Lately, I can't go a week on Twitter or Reddit without someone loudly sighing and proclaiming "video games stagnated 10 years ago," or something to that effect. Each time I, in turn, sigh loudly and continue on my way. I know that video games have been innovating over the last generation; where did strange but successful gems like Death Stranding, Danganronpa, or Astral Chain come from if not? These AAA and AA games, however, are still bound by common conventions in the name of accessibility and wide appeal. Left stick is move. Right stick is camera. If you see a waterfall, there's a cave behind it. You see a big eye on a boss, you hit it to do damage. Et cetera.
Last week a small title called Genesis Noir popped up on Steam, Nintendo Switch, and, most importantly, Xbox Game Pass for both PC and console. While diving into this old-school jazz-themed outer-space point-and-click adventure, I was beset by a mixture of confusion and intrigue when I realized I didn't know how to move my character around automatically. It took about a minute of fiddling around with the mouse and keyboard to get an idea of how to move, and just minutes later, the controls changed on me again. Suddenly space bar was stop and slowly turn to face the screen. Left shift didn't work for running anymore. And I was suddenly upside down in a blast of cosmic radiation. I couldn't figure out whether to slide, drag, or rotate the mouse or to what end. And then it dawned on me.
I've been playing games my whole life, and all of it is second nature to me now; so when I pick up a new game, I know I will understand how movement, action, and interaction with the game elements will work at a first glance. Clicking on a spot I want to reach in a point-and-click should get me there. Clicking on an item I want to investigate should help me move the narrative forward. It didn't. Genesis Noir denied me that usual sameness right from the beginning, and that has made it interesting, if not particularly fun. This game wants the player to stop at every screen, study it until they understand what they're seeing and what's being asked of them, and feel their way through to progress. For a little while, I got to feel what a non-gamer might feel like when booting up a title as ubiquitous as Super Mario Odyssey.
In Genesis Noir, you can throw out everything you know about how video games work, or about how narratives progress. From the outset, the tone and theming is made concrete while the gameplay elements, camera perspective, world, and controls are constantly shifting. In that way it reminds me a bit of Nier: Automata, one of my all-time favorites; while the gameplay mechanics shift constantly, the strong adherence to theme keeps the narrative together. In keeping to a dedicated art style and theme, Genesis Noir manages to stay coherent throughout while our protagonist shrinks to the size of an ant and grows hundreds of feet tall in the span of seconds, for no reason other than to convey concept.
I think the reason Genesis Noir strikes me as such an odd-one-out is that it never seems satisfied with what it is presenting, opting to constantly change the rules of how its world works in something that feels much more like a dream someone is describing to you than a personal experience. When given seeds to grow lights that dissipate other lights that block the way, you'll click and find that you have five gold seeds in your hand. Dispense one into the ground and check back, you've got three. Plant another and you have four. These simple things absolutely boggle my mind, especially as an avid RPG player. It's not that this game is simply an M.C. Escher painting either; while perspectives are constantly shifting, Genesis Noir holds the world together by building character connections and narrative with these shifting world elements.
A watch salesman named No Man is our protagonist on this hot, stuffy New York evening. Caught in a love triangle with Miss Mass, a jazz singer, and Golden Boy, her chiseled accompanist, he rushes to her apartment to find his world ending as Golden Boy fires a shot directly towards his lady love in a cataclysmic event he dubs "the Big Bang." Time freezes then for the three of them, and using his keen senses of deduction and memory, No Man dives into the very concept of the bullet shot to discern how it happened, why it happened, and how to stop it. Genesis Noir barely feels like a video game most of the time. It's like someone had an idea about a video game and is telling you about it on a hot summer evening on a rooftop bar in New Orleans while a jazz quartet plays across the street.
This is so difficult to describe because it is so esoteric, but that's the point. Each world takes place inside a different aspect of the concept of the bullet, leaving a new galaxy in its wake as it demolishes the one we know. Miss Mass is the beginning and end of No Man's world, but rather than saying it, or even alluding to it by dialogue (of which there is none), the player explores the very idea by strolling into it, moving objects around, shifting perspective, and vibing with the music. Genesis Noir doesn't really feel like a video game most of the time, and that's strongly to its benefit (what with all the other video games around).
Genesis Noir did not become one of my favorite games this year; I actually didn't enjoy playing a lot of it. I can, however, say it is the most unique game I've played in years, perhaps second only to 2020's Paradise Killer. Some might call it an exercise in frustration, and others may call it an exercise in discovery. It's different, and that gives me hope for future indie games to feel just a bit better about risking it all going weird. Without devs dreaming big and building weird, we wouldn't have masterworks like Undertale, The Stanley Parable, or Sayonara Wild Hearts.
While it's likely that the majority of folks playing are doing it through Game Pass, the debut developers at Feral Cat Den should be proud that their weird, inaccessible point-and-click game received the exposure and discussion it did. AAA developers may be a bit curtailed in creativity by sales projections and revenues, but indie studios with nothing to lose and dreams to fulfill are still out there. If you're looking for something different, for someone really pushing my understanding of what a video game even is, look no further than Genesis Noir.
TechRaptor played Genesis Noir on PC with a code provided by the publisher. The game is also available on Switch, Mac OS, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S.