Screen capture from Genesis Noir
Genesis Noir is a noir tale following a man who tries to stop the big bang in order to save his love’s life. Through a progression of levels, it takes players on a journey that examines every dimension of creativity, the human condition, and the beauty of living. Each level is filled with puzzles and interactions that build on one another and explore the theme in their own microcosm, all wrapped up with a gorgeous art style and animations and highlighted by a fantastic jazz score.
Developed by new studio Feral Cat Den, Genesis Noir is an effortless authentic title. It is doing something wholly unique in the industry and is not afraid to stick to its concepts despite how unconventional they may be. But that is precisely what makes it so effective. Genesis Noir embraces its medium to deliver its message in a way that only it can. The combination of its art direction, its narrative and motifs, and the impressive technology interwoven with it all make it a game whose sum is greater than its parts.
We were lucky enough to speak to the two brains behind the project, Evan Anthony, the creative director, and Jeremy Abel, the technical director on Gensis Noir via Zoom call.
BUT WHY THO: I know you guys have stated before that the inspiration came from the story The Distance of the Moon. What about that story in particular sparked your imagination?
Evan: The Distance of the Moon is a short story in Italo Cavino’s collection of short stories called Cosmiccomics. And each one of those stories begins with a scientific theory that Calvino was really inspired by. So, it’s like he condenses it down to a paragraph or two, and then he uses that to tell a really imaginative story.
So, The Distance of the Moon starts with a caption that describes how the moon was created by an impact with the Earth and a giant asteroid in the early formation of the solar system, and it took a while for the moon to settle in its current distance. So he imagines the moon being so close to the Earth that it pulls the oceans up into a mountain, and people row boats up this giant mountain of water and put a ladder and climb up to the moon.
Meanwhile, the moon is always getting further and further away. It’s just, like, very beautiful and poetic. I was instantly such a huge fan, just because I’m very interested in science and fiction so this was a merging between the two.
Jeremy: It was a nice way to humanize it. Like, how would human figures react to these kinds of things that humans were not around for? There were other stories in there, like, that humanize the early atoms after the big bang. They’re like a family and have names and talk. It was all kind of abstracted.
Evan: Yeah, and they all have crazy names like Quifk.
BUT WHY THO: So did that short story strike structure sort of play into how you guys designed Genesis Noir? With each level basically having one theme?
Jeremy: Oh yeah, we basically stole it.
Jeremy: The exact same structure.
Evan: Originally we were thinking, “Oh, we shouldn’t completely rip it off.” But we had written a bunch of short stories in the vein of Cosmicomics as a way to sort of explore the idea of the big bang as kind of a film noir. And we had friends read that, and they were like “I like this. Why not include this?”
Jeremy: It was really good I think, from a construction standpoint for Genesis Noir because we could scale things based on our funding, and how long we wanted to work on the game, stuff like that.
Jeremy: Because each level is sort of its own self-contained thing, when we pitched it to the publisher we could sort of say, “If we have this much money we can do this set of levels and if we have this much money we can do this set of levels.” So it was sort of nice being able to build in this elasticity.
BUT WHY THO: While we’re talking about levels, were there any levels that were harder or easier for you to design? Or were there any levels that stuck out to you at all while you were making it?
Evan: I think the hardest one was the first time you enter the big bang. It’s called “Seeding.” That was the first thing that we attempted to build, or one of the first things we attempted to build. It was where we kind of had to figure out, alright, how do you pilot a 3D character?
Jeremy: Yeah, how do you move around? How do you build a space for people to walk around? How do you make that space interesting? How do you drive a player in a direction?
Evan: Yeah, just the fundamental systems. This was our first game, so we hadn’t built out those basic systems before.
Jeremy: Or even the basic skills of level design.
Evan: Yeah. The first time we laid out that space it was – like right now it’s these little islands that you gain access to as you complete mini interactions. Originally we were envisioning it as a bigger open space that you could more nonlinearly explore. But, trying to do that as our first piece of level design, and constraining ourselves to where the environment is all just wobbly lines-(laughs)
Jeremy: Yeah, not the right choice.
Evan: We couldn’t quite accomplish that. Maybe someone could.
Jeremy: When did we redesign that? Because we basically scrapped the whole thing.
Jeremy: We had done the sunflower interaction, and I think that was about it. We had a prototype of another one, there was a prototype of the bonsai cutting interaction.
Evan: And the roots.
Jeremy: And the roots as well. But they were just sort of scattered around the level, there was no rhyme or reason to them. And then probably like a year before release, we scrapped the entire level basically and redid it.
