Last week, Brooklyn newcomers Feral Cat Den released a teaser for Genesis Noir, “a poetic adventure game set before, during, and after The Big Bang.” The title is set for release in 2018 on Mac and PC. The animation is elegant and the concept is intriguing, but if you remove the cursor and final tagline from the teaser it might be mistaken for a short film instead of a game. It’s likely that some gamers will write it off on that fact alone, dismissing it as a just creative piece rather than a “real” game, and miss out on experiencing a potentially exciting noir chapter in gaming. Feral Cat Den describes their game as having “an emphasis on exploration, simple interactions, and generative art … with tactile gameplay.” They’ve set it up to be a unique and imaginative experience, and thus opened themselves up for criticism from some. A question arises from this sad truth: when did games stop being considered creative?
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The belief that games and art are mutually exclusive is not one harbored by all, as evidenced by this site’s own proclivity for independently developed games with a creative bent. My own passion for art and story is no secret. Regardless, there is a large player base that wouldn’t give Genesis Noir (or any of the other games mentioned in this article) the time of day, and a large part of the bias against creative games can be traced back to the reign of console gaming.
Big AAA studios ruled the gaming industry for years, making their money by catering to a largely male market that was guided to have limited interests. These were easy consumers to please, which is why some franchises such as Far Cry or Call of Duty have succeeded for so long without making significant changes or improvements to their gameplay. For a long time games were too expensive to be made independently, but once game software and engines like Blender and Unity became more widely available, it became easier for anyone to make a game. Without the resources of AAA studios these games tended to be smaller and less mechanically ambitious, but they would nonetheless be called games by their creators and fans. However, when compared to the traditional console games that had so long been the standard—such as first person shooters, open world rpgs, and massively multiplayer online games—these new independent games didn’t always have much in common with what people had been playing for years. An entire community had formed around a limited definition of what a game was, and some took pride in the exclusivity that afforded them. Not everyone could play or beat the games they had learned to master, and that was something they could be proud of. The concept of a new generation of games that could be created by and for anyone seemed foreign, to the point that it was rejected altogether.
But what about games like Davey Wreden’s classic The Stanley Parable, or Campo Santo’s breakout hit Firewatch? Games such as these do the same things that great works of art and literature do: they incite debate, inspire awe, and receive critical acclaim. Can their millions of copies sold and awards be ignored, even by those who would reject independent games on principle? Well, these particular examples fall under a genre often referred to as “walking simulators.” For those that enjoy this type of game, they might consider them to be defined by a first person perspective and the way that they lead the player through an environment to discover a story; the defensive subset of gamers described above instead use the term pejoratively, believing that these games are so boring that there is nothing to do but walk around.
Walking simulators serve as a good example of the type of game that even non-gamers are drawn to; the mechanics are typically easy to master, and the focus of the games are story rather than overcoming a particular challenge. For example, the player is not spending time gathering crafting materials or perfecting combo hits but instead searching for keys, learning about characters, and reading notes. These games are approachable and much like a good movie, and many enjoy watching them just as much as playing them. They showcase creativity in a way that conflicts with many preconceived notions of what games are. Consequently, many argue that these titles are not games at all, and that the people who play them have no right to call themselves gamers. So while it’s true that some of us call these games creative masterpieces, others accuse them of not being games at all.
For the many developers who try, breaking out of the defined in the video game world can be a challenge. Consumers will often criticize and categorize a game before the developers can get a word in edgewise, often setting games up for failure. Developer Hello Games learned this lesson the hard way when No Man’s Sky was falsely hyped by fans as an action packed, co-op space shooter rather than the quietly beautiful exploration and survival game that it actually is. Though there’s not much debate that No Man’s Sky is “a game,” in the traditional sense, its failure to deliver what fans hyped themselves up for led many to label it as a bad one. Sales and reviews suffered, and Hello Games has since come under fire for false advertising. Their game could be called a failure, or it could be called art in the wrong frame. Whatever you want to call it, it’s struggling. In spite of the developers’ release of new content and best efforts to salvage their reputation, No Man’s Sky has been widely labeled as an unfinished indie game with a AAA studio’s price tag. The game has become a cautionary tale that shows what happens when games try to exist on the border of what is expected of indie and AAA studios.
But failure to meet expectations aside, Hello Games did create a masterpiece. The infinite and procedurally generated universe the player is able to explore has been known to create some truly beautiful scenes. No Man’s Sky is an exciting world to simply walk through and take in. Like Genesis Noir, it has a distinct art style that comes through in its colors and quickly identifies the game as one with art in mind.
So what does all this mean for Genesis Noir? By striking out into the gaming world as a creative force, Feral Cat Den is taking a risk that has proven to have varied results for indie developers before them. Genesis Noir could follow in The Stanley Parable’s footsteps and contribute to the genre of mind-bending story telling, or suffer at the hands of a sometimes hostile gaming community as No Man’s Sky did. Feral Cat Den’s bold choices in how they represent their game so far puts it at an advantage. It does not seem likely that anyone will mistake Genesis Noir for something that it’s not, and it might be able to steer clear of players that would discredit it. Its noir style applied to the mechanics of a point and click are simultaneously familiar and alternative. The game’s developers, team of coders and animators Jeremy Abel, Evan Anthony, and Mercy Lomelin, all have impressive portfolios that show the extent of their creative abilities. With talents like these three working together (and in cooperation with the musicians at Skillbard) to bring to life a unique cast of characters and a journey through time and space, Genesis Noir is set up to be an expressive work of art that could lend itself very well to the video game format.