Genesis Noir is a wonderful reminder that gaming can go anywhere, and do anything. Originally envisioned as an art installation before switching to the gentle agency of a game, it’s a detective noir infused with jazz. But rather than nestle safely into that genre, it expands its view to the biggest canvas of all: the Big Bang. You have to admire the audacity of Feral Cat Den pitching a debut game that takes in pre- and post-existence in equal measure.
You play No Man, tucked away in a trenchcoat and fedora in true Bogart style. You arrive at a crime-in-progress, as your amour, Miss Mass, is in the path of a bullet. It’s fired by Golden Boy, a saxophonist in Miss Mass’s jazz band, presumably jealous of your relationship. It’s simple detective noir stuff, but then you zoom into the bullet and learn it’s true form: it’s the Big Bang, and the bullet’s path will rip through reality, setting off a chain reaction creating galaxies and life. It sets No Man on a journey where the Big Bang’s bullet could be averted by feeding a black hole, but all of existence would be noped as a result.
Now, full disclosure, this is our interpretation of things, as Genesis Noir is light on exposition, and dialogue is firmly chucked out of the window. As is probably to be expected from a once-art installation, a lot is left to you.
No Man’s journey takes him chronologically through the Big Bang, from the first moments of darkness and explosive creation to the seeds of life – from primordial soup to civilisation – and then onto the universe’s decay and reversion. It’s all chopped up into chapters, presented as stars, with grand titles like Reflection and Thaw, each showcasing a principle of existence.
The best way of describing Genesis Noir is that it’s a series of toys, tied together by some very simple exploration. We say toys, because the puzzle is often working out how you interact with them. A particularly memorable one starts you off with a small shoot, but by pruning that shoot, more and more branches appear, eventually leading to foliage. In that foliage will be birds, which you can interact with to make them fly off, so your aim – you presume – is to prune where there’s room to grow, and send more birds flying. You’re often just tapping, spinning or pushing things to see what they’ll do, getting a reaction and then taking their cues. Games like Florence and If Found… have a similar approach to these toys, but Genesis Noir’s scope is outwardly greater.
There’s rarely a conventional cause-and-effect here, as you’re toying with celestial bodies, primordial gloop and black holes. Not something you do everyday. Occasionally these toys can teeter off to the extremes: some are a touch too abstract, and you’ll be screaming at the devs to get off their pretentious high horses to help you out with some hints; others will be surprisingly conventional, and feel drafted in from other games. There’s a limp fetch quest randomly in the centre of the game, while a frequency-matching puzzle towards the end of the game both outstays its welcome and introduces too much in the way of trial and error.
Generally, though, the toys are a joy. They’re like playing with living puzzle cubes, as you poke and prod at things, and they react in unexpected ways. A mandala towards the end of the game is so sublime, a confluence of audio and visual design that is so beautifully crafted, that you wished the game ended there, rather than stuttering on for a few more scenes. Yet, the only interactions are moving your character over a few dots and stripes on the floor, like an interstellar version of the Billie Jean video.
It points towards another of Genesis Noir’s real wins. While its palette is barely more than black and white, it’s an astonishing game to experience. You can tell Feral Cat Den’s background is in visual design rather than gaming: the simple line art of the characters allows for expression through animation, and a look or a wink is characterful. These 2D characters wander through dark environments that have been stippled and bruised to give texture, and then vector-style environments have been layered on top. It’s a trippy combination of 2D and 3D, with some fantastic animations too, and Genesis Noir can use these tools to communicate huge emptiness, as well as the more showy, ‘universe is ending’ stuff. A simple palette can get you far.
It would be nothing without the soundtrack. Often sparse and even silent, Genesis Noir doesn’t apply its jazz themes heavy-handedly. The small interactions receive a reply from a thrumming bass or swooning saxophone. The restraint allows the full Blue Note-style jazz to underline the emphatic moments, as the band comes together to communicate euphoria or wholesale changes to your environment. It’s dazzling, really, and makes you wish that jazz was used more in gaming, as the few examples we can recall – Ape Out is another – have all been effective.
If anything, there’s room in Genesis Noir to do more with its jazz soundtrack. There are occasional moments – like the mandala sequence mentioned earlier – where the visuals and audio work perfectly together, like the cosmic Fantasia it could quite clearly have been. Genesis Noir doesn’t quite go there often enough, delivering high points, but only a few.
The plot, story or whatever you would call the framing of Genesis Noir, isn’t quite up to the same artistry. The overarching story of No Man, saving Miss Mass, is kept at an arm’s length and is explored in the lightest of touches. When you have to make difficult choices towards the end, the ramifications don’t resonate because of the lack of air it is given to breathe. Flashbacks to nightclubs and diners where you met are welcome, but they’re more flavour than emotion.
The individual chapters – the time bubbles you explore – fare better, as they have a bit more structure to them. They’ll start with a big screen-spanning word like ‘Hunt’ and then show that concept in action, while simultaneously handing you interactions that deal with the same subject. In that example, you are following a hunt, then coming across a hunter character, and you quickly realise that you have been hunting them throughout the chapter. It’s in these neat folds of logic that Genesis Noir likes to play.
A note about bugs, as Genesis Noir has more than we’ve come to expect from a narrative-heavy title of this type. We got soft-locked out of the game at three separate stages, with interactions that wouldn’t do as they’re told, and sequences that wouldn’t trigger. Feral Cat Den are rolling out reasonably regular fixes – one was ready to roll for us when we booted this morning – but soft-locks are still there, and they can be frustrating. One in a final sequence rewound us roughly 15 minutes, as checkpointing was bizarrely sparse.
Ultimately, Genesis Noir isn’t a game that benefits from being revealed. You should go into it relatively fresh and experience it yourselves (we’ve left plenty out, don’t worry). Conveying it in text ignores the synergy of art and jazz soundtrack. The toys you’re handed, too, are best played with, rather than described. There really are few obstacles to giving Genesis Noir a go: it’s out now on Xbox Game Pass, and it’s nothing more than a couple of hours to glide through. Just put on your headphones, if you can, and try to dedicate a couple of hours to play it in a sitting.
A Fantasia of jazz and line-art, Genesis Noir on Xbox is a voyeuristic tour through the beginning, middles and end of the universe. The laid-back, blissful pace won’t be for everyone, and a reliance on toys rather than actual objectives will irritate some. But side-step the bugs and a couple of gameplay hiccups, and you have a ride that has a groove that, once tuned into, will take you somewhere deliriously unique.