on our sensibilities, again inciting the audience more to agitated reflection on the text’s construction rather than its fictional world. I recognise that I’m making a leap here – obviously these aren’t identical situations, and our reactions aren’t necessarily identical either – but it feels like the emotion at the heart of both reactions is the same. It’s not dissimilar to finding a splinter in an otherwise comfy couch – it’s a moment where the construction of the piece distracts from enjoying the piece itself.
If the noir in White Night is not compelling, then, it’s not necessarily because noir is de facto impossible in video games. It’s not that noir is better observed than played. Rather, the problem seems to be more pedestrian: the construction of the piece distracts us from the universe that its creators are trying to depict. The construction problems faced by video game developers are certainly different to those faced by artists in other media – video games have to contend with construction issues relating to control scheme, for example, or framerate, or whether or not the puzzles make any fucking sense. In White Night the Resident Evil-esque fixed camera is often really frustrating when you’re trying to dodge ghosts, because the relative depths are not always apparent. You can die in a way that feels unfair, because the game isn’t giving you the information you need to stay alive. That’s a construction issue – it’s a problem with how the game is built. Other media forms might not face the exact same challenges, but they still have challenges. We haven’t identified any unique characteristic of video games that makes them categorically unsuited to noir fiction. It seems (at least so far) that any difficulty in portraying that genre would be one of degree and not of kind.
We should also acknowledge that gameplay is not exclusively a problem. Obviously the gameplay elements of video games also open up new avenues by which meaning can be conveyed. As suggested above, White Night has a horror dimension – it has ghosts and spirits and so on. Video games seem to be particularly good at horror – maybe because you have responsibilities as a player. You have to navigate down the hallway filled with ghosts. You are the one making decisions, and so almost naturally you come to feel the sense of threat posed by the horror creatures – not merely as shocking visual or audio cues, but as threats to your gameplay goals. The ‘scare’ is not only the loud noise or sudden visual appearance, but also the fact that they’ll kill you, imposing a sudden and non-negotiable fail state. A horror game is one where you are tasked with achieving certain gameplay goals, and where you know that failure is hiding right around the corner, expected and yet unexpected, anticipated and yet still surprising. Failure is a wailing ghost, and it’s coming to find you.
In this view, horror games can be seen as a simulation of failure – or more specifically, as a simulation of the inevitability of failure, of our knowledge that failure is coming and that in some sense it’s unavoidable. The audience has to undertake a series of tasks, in full knowledge that something is coming to stop them achieving their goal. As a failure-symbol, the monster is obviously not always present – it can’t be constantly grappled with, because it’s a threat about something that might happen in the future, a specter more often than a ghoul. When failure does manifest, it is often accentuated by loud, sudden sensory experience – a shock to the body as well as the mind. There’s plenty of nuance to how horror games explore this concept of failure too. In White Night, there’s a fun little sequence early on where, as you walk towards a door, it slams shut. You know that a ghost shut it. Obviously a ghost shut it. And you can walk up and open it, and the ghost will scream at you and chase you a little down the hall. It’s a fun moment, because you get to test the boundaries of failure. You take a step towards something that might kill you, knowing that it’s probably (but not definitely) going to be okay. It’s a rehearsal of failure, where you explore how close you can get to the line without tipping over.
Really all of this is to say that the form of different media probably predisposes them to different strengths and weaknesses in their construction, which in turn seems to influence their success with certain genres. The gameplay in White Night is often clunky, which does undermine any suave noir atmosphere. However, in the same breath, it does have some solid jumps and scares. It threatens the audience with the spectre of their own failure, and it does so in a way that’s only possible because of the gameplay format. There are relative strengths and weaknesses in there, but they don’t guarantee particular outcomes, and they don’t seem necessarily insurmountable. Is noir possible in video games? Probably, yeah. We haven’t proven it categorically, but we can observe that the medium has specific obstacles to address if it wants to tell a good noir story, and we have a better understanding of what those obstacles are. White Night obviously isn’t the end of that conversation, but maybe it offers us some places to begin.