In one scene in Genesis Noir, I'm sticking my virtual hands into the prehistoric ocean to create the first life forms out of parts that look like a child's building blocks. It's basically creationist Lego. I need to build molecules in a way that allows them to reach other molecules out there in the soup and mate with them, and tadah! - I've just spurred on abiogenesis, the origin of life. Before playing Genesis Noir, I'd neither heard of abiogenesis nor would I have understood it as anything other than an abstract construct. Elsewhere, my character, a slouch hat-wearing watch peddler in a trench coat, is cheering on Golden Boy, a cosmic entity giving a saxophone performance.
These things don't sound as if they go together, but I can assure you they do, and that's the magic at the heart of Genesis Noir. It's both a silent film in black and white, featuring dames with big hair, irresistible jazz performances in smoky clubs and, inevitably, crime, and also an illustration of the birth of our universe. To call Genesis Noir a game would likely do it a disservice, but people tend to get very cross with me if I don't tell them exactly what kind of game they can expect, so let's call it a point-and-click adventure. You point at things and you click, but this is a game that's really out to discover how many different actions you can take through essentially pointing, clicking and moving your mouse around. You make planets spin. You throw galactic debris. You make sweet, sweet music.
The best way I have to describe Genesis Noir, a description officially sanctioned by its developers Feral Cat Den, is that it's really more of a toy than a game. It never tells you what to do, and the only forms of writing you'll find are a few lines of descriptive text for items and a very atmospheric intro to each part of your journey, which is split into different chapters. You're completely left alone to work out how to proceed, and the fact that this is even possible with zero hand-holding feels like a substantial game design achievement to me.
In both its gameplay and its theme, Genesis Noir is actually just trying to find a way to describe a much bigger concept, the creation of our universe. The biggest concept there is, if you will. It all starts when a saxophonist called Golden Boy decides to shoot the jazz singer Miss Mass. This action, which is a means to describe the explosion of energy at a single point, will kickstart all of creation, but it will kill Miss Mass, and that's where you, Time, come in. After an amorous encounter with Mass, you decide to travel any conceivable dimension to find something to feed a black hole with and stop the Big Bang. But this means you get to see all that was and all that will be, and is creation, so astounding, so faceted and exciting, really worth stopping for one woman? Can the cycle of destruction and creation even be stopped? You don't know, but you're going to try, and you're going to chase the criminal Golden Boy through all of creation.
Genesis Noir managed what all the Brian Coxses in the world haven't - it taught me something about a subject that's always sounded interesting, but that if I'm honest, always had the tendency to go in one ear and out the other. You can sling a dumbed down explanation of the Big Bang at me and it won't stick, but it apparently will if you describe it as a sudden, inevitable betrayal by a jealous musical genius. The really striking visuals and an oddly lovable player character help a lot, too. The watch peddler is so cute! I laughed every time he peeked down at the diorama of life he was spurring on, and sometimes he felt more like the hero of a slapstick comedy than a formidable cosmic detective in a trench coat. The art style itself may not look like much in still images, but brilliant whites, beautifully smooth animations and occasional yellow accents combine into something overall quite memorable. There is simply no other game that looks like Genesis Noir right now. I especially enjoyed the moments in which the game announces each chapter in a towering font - if you like similar use of font from games like Control or Kentucky Route Zero, you'll really enjoy this one, too.
All of it really combines into something more like an art installation than a game, which makes me fairly sure you'll either fall in love with it from minute one or bounce off of it entirely. Genesis Noir is like one of those installations at science museums, the ones where you turn a handle or stick your hand into something. I can imagine it working really well in VR. It's not one for hardcore gameplay aficionados, because even though it comes up with a lot of actions, the novelty of its tactile approach might wear off for some. You don't do much overall. It's a softly playful game. I didn't see this as a problem - for one thing, Genesis Noir has a relatively short runtime (staying firmly in the single-digit hours), so it doesn't overstay its welcome, and it was overall just incredibly creative, leaving me excited for the next location, the next memory of a time when space was still and unmoving, and the next bit of music, which is used sparsely but to great effect. I appreciated that I couldn't guess at any point what I would get to see and do next, and that too, is an immense feat.
Music is also a very important element of Genesis Noir. Film Noir and jazz of course belong together like the words live, laugh and love, but it's such a pleasure to see the many ways music gets incorporated here. Sometimes, albeit very rarely, the smooth tones of saxophone, piano and bass are just background music, used to set the scene. More often, it's used as a way of Mickey Mousing - illustrating precisely what's happening on screen. Then there are moments in which music tells you how close you are to finding the right way to solve a puzzle, and finally, the most fun way of all, music becomes another toy to play with, thanks to notes assigned to your clicks offering a fun way to make your own music. It also works as a really good form of feedback to your actions that way.
Feedback is actually one thing, if not the thing that makes Genesis Noir such a pleasure to play, because every action you take has a tangible visual and aural consequence. Trees sprout, broken things become whole again, time passes, and you make all of these things happen. You don't destroy for once, you create in very tangible ways, but without ever having the feeling of being an omnipotent God - Genesis Noir still manages to capture the feeling of what the universe actually is, a gigantic cosmic accident.
The biggest compliment I can give this game is that it's truly like nothing else I've played before, and it's incredibly focused and dedicated to its creative vision and its theme. If you're looking for something different, a gentle form of experimentation in a beautiful package, I can't recommend Genesis Noir more.