The visual jazz of Genesis Noir
Genesis Noir is set at the start of existence, reimagining the Big Bang and the natural expansion of the universe as the violent end result of a love triangle gone wrong. It’s a marriage of jazz and film noir in a point-and-click adventure game that sometimes works better as an audiovisual plaything than it does a series of puzzles. But the game’s visual style is a clear standout.
The monochromatic, abstract, line-drawn look that makes Genesis Noir so unique comes from a host of influences: classic film, Italian literature, other indie games. The real mystery to solve was combining those ideas in a way that makes sense — and it actually ended in a playable game.
Genesis Noir creative lead Evan Anthony’s jumping-off point was Cosmicomics, a collection of science-inspired short stories by Italian author Italo Calvino. “I think just initially I was trying to translate what I was envisioning when I was reading that book,” Anthony said. Calvino’s writing, even in the translation to English is “very visually rich storytelling,” Anthony says.
Those ideas started solidifying into a style when Anthony and technical lead Jeremy Abel saw Umbro Blackout. Made by Buck, a creative studio specializing in animation, Umbro Blackout tells the story of a soccer player visiting New York during the blackout of 1977. “It’s just very simple black-and-white graphics. I wanted to bring that kind of clever transitions and juxtaposition of settings and scenes into an interactive space,” Anthony remembers.
The actual genesis of Genesis Noir started on newsprint paper. Anthony and Abel sketched the early character designs that would become Genesis Noir’s initial trio of film noir archetypes — turned “gods” in the language of the game — in charcoal. They’d go on to become No-Man, the player character and a manifestation of Time; Miss Mass, a jazz singer femme fatale and representation of gravity; and Golden Boy, a star saxophonist and sort of creator god whose attempt to murder Miss Mass sets off the events of the game.
Indie games served as guidance for Anthony and Abel as well, neither of whom had a background in games or designed a level before. You can find some Kentucky Route Zero in Genesis Noir’s interactions, fixed perspectives, and transitions between scenes. Kids, the short film / video game hybrid from 2019, was also a big north star for doing a lot with a little. “[Kids] was definitely a great reference in like what you could do with one asset,” Anthony says. “Like how we can be economical, very economical with the assets that we have,” Abel continues.
Even though both Abel and Anthony had embarked on some ambitious creative projects before — notably, a Google Maps pinball machine for Google — the visuals of Genesis Noir were a different beast. They realized that game engines aren’t really designed with hyper-stylized visuals in mind. “There’s a reason why games don’t really look like this,” Anthony says.
Some of that difficulty admittedly came from the pair’s inexperience and the abstract direction they decided to take the game. One early level called “Seeding,” set in the first microseconds of the Big Bang, had to be reworked multiple times from Anthony’s initial idea of a level made from “vibrating lines and strings.” Creating a level of wobbling lines that could not only run, but players would actually want to explore, was a hurdle.
According to Abel, the biggest technical considerations they had to manage were performance and translating the art Anthony was creating in Flash to the game’s engine. On some platforms like the Switch, that meant adapting and faking some visual effects. For the 2D animations themselves, Abel also had to create more bespoke solutions. “I worked with a friend of mine to develop a solution to actually export all the animations from Flash and draw them as vector art in the engine,” he says.
Anthony and Abel’s multiyear journey to create Genesis Noir provided them with some valuable lessons in design and a delightful finished product. Even if you don’t relate to the variety of sources Genesis Noir is pulling from, playing the game really captures the feeling of an interactive animated film. And the goal of expressing big, abstract concepts with a familiar genre and setting pays dividends, too. I won’t spoil where Genesis Noir goes in its final levels, but there’s more here than science facts and noir story beats. “I think my goal was to find some poetry between comparing two very disparate things,” Anthony says. “I’m very happy with how everyone’s perceived it.”