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Opinion: Is The Industry Ready For Its 'Game Noir'?

In a hit-driven industry that requires millions of dollars brought to the table just for a title to make the qualifying round, TimeGate Studios designer Steve Gaynor opines that the lessons of film noir will pave the way for games to develop a new and eng

Steve Gaynor, Blogger

December 31, 2007

5 Min Read

In a hit-driven industry that requires millions of dollars brought to the table just for a title to make the qualifying round, TimeGate Studios designer Steve Gaynor opines that the lessons of film noir will pave the way for games to develop a new and engaging kind of interaction, opening the field beyond just the BioShocks and Halos. In the late 30's through the 50's, American film was a spectacle-based business. The market was dominated by the studio system, and blockbuster epics and musicals ruled the public consciousness. The stars, budgets, and sets were enormous. It didn't take long for the entire enterprise to become very bloated. Eventually, pricetags began outstripping profits in an arms race to sensory overload. It was during this era that film noir was born.

Film noir was a pragmatic school of filmmaking, rebelling against popular big-budget fluff out of pure necessity. These were B-films, low investment projects quick to produce and intended simply to fill out an evening's double bill. Under the constraints of little money or time to build unique sets to shoot on, or to stage scenes featuring armies of extras, or to exploit complex lighting, camera setups, or special effects, noir filmmakers had to seek out new ways to build tension onscreen and keep their audience engaged. They did so by focusing on flawed, unpredictable characters living out street-level conflicts between individuals in the mundane, modern-day urban world. They drew from pulp novels and crime fiction for their source material, and benefited immeasurably from the influx of expatriate German Expressionist filmmakers fleeing the Nazi expansion throughout Europe at the time. Instead of building a fantastical set, film noir would film in vérité city streets and back alleys. Instead of dousing dozens of dancers with massive lighting rigs and filming them with a drove of whirling camera cranes, noir filmmakers would frame individuals frankly in dramatic up-shot, a single spotlight casting ominous silhouettes across the ceiling.

Film noirs like Out of the Past, Kiss Me Deadly, and The Big Combo made a new kind of entertainment out of the very limitations that constrained them, and went on to influence everything from the writers of Cahiers du Cinema and the French New Wave of the 60's, to the Coen brothers' films of today. Necessity being the mother of invention, film noir created something unique and affecting, something that has lived on, out of the need to engage people without relying on the spectacle of the day's million-dollar blockbusters.

Maybe you can see where I'm going with this.

We are currently a hit-driven industry, and the games that get media and player attention are those with the most money behind them to provide the biggest spectacle. In the commercial sector, everyone is vying with the likes of Mass Effect, Bioshock, and Halo 3 for mindspace; if you want to be taken seriously by "the gamer public," you have to hit not just the game design mark, but the whizz-bang cutting-edge graphical mark as well. You have to bring millions of dollars to the table just to qualify, which leads to extreme risk aversion by publishers and developers, and a tendency over time to lose players who are tired of the same old thing dressed up in more and more expensive clothes. When your game is backed by tens of millions of dollars, you can't use it as a testing ground for wild new mechanics and dynamics never tried before; however, when you're building a low-budget 2D platformer, even your successful experiments won't make an impact on the medium at large, the "big games" that get everyone talking. What we've got left is a huge gulf between popular, full-experience 3D action/adventure games that need to be financial blockbusters to survive, and marginalized casual/handheld/movie licensed games that don't register on the mass consciousness radar. We need our B films. We need that freedom to explore truly meaningful new avenues of interaction, quickly and nimbly, without the pressure of an eight-figure budget and multi-year dev schedule weighing down on the whole enterprise. Noir already scouted this territory for us.

Noir begs game developers to reign in the scope of their production budgets, and the conflicts they depict. The noir approach promises games wherein the player isn't saving the kingdom, world or galaxy; wherein the ubermensch doesn't mow down a thousand men; wherein we can experience familiar settings in a new way, and infuse the everyday with the extraordinary. The noir approach promises games that are direct, visceral, and intentionally oppose epicness-- games that deliver their entire message with immediacy, before you lose sight of how the story of their interactions began.

Games that take film noir as a cue shouldn't emulate the surface-- trench coats, cigarettes, femme fatales and old LA. Games should emulate the structural and emotional underpinnings that made noir work as an experience. We can do this with readily-available, inexpensive tech; we can leverage older 3D engines and simpler lighting & shader models in the same way noir filmmakers used location shooting and expressionistic cinematography. We already have our Gone with the Winds and Wizards of Oz, and a dozen Busby Berkley spectaculars to fill in the gaps; we need our Asphalt Jungles, our Kiss Me Deadlies, our Gun Crazies and Double Indemnities and Out of the Pasts. We've proven we can do big. Noir shows us how to take the small road, explore its every twist and turn, and connect with our audience in new ways. [This article was originally posted on Gaynor's personal weblog, Fullbright.]

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