Genesis Noir Review: The Theory of Everything
This jazzy, abstract meditation on cosmology ponders big questions but doesn’t bother offering answers.
For artists that are concerned with the deep questions — where did we come from? why are we here? what lies beyond the bounds of perception? etc. — science can offer inspiration that’s tinged with the irresistible allure of academic accuracy. For a creative mind that’s always making connections, it’s impossible to avoid superimposing the contours of a complex scientific theory over an intimate personal experience in order to make sense of it. After all, if these theories explain the mysteries of how our universe works, maybe they could also help explain the mysteries of life, love, fate, and more.
Genesis Noir offers a kaleidoscopic, abstract meditation on these potential connections by tenuously tying brief histories of our universe into the story of a jazz-trio love triangle gone wrong. It provides a unique dose of sensory splendor, but those looking for a clear thesis statement on how the theory of relativity relates to heartbreak will be disappointed. This experience is far more interested in luxuriating in the questions than it is in providing answers.
Although its form is obscured in the first few minutes, Genesis Noir is really a string of loosely connected, mildly interactive vignettes. To give a literal explanation of a plot that’s fully unconcerned with literality: You play a trench-coated, homburg hat-wearing character named “No Man” who walks in on his love interest, Miss Mass, being held at gunpoint. When the gunman pulls the trigger, his pistol releases a (or maybe the) big bang, unspooling a ribbon of interstellar specks from his gun’s muzzle while freezing time and tossing No Man into a realm where he can view all of the multiverse’s disparate realities at once. No Man must then inspect the specks emitted in the gunman’s interstellar ribbon in an attempt to stop the big bang and save Miss Mass.
While some of these specs are empty, others contain a portal that tosses No Man into different points in time. The first points take place billions of years ago and deal with the fundamental, atomic-level creation of the universe, while the later ones delve into human history, even extending into a future where science experiments on Mars are standard operating procedure. Each portal features the same rhythmic structure of beginning with an introductory text screen that explains a scientific theory, and ending with No Man teleporting back into the room where Miss Mass is being shot.
Your time inside these portals is usually spent interacting with the world via mechanics derived from 90’s adventure games. One contains brief interactive moments where you’re given little instruction but must accomplish simple tasks like picking all the petals from a flower (a sequence that reminded me a bit of the “microgames” from a WarioWare title) while another requires exploring an area and collecting a series of items to give to someone.
These sequences don’t offer enough interactivity to provide an all-encompassing sense of immersion — I never felt like anything other than an outside observer while playing this game — but they do produce a sort of hypnosis. In the game’s best moments the combination of the stark black and white art style, the elegant jazz-inspired sound design, and the simple bits of interactivity locked my brain in a pleasurable stupor. The affected part of my brain is probably one of those basic, animalistic regions that deals purely with sensory perception, but to be hypnotic even on a fundamental level is an accomplishment, and Genesis Noir certainly deserves credit for that.
However, it’s hard to tell if deep down Genesis Noir is striving for more than this basic aesthetic pleasure, or if it’s content to be eye candy that might occasionally generate some mental sparks. At the end of the game all the points you’ve explored previously combine to form a spectacular finale, but the convergence is more visual than thematic. It seems like the game is trying to say something — especially considering that it suddenly resorts to using text and dialogue — but it doesn’t get too specific even while spelling things out with words.
The game’s final text screens left me comfortable with my lack of understanding though. They seemed to acknowledge that for all we do know there’s still so much we don’t, and perhaps we can still find comfort and joy in the midst of that ignorance. What’s the point in worrying about what’s happening in all the other universes when we only live inside of one?