Genesis Noir: On Polyphonic Space

Geoff Dyer is a contemporary English writer. He’s written a handful of novels, but is more known as a writer of weird, cross-genre non-fiction. Consider, for instance, his 2012 book Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room. In theory it’s an analysis of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, although the film is maybe more of an organising motif than a strict topic of discussion. The same can be said of his 2016 book White Sands, which is mainly a travel book, but which also contains short stories and photographs. His stuff can get pretty high-concept, although the actual reading experience is usually really low-key and enjoyable. One of his earliest books was the 1991 But Beautiful, a book about jazz greats that takes the method of jazz as an operative principle. That is, where jazz is improvisation around a theme, Geoff Dyer takes famous episodes from the lives of figures like Thelonious Monk or Duke Ellington and, you know, improvises. He imagines moments beyond what’s on record. He creates conversations, thoughts, interactions – he improvises around existing historical material, applying a jazz ethos to the writerly practice of biography. But Beautiful is a really neat illustration of the difference between form and content. There are plenty of books where the content is about jazz – but it’s rare to see it elevated into a matter of form. And when it happens, it’s an achievement. Dyer’s book involves an act of translation, taking the principles of one domain and shifting them into another. It’s not something that happens very often.

I’ve recently been playing Genesis Noir, a 2021 detective game where the Big Bang is conceptualised as a jealous lover shooting his ex-girlfriend in a smoky, jazz-filled city. The game’s plot operates explicitly on the level of metaphor: it is at once a detective game and an exercise in cosmology, astrophysics, and the history of the universe. Obviously we’ve seen video games with metaphorical plots before. One of my favourite games – one of the reasons I started this website – is Papo & Yo, a 2012 game where a child has to navigate through a series of puzzles with a monster companion. The player relies on the monster to complete different puzzles – for instance, it can serve as a trampoline, you can bounce off its tummy – but the monster also frequently erupts into violence, and needs to be calmed or appeased. The dynamic serves as a metaphor for a relationship with a violent parent, capturing the paired experience of dependency and fear. The fantasy world of Papo & Yo represents that experience in a metaphorical way: where Monster eats frogs and gets red and angry, we understand that the frogs are meant to stand in for alcohol or some other substance. And yet the game seems unwilling to remain on the level of metaphor. At the end of the game, Monster is replaced by the child’s father, who sits glumly and thinks about his behaviour. The metaphor gives way to its more literal referent. It bothered me at the time, and it’s continued to stick with me. It feels symptomatic of a broader trend in video games – that when it comes to the visual, even games that are designed as explicitly metaphorical tales are sucked back into a literal, concrete visual language. It takes a game like Genesis Noir to really break the mold.

Genesis Noir takes its metaphorical plot, where everything means two things at once – both murder mystery and astrophysics – and elevates that approach to storytelling into its visual language. This is difficult to explain – I’ll use one specific level as an example. About two-thirds of the way through Genesis Noir is a level titled ‘Improvisations’. In terms of plot, it’s fairly straightforward. The detective, hearing some music, travels to the train station, where he finds a busker. The detective pulls out his saxophone, the two improvise a little across the train tracks, and then the busker is gunned down by mysterious mafia-type figures who step off the train. But the way this level uses visual language – it’s just so comfortable with things being multiple, polyphonic. At first as the busker plays, the train tracks become part of his instrument. The sleepers jump as he plucks the strings of his double bass, and the ballast, the wooden tracks that the sleepers lie on, serve as frets.

Crucially, this visual doubling is never resolved one way or the other. The fanciful connection is never discarded in favour of one stable reality, as Monster is set aside to make way for the child’s father. The doubling is allowed to stand. The city is the instrument on which the busker plays; the music is the articulated city. Everything is always both at once – a sentiment helped along by a visual logic that is associative rather than realistic. You play notes on a synthesiser and they drop out of the sky and become the windows of skyscrapers; as the music plays and the cityscape swirls around you, the camera pulls back and you discover yourself at the center of a spinning vinyl record. The city is sound, the sound is the city. As you walk through the streets, the lights in the buildings are stars in the sky. And, in keeping with the theme, the busker’s music is simultaneously the cosmic background radiation: “radio waves from the Big Bang [that] echo all across the Universe … recorded in their vibration is a moment of collaboration.” Like But Beautiful, Genesis Noir takes its topic and shifts it onto the level of formal construction. It’s not just a metaphorical story, like Papo & Yo or Braid or something – it actually elevates metaphor into its visual language, into how it tells the story.

The resulting gamespace has a semantic depth and richness that – I would almost say is unparalleled in any other game I’ve played. There are so many examples. In the very first level, you climb into your home in a clock tower, and you go to make a call on a rotary phone. As you pick up the phone, the face of the giant clock outside turns into the phone’s wheel so you can dial in the number. It’s startling. It’s delightful. Genesis Noir backs its premise with its visual language. Things aren’t just what they appear to be. They’re amorphous, they’re multiple, they’re playful. They activate the metaphor of the central plot, giving voice and range to a medium that barely knows what it’s missing.


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