Noir: A Shadowy Thriller

Review by MrLipid
November 2004

"I'm Only Going to Do This Once ..."

Noir: A Shadowy Thriller is filmmaker Jeff Blyth's one and only attempt at building a game. And, as the score indicates, it was, for the most part, a very successful effort. While one could argue that a more seasoned hand might have polished some of Noir's rougher edges, one could also argue that a more experienced developer might not have possessed either Blyth's enthusiasm for the project or his affection for its material. After all, it was Blyth, and not someone with more imposing game industry credentials, who managed to get the game made. And, better yet, get it made in glorious, crisp black and white. Wrote Blyth, "You wouldn't believe how I had to fight for that simple idea."

Not only is the game black and white, the game world is built of photographs of either existing locations or specially constructed period sets. Time for a big statement: Art is choice, and the choice of shooting the real world (or what could be the real world) in black and white earns Blyth the title of artist. Had he caved and done the game in color, it would have had all the atmosphere of The Dame Was Loaded. As it stands, Noir makes superb use of the tension created by draining the world we know of its color and leaving only light and shadow. It's still the world we know, but everything is simultaneously heightened and abstracted, brighter and more distant. A swell place to grapple with the moral dilemmas. Or bad guys.

Our Story So Far ...

After a suitably moody montage that provides a taste of the adventure to come—Hollywoodland, the Bradbury Building, a creepy butler, Angel's Flight and a lush nightclub—Noir drops players into the empty office of private investigator Jack Slayton. Poke around a bit, and the intercom begins to buzz. Seems Jack has not been seen lately and would you be willing to take a look at his open cases? Before you can say "Philip Marlowe," the secretary has signed off and left the office.

What to do? Look around, perhaps? Pull open some drawers? See what's in the closet? Find, unlock and rifle the safe? For those with a itch to snoop, the office sequence in Noir is irresistible. The crisp black-and-white images, coupled with spare, evocative sound effects, effectively draw the player into the period and into the mysteries Slayton was hired to solve. Once you have looked through every possible niche and cubbyhole, read all of the files, listened to all of the recorded interviews and screened all of the film, it's time to venture into the inky shadows of the Los Angeles night.

And what a long and busy night it promises to be. There is a defense company with a "security" problem, an heiress who's run away, a book appraisal a friend has asked you to get, a race horse dead under suspicious circumstances, an aging movie queen whose dog has gone missing and a crate that has vanished in Chinatown. As you begin to pull on the threads of each case, you begin to see, as one would expect in something entitled Noir, the pattern they form as they weave together. You also run into death, blackmail and more than a few Nazis.

As you pick up clues and make connections, notes appear in the case book kept safely in the bottom left drawer of Slayton's desk. Blyth credits his son with coming up with this highly useful game element. Save a game, walk away, come back days later and immediately get back up to speed by reading through the case notes.

Movement around the City of Angels in Noir involves picking a location indicated by a pin stuck in a large city map in Slayton's office. Clicking on a pin triggers a period clip of night traffic backed by a snippet of suitably dramatic music. Once you arrive at your chosen destination, your success at uncovering clues will be determined by what you already know. Which is another way of saying that Noir is a Macromedia Director game.

The Power Behind the Scenes

As a Macromedia Director game, Noir keeps track of what you've seen. Or, to be precise, of what you've clicked on. If, for example, you've clicked on a screen that reveals the combination to a safe, you can now open the safe. No need to write down the combination, no need to twiddle the dial. Just open the safe. While there are those who might take points off for the absence of writing or twiddling or other inventory item manipulating, I'm not among them. If I've picked up the flashlight in Slayton's office, I don't feel cheated if, when it comes time to use said flashlight later, I don't get the thrill of selecting it from a valise full of other items. The more subtle esthetic point is that Noir exists on the plane of the photographs that comprise its world, and breaking that plane, even for a moment, risks pushing the player out of the game world.

For those who agree with Raymond Chandler that the point of detective stories is to provide a frame for snappy dialogue, Noir may be something of a letdown. In place of dialogue, Noir offers monologues from various characters along the way. And, like finding the combination to open the safe, certain specific screens must have been viewed before a monologue will play. For the most part, the logic built into the game to trigger such sequences works quite well. For those places where it doesn't, it is possible to deliberately "fail" a case by, say, getting bopped on the head. Once you regain consciousness, you'll find that particular case will have reset, and you can take a second run at it.

Finally, there is also an almost-too-useful informant who can either be phoned or who will phone you to provide information to keep the game moving forward. If you don't call him, he'll still call you and, like it or not, you'll have to pick up the phone. Whether you listen is, I suppose, up to you.

Every Which Way But ...

The only aspect of Noir that knocks its rating down from a Mega Supreme to a Pretty Good is its occasionally unbelievably clumsy navigation. Sometimes clicking on a right-pointing arrow will turn one right 90 degrees. Sometimes not. Sometimes clicking on a front-pointing arrow will move one forward. Sometimes it will rotate one a full 180 degrees. (This tends to mean that one cannot explore an area without learning something else somewhere else in the game. File this under "hard-won wisdom.") There are some sequences that simply have to be learned because the directions indicated by the arrows are more misleading than helpful.

Still, it is possible to work around this particular rough edge and appreciate just how much Noir got right. One can take as much personal satisfaction in cracking all of Slayton's cases as Blyth took in, as he put it, "working out an ending that came down to saving the world with a paper clip."

Technical Issues

Unlike other mid-1990s titles that utilized QuickTime for their motion sequences, Noir used Smacker. This may be one of the reasons why no one has been able to get Noir to run on anything NT-related: NT, 2000, XP. Noir runs just fine on everything from Windows 3.1 to 98SE. Probably runs on ME, too.

There is also a glitch that prevents one of Noir's critical puzzles from being solved on any computer that does not store dates in the month/day/year standard. Fortunately, this glitch can be easily gotten around by using a saved game from a system that does store date information in a form Noir recognizes. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: TSi, Inc.
Publisher: Cyberdreams
Release Date: 1996

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

IBM PC and 100% compatibles
Windows 3.1 or higher (Win95 recommended)
486/66 MHz DX (Intel Pentium recommended)
8 MB RAM (16 MB recommended)
10 MB free hard disk space (minimum installation); 500 MB free (super installation)
2X CD-ROM drive (4X recommended)
SVGA (640×480, 8-bit mode)
All Windows-compatible sound cards

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