Top 10 Film Noir Games

by Elise Favis on Mar 17, 2015 at 01:17 PM

Lanky shadows, a sense of foreboding, and hardboiled crime stories are just three of the many conventions found in film noir. The grainy, black-and-white movies, from Casablanca to Sunset Boulevard, were classic hits in the movie industry between the early 1940s and late '50s. With a flair for the dramatic and exaggerated, flirtatious romances, they offer a distinct style and dark tone exclusive to the genre. These cinematic elements have been toyed with and redesigned in video games, from adventure titles like Grim Fandango to third-person shooters like Max Payne. Here are the top 10 film noir-inspired games.

Note: Snatcher, Shadowrun, and Blade Runner are notable mentions, but were omitted from the final selection, due to their emphasis on more cyberpunk themes than film noir.

10. Under A Killing Moon

The 1994 point-and-click adventure title Under A Killing Moon takes place in the mutant-infested, futuristic post-WWIII setting of San Francisco. The year is 2042, and the story follows the awkward, clumsy private investigator Tex Murphy, who brings a splash of comedy to the noir story. Tex Murphy follows a string of cases that lead him to hunting down a deadly cult. The game featured progressive graphics for its time, such as 3D environments and a first-person perspective, which were unusual components in an adventure game during that period. However, its reliance on full motion video creates a dated look in comparison to today's technology.

9. Contrast

The contrasting colors, lighting, and shadows make up this game's charm and puzzle gameplay. It has film noir and cabaret influences from the 1920s, as well as carnival themes spawning from a little girl's imagination. Blending 2D and 3D platforming, it is similar to Paper Mario but with the atmosphere of Limbo. You play as Dawn, a mysterious acrobat that can take the shape of a shadow at will and use other shadows as platforms to climb atop carousels and theatres. The jazz soundtrack gives the game a fantastic atmosphere, and the unique use of lighting creates a curious, film-noir setting. Its premise offers something unique and visually impressive, even if the puzzle gameplay falls short and becomes repetitive.

8. White Night

Released just under two weeks ago, Osome Studio's White Night is set in the 1930s during The Great Depression. After crashing your car, you investigate a house nearby to find aid. The noir-inspired survival horror/adventure game is striking in its contrasting black-and-white visuals, with the protagonist holding nothing but a box of matches that dance in the light. The melodramatic tone fits perfectly in the noir genre, with supernatural mysteries added to the tale.

7. Killer 7

Creating one well fleshed-out character is difficult enough, but Capcom's Killer 7 manages to do so with seven. Bordering on strange and wholeheartedly embracing neo-noir themes, the game is beautiful and complex. The eccentric Goichi Suda and his team put more focus on the cel-shaded visuals and noir story than on game mechanics, which unfortunately means the gameplay is often lackluster. Taking place in an alternate version of Earth in modern day, you take the role of a squad of assassins named Killer 7 who attempt to eradicate a group of terrorists. The story becomes incredibly complex and thought-provoking as it unfolds, with enough political commentary and intrigue to keep you on the edge of your seat.

6. Hotel Dusk: Room 215

Former detective-turned-salesman Kyle Hyde takes on odd sleuth jobs, and one has led him to the grungy Hotel Dusk. Upon his arrival, he is given the room 215, a place that is rumored to grant wishes. Kyle has an agenda of his own: to find his ex-partner Bradley, who was presumed dead. This adventure/visual novel is exclusive to the Nintendo DS, and you must rotate the console vertically to be held like a book in order to play. It has a strong narrative filled with detective-style corruption and mystery. As the game unfolds, we learn more about Kyle's dark past and his relation to the brooding motel.

Up next: A Telltale adventure game with neon-colored graphics, a journey to the land of the dead, and more...

5. The Wolf Among Us

After being banished from the fairytale world, Fabletown's characters adapt to real-world life, with the help of magical "glamours" that allow them to take human form. Bigby, also known as the Big Bad Wolf, is the feared, chain-smoking sheriff of Fabletown. When a resident is gruesomely killed, followed by a long string of murders and evolving corruption, a case comes to light that shakes the very core of the city. Through typical choice-driven Telltale gameplay, you respond to quick-time action events, visit several areas to uncover mysteries, and utilize point-and-click investigation mechanics. It's Bigby's rough, no-nonsense attitude and the game's art design, composed of '80s-inspired neon-colors and dimly-lit locations, that express the noir theme exceptionally well.

4. Grim Fandango

Grim reaper and travel agent, Manuel "Manny" Calavera, must sell enough afterlife travel packs to good-willed clients in the underworld so that he himself can enter the next world. However, corruption is in the air, and Manny's rival coworker Domino is stealing all the eligible clients. Manny takes matters into his own skeleton hands, and journeys through the land of the dead in search for Meche, a woman qualified for a first-class Double N package. She's Manny's ticket out of limbo, but also a femme fatale, leading Manny into more danger than he could have ever foreseen. Grim Fandango is full of cigar-smoking mobsters, romantic intrigue, and beautiful 1930s-inspired locations mixed with a distinct Mexican Day of The Dead art style. The film Casablanca is one of Grim Fandango's biggest influences.

3. Burial At Sea Episode 1

Taking place in an alternate world of Bioshock, Burial At Sea brings us back to Rapture in its glory days, as it slowly progresses towards its fall. We once again take the role of private investigator Booker Dewitt in episode one. Elizabeth enters Booker's poorly lit office to employ his services, for a case they are mutually passionate about: finding the young girl Sally, who they both silently fear may have already become a Little Sister. Booker lights Elizabeth's cigarette with a fire plasmid, representing the DLC's remarkable balance between science fiction and film noir. While this game has several other influences, from horror to steampunk, it is indisputable that the driving narrative, 1950s atmosphere, and illusive characters heavily draw from the noir genre.

2. Max Payne & Max Payne 2

Rockstar's Max Payne series is as dark and gritty as it gets for a neo-noir storyline. The protagonist tells the story through stark interior monologues with the help of comic book-styled cutscenes. Payne's been through tremendous hardships, such as his family being brutally murdered early on in the first game. The rough cop falls for the femme fatale Mona Sax, a professional assassin, but this love story ends in typical noir tragedy. While the third installment, Max Payne 3, continues the dark narrative, it is more colorful in its design and stems further away from its noir roots.

1. L.A. Noire

It may not be a big surprise to see Rockstar's detective adventure game, L.A. Noire, at the top of this list since the game lives and breathes the authentic noir themes. The game even comes with a setting that changes the visuals to grainy monochrome colors. Its crime-solving gameplay is seamlessly mixed with high-tech cinematic production, similar to what you would find in a Hollywood film. The late 1940s Los Angeles is the perfect setting for noir, and is bustling with vintage cars, deep-voiced egocentric cops, and neon-signed diners. Playing as war hero Cole Phelps, the aspiring detective at the Los Angeles Police Department, you investigate macabre crime scenes, interrogate suspects, and chase villains down the gritty streets of L.A.