So, we basically introduced the player to all these types of interactions they would be having. So, it kind of serves as a hidden tutorial I guess.
BUT WHY THO: Yeah, because I know you guys switched from Unity to Unreal Engine a couple years in, right?
Jeremy: That was way early. We had built a prototype in two weeks, just for fun mostly and to see does this visual style work in a game engine? Can we do these kinds of effects we want to do? And we could in Unity, but there was one day when we tried to import our 3D character to the scene, and his legs kept on being shifted 90 degrees from where they should be. And nothing we could do could figure it out.
And the problem with Unity is you can’t fix anything, you have to go yell at forums – you don’t have the engine source code. And around that time Unreal had announced that anyone could have it – it was open source effectively. You had to sign up for a license, but after that everyone gets the source code, everyone can build whatever they want, and you pay a royalty if you make above a certain amount of money. And I was like, “Well, if I have the source code to the engine, if there’s any problems with the animation, then I can look into what the heck is wrong and maybe fix them. So, we tried that and Unreal imported our character perfectly. And we never really looked back after that.
BUT WHY THO: Did you run into any problems like you did with Unity? Like, legs bending at 90 degrees and what not?
Jeremy: Oh, every day. But, there’s places to go, and I can look at the source code and can fix it. And we also have a support agreement with Unreal where they provide, you know, they have engineers I just can yell at at any time. We had legitimate support that was good and fast.Which you need, we would have needed that for Unity eventually anyways.
Evan: Any piece of software that you make on this scale, it just has so many systems, there’s bound to be problems.
Jeremy: Yeah, it’s just so massive.
Evan: I don’t mean to portray Unity as anything bad.
Jeremy: Yeah, no they have plenty of great games made with it.
BUT WHY THO: So you guys had said that you were sort of scaling the scope of the project based on the funding, was there anything you guys had to cut that you wish you had gotten to put in? Anything that didn’t quite work?
Evan: Not necessarily because of funding, but just because of our time and our ability to correctly scope the difficulty of engineering things. So, there are things that I want to put in the game as free DLC. Things that we’ve started, but we didn’t really get to too much farther than concept art. So, like one of the levels is, there’s a constellation of the antagonist in every level. We have plans to sort of explore, well, why’s that constellation there? So, I’m excited to do that, but, yeah, unfortunately, it couldn’t make the cut.
BUT WHY THO: So I know that you guys also said that you guys had a bit of trouble at the beginning adjusting to being game developers because I know you guys don’t normally work on these types of projects. So is there anything else in particular about working on a game that you didn’t or did like?
Jeremy: I think for you, Evan, I remember we talked about this the other day, where when you’re animating you just make a movie file, and it’s done, it’s off and you don’t have to worry about compatibility. It’s going to run the same on everyone’s computer, the colors are all going to be mostly correct. There’s no bugs to fix with animation – it’s just a video file and off it goes.
With a game, like, we have bug reports on Steam now that we can’t replicate, and it’s just so frustrating. Like, I’ve been a developer my entire life. You, [Evan], you’re just getting to know the experience of getting a bug report and not being able to fix it.
Evan: Yeah, it’s definitely pretty frustrating.
Jeremy: It’s like, they give a screenshot of whatever is happening. It’s clearly a bug, but we don’t know how to fix it or what it is. And it’s too dangerous to guess at this point because if we guess we might break something else.
BUT WHY THO: Is there anything you guys liked in particular about working on a video game?
Evan: This was my first time working on a project of this scale and for this length of time, and I really appreciate the experience of making it because when we started it we didn’t know what we were going to make. We had some inspirations and some general ideas of things we enjoyed and wanted to explore, but the specifics of how all these disparate ideas and concepts and passions could intersect and could form something that was not at all – that didn’t become defined until we secured funding and were building the thing and bringing on collaborators.
So, to be able to have faith that some story beat would make sense in six months, or I would have the answer to a scene or a motivation for a character or an interaction, and just sleep on it and just be in the shower and all of a sudden I see a connection. Like, one of the examples we like to talk about is in our demo there’s a sequence where you’re making music with a busker and the interaction is that you can click and hold and paint a path of notes on the screen and those notes kind of fall down and become a city.
That interaction was the synthesis of – I built an interaction for an entirely separate part of the game, Jeremy saw that and he built a different version, and then our concept artist was also working on it. So like, the three of us individually could not have arrived at that point, and I don’t think even in collaboration, if we had a three week project like most of our commercial and freelance work we were doing before. It required time and more collaboration.
