In a quintessential midcentury American metropolis, the tension is rising. A brooding watch salesman is embroiled in an affair with a jazz singer who is already in a relationship. Predictably, complications ensue, leading to a gunshot that could change the fate of the world.
Welcome to Genesis Noir, a video game that recently won a grand prize for Excellence in Visual Art and Audio at the Independent Games Festival. The moody, monochrome world of the game, complete with a diner modeled after the one in Edward Hopper’s iconic 1942 painting Nighthawks, is a product of the design studio Feral Cat Den, run by developers Evan Anthony and Jeremy Abel. Players take on the role of the watch salesman and travel across time and space, from Pompeii to feudal Japan, to prevent that fateful gunshot.
The narrative is rooted in the works of Italian postmodern novelist Italo Calvino. “I heard about his work on NPR’s Radiolab in an episode where Liev Schreiber was reading ‘The Distance of the Moon,’ says Anthony. It was part of Calvino’s short story collection Cosmicomics, which combines fiction, history, and science.
Genesis Noir was almost a decade in the making. “Making a video game, that’s a lot of work,” Anthony admits. “It’s very difficult.” He and his partner met as students in the New Media Design program at Rochester Institute of Technology. They began their collaboration in 2013 while still in school and extended it after graduation, working as freelance animators and creative developers for, in Anthony’s words, “interactive promotional sites for major movies and advertising experiences.”
After a few years of working on projects that would live for a couple of months at most, they yearned to create a long-form narrative. A video game, they decided, was the ideal medium. Between freelance gigs they would work on outlining characters, building scenarios, and honing the storyline.
In 2016 the duo established Feral Cat Den and went full time on the project. This meant constant pitching to publishers to get support. “We created a vertical slice, which is a 15-minute kind of prototype or demonstration of your game that, like a slice of cake, shows every kind of piece of the game,” explains Abel. A Kickstarter campaign launched in early 2018 helped them raise more than $40,000 to finance the project; it also gave them a sense of their potential audience and which elements of their work resonated most. The game came out in the spring of 2021.
Having distinct visuals “is pretty key, especially just to get people’s eyes on it,” says Abel. “There are so many games being made now that you have to get noticed by any means.” In fact, their unique style is steeped in art and film references, reminiscent not only of early Disney shorts (“Skeleton Dance” comes to mind) and classic movies but also scenes depicted on Grecian vases and in Japanese woodblock prints.
For their building blocks, the collaborators adapted an industry standard, Unreal Engine, which is associated with rich textures and smoothly lit 3-D games. But it had its limitations. “When you’re making a game in Unreal Engine,” Abel notes, “you have to worry about lights and the performance of how many lights you have . . . but we didn’t use any.” Unreal emphasizes realistic lighting and textures, he explains, but the creators didn’t want the software to dictate the overall look of the game. “We had to turn all the features of the engine off and modify the source code to allow us to get into some special effects.”
“I think it’s very important for developers to try to use tools in imaginative ways and to utilize the constraints of their project to find interesting solutions,” says Anthony.
Their years using Adobe Flash in their day jobs paid off in their 3-D animation. “A special plug-in that we wrote allows us to export to Flash as vector animation,” says Abel, likening their plug-in to Turtle, a way to teach programming to kids.
The game’s noirish visuals and plot came to Anthony as he was walking across New York’s Williamsburg Bridge to work. “I was looking at the skyline and just thinking about what an amazing piece of art it was, and the idea of a film noir popped into my mind,” he says. “I realized that ‘the Big Bang’”—a central element of the story line—“already sounds like the title of the classic noir film The Big Sleep.”
The movie Alphaville provided another inspiration, for how it adapted noir tropes to a sci-fi story taking place in the future. “They didn’t create crazy sets or new science fiction props,” Anthony points out. “They photographed modernist architecture in Paris in a way that made it feel abstract and let the viewer imagine a science-fiction story while using the contemporary environment. . . . Particularly for video games made with a small team, you have to be very deliberate and conscious about your constraints and limitations. So Alphaville is really a beautiful example of a story that you can tell just using the environment around you.”
These are hardly the game’s only artistic references. The hairdo of the character Golden Boy (who looks like a B-tier Elvis Presley) is actually symbolic of the golden ratio or the Fibonacci spiral. A sequence in which the watch salesman, named No Man, is crouched at the bottom of the ocean pays homage to William Blake’s painting Newton (1795–c. 1805), which depicts a young Isaac Newton drawing with a compass. “William Blake, he deals with these kinds of existential themes, like a dialogue between faith, spirituality, and science,” says Anthony. “We feel like William Blake is kind of an indie artist or indie comic book illustrator. I think if he was around in our time, he would be radically independent and be making this kind of visionary art form.”