So far this year I have played two brand new games with a very noir vibe. I bet you can guess one of them, but what about the other?
Well, if you said The Witcher 2 then congratulations but if you thought to yourself The Witcher 2 then that’s even better because it means you’re not some crazy person who talks to their monitor (nice work, you guys!). Here is your reward!
Clearly, it doesn’t have the same look as traditional film noir but it still shares the aesthetic of neo-noir, utilising many of the same tropes, plot devices and darker themes. You could possibly say it even extends further than L.A. Noire. Don’t believe me? Let me explain…
When talking about the first game I briefly touched on some of the areas the Witcher universe explores and, really, the second game is a continuation of many those elements. These darker aspects of the games are nothing new to fantasy fiction. In fact, the success of new HBO series Game of Thrones highlights the recent popularity of a seedier look at medieval fantasy. A fictional ‘history with the nasty bits left in’. The really nasty bits.
So far the Witcher series has incorporated the racism, politics and general public unease seen in the books. The general mood of the games is a bleak and pessimistic one. The world is not a black-and-white place and the characters that inhabit it are not pretty ones. From the drug dealers to the ignoble noblemen, Geralt will encounter them all. Of course, much like noir fiction, that side of things only really starts to reveal itself to the audience as the protagonists find themselves pulled into the affairs. In Geralt’s case, he’s never on an epic quest to save the world as you might expect in a typical fantasy game; he’s got a mystery to solve.
In the original game, he was tracking down an enigmatic group that had stolen the secrets behind the performance-enhancing mutagens kept by his own clan of witchers. The main quest is not overtly noir but a significant chunk of time is spent following leads, questioning people and unravelling the various connections between the story’s major players in order to track down the culprits. Even a fair few of the side missions function a bit like short detective stories. In the second game, Geralt is out to prove his innocence when suspected of assassinating a king. The two games share a common thread: Geralt finds himself caught up in far-reaching conspiracies that lie just below the surface, threatening to plunge him deeper into danger (you can just see that as a blurb, can’t you?).
While the initial impetus for Geralt’s ‘investigation’ is personal, unlike some of the typical PIs and detectives, his character is very much from the Chandler and Hammett mould (I’d link you some examples of traits they share according to TV Tropes but then you’d never return). He is well-travelled and knowledgeable, operates with a distinctly cold and neutral detachment yet isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty (in all possible senses of the word). On top of this he’s also got a dry sense of humour and follows his own fabricated Witcher’s Code that gives an appearance of being quite honourable despite his often grisly occupation (Jake Gittes in Chinatown defending his profession when confronted by a barbershop patron comes to mind). A witcher’s role itself bears some similarities to a private investigator’s. In theory, anyone can hire him given the right amount of money and he describes his work as ‘solving problems’, it just so happens that these problems involve monsters.
It’s also here where Geralt differs to Cole Phelps. Cole is obviously a detective and, therefore, beholden to different ‘rules’. He’s not averse to the occasional scuffle (OK, the quite frequent scuffle) but he does things by the book. Unlike his counterpart, he never ‘plays’ with information. He either confronts lies or half-truths with evidence, rarely bluffing or withholding details. It’s here that L.A. Noire is actually stifled by its own gameplay design; reducing character interaction to a face-reading exercise.
Outside of player agency, Geralt is able to make shrewd deductions based on past experience and knowledge no matter how briefly glimpsed. He may have amnesia but he keeps track of who people are and the relationships between them, while always considering what a person’s agenda might be. In short, he has a detective’s mind. The important thing to note is that the player is always privy to this, either through the dialogue or reading up in the journal, and can act on that information, not how someone’s face changes after each question (you’d think everyone looks dodgy in the Witcher games). In an interesting departure from most WRPGs, certain conversations see questions being put to Geralt instead of vice versa. It’s at these moments that the player is encouraged to consider what to reveal and what consequences this could have. It’s reminiscent of films like The Big Sleep, where the protagonist’s best option is to play their cards close to the chest, never quite knowing who to trust.
While not true of all noir, the perspective is usually restricted to the main protagonist. In the Witcher games, our knowledge never extends beyond what Geralt himself knows. Yes, there are brief instances in the second game where the player controls another character, but Geralt soon arrives on the scene and discovers, as well as expanding on, all the relevant details shortly after. Fact is, unless you’re fully aware of the lore, the chances are Geralt will always be one step ahead. The same cannot be said for Cole. He’s no slouch himself but the way the game presents the story undermines his efforts significantly. The flashbacks found via newspapers sow wonderful narrative seeds but put Cole behind the player as a result. We’re aware of a larger plot and, given prior knowledge of the film noirs being referenced, can guess at the implications, while he’s having to catch up. Dramatic irony is a valid story-telling technique but not one usually found in film noir.
The way L.A. Noire handles ‘decisions’ doesn’t always quite work either. In The Witcher, if you suspect someone is not being completely forthcoming, there is usually a clear opportunity to do things differently. For Cole, it can depend wholly on whether you chose Doubt or Lie (and the appropriate piece of evidence) regardless of your own theories on the matter. You might be convinced that you have the wrong group of suspects altogether, flashbacks even hint as much, but the game won’t let you do anything about it.
Obviously, there’s no doubting L.A. Noire’s credentials but The Witcher 2 offers a noir experience that outdoes it in a few key ways. While Team Bondi’s deviations, such as the character of Cole not being your typical hard-boiled anti-hero, work to its benefit and make sure it’s not completely derivative, they don’t always gel as a whole. At times it can feel like it’s shoe-horning too much in at the expense of following more focused themes and elements, especially in its gameplay. Of course, The Witcher 2 has its fair share of contrasting ideas but they never overwhelm its central focus.
Whether players recognise the influence or not, I think that’s what lifts the Witcher series above its gameplay flaws. They may seem slow to start but that’s usually the way with a noir narrative. The main players are established and slowly but surely their secrets and motivations are revealed, only with the player now able to involve themselves in the choices and moral grey areas. It’s a refreshing change from your typical upbeat fantasy story of defeating the evil that threatens the world and also makes it easier to work in sidequests without them feeling like distractions. The ending to The Witcher 2 drew many complaints, which are in some ways valid, but when viewed with the film noir influence in mind it makes a bit more sense. Despite the, perhaps misleading, impression the prologue gives, the game’s not about big setpieces and fighting wars. It’s about one man’s search for answers, which inevitably forces him into these conflicts. The low-key epilogue is both a nice contrast and perfectly apt (and still better than L.A. Noire’s final stretch).
L.A. Noire may display all the familiar signs of film noir but I feel The Witcher 2 really captures the spirit.