Jeremy: Well, and with commercial stuff, it’s always been, you go to a place and there’s already an art director there and they have the key frames for this animation, here’s what the style is. It’s already all figured out and you’re just filling in the lines. So it was just – it felt like we were just improvising the game to some degree as we went.
Evan: I’m really excited to do more of this work too because I think the experience of making this game is, like, I would be able to make another game or tell another story now that I’ve gone through this and know the process. And also, I think that process of the thing emerging – I’m very interested in exploring that as a theme itself. Yeah, that was really beautiful. I’m glad we had the opportunity to do that.
BUT WHY THO: What was the process like working with your publisher Fellow Traveler, and getting their support behind Genesis Noir?
Evan: It was really great.
Evan: We met them at a game developer’s conference, and they were transitioning from focusing on arcadey games to more narrative kind of games. And they were immediately sold on our project and very passionate about the synthesis of noir and these science inspirations. They had a ton of great ideas immediately.
Jeremy: They just really got what the whole idea was from the beginning.
Evan: Yeah, and then in the past year and a half they’ve been, I mean we would totally have failed if we didn’t have their experience helping us with certifying the game for consoles and getting it on Xbox Game Pass. I’m very grateful that we got to team up with them.
BUT WHY THO: You just mentioned Genesis Noir being on Xbox Game Pass, did you guys have any problems you ran into with developing the PC version vs the Switch and Xbox versions?
Jeremy: Oh yeah, for sure. The big thing right now is that it just takes so long to patch the game. Like the people on Switch are playing a build from a week ago, they aren’t even playing the launch build yet. It’s staggering. We have a new Switch patch that just went in like an hour ago, and God I hope it’s up by the end of the week or something. It just takes ages. And with the Switch, it’s pretty low-end hardware-wise, so it took a lot to optimize for that and get 30 frames a second at most parts of the game. And there’s certainly some parts where we’re like, “Ah, it’s 25 that’s fine.”
And the fact that we designed it for the mouse from the very beginning and we got the Xbox deal halfway through so we had most of the game blocked out by that point. We knew what all the interactions were, et cetera. I remember sitting down and going through each interaction and just figuring out how to adapt it for controller. And the easy option by default was to just have you pilot a mouse cursor. Which, yeah, isn’t the best. If we had time, or even just more people working on it, then some more bespoke stuff could have been done.
It just added a whole new level of things that we have to debug. LIke on PC the game supports dynamic switching between mouse and gamepad. So, you can move the character around with the gamepad and click on things with the mouse and managing all of those states became really challenging.
BUT WHY THO: So did you guys have a hard time doing all the debugging since it is such a small team?
Evan: Yeah, that’s been what we’ve been paying. There’s this concept called technical debt where you do things the easy way and then you pay for that later. Part of it is that the way that we built the game was very iterative and prototype-y because we didn’t know exactly what every interaction should be or how it should function. So, we built it very loose. But, also just the fact that this is our first game, and that we learned a lot along the way. The fact that the game is on Mac, PC, Xbox and Switch, it was just so much surface area to cover that it’s been a tedious process trying to go through and find all these little bugs. Most of them, it’s a little five-minute fix in the editor and then half an hour to properly test it.
BUT WHY THO: Yeah, that sounds like a nightmare.
Jeremy: Not the fun part.
BUT WHY THO: I was also curious, since Genesis Noir is such an allegorical game, did you guys have any concerns about how it would be received?
Evan: I always thought that it would be a very divisive game. Especially since it’s not really a game in that there aren’t success states and there’s no mechanical skills or really difficult puzzles.
Jeremy: When we had the demo out there was a feedback button where people could just write a text field and it would e-mail us what their feedback was. And, you know, 9 out of 10 things were really nice but then every 10th person would be like, “It’d be nice if there was some gameplay.” Which I thought was really funny.
Evan: I was more concerned about that than the story. We have a very niche audience and we’re aware of that, and I felt confident that we could make something that that niche audience would enjoy. The bigger question for me was if the amount of interaction was appropriate and if there were enough people with the patience for simpler interactions or slow pace.
BUT WHY THO: Have you been surprised by the amount of success Genesis Noir has had with the great review scores and multiple awards you’ve won?
Evan: Yeah, I think we’re doing better than I anticipated.
Jeremy: Critical success-wise I’m pretty happy.
Evan: Yeah, people have been saying some really kind things. Especially like, there’s been a couple reviews where I’ve been like, “Yes! That is exactly the experience I was hoping someone would have.” So, that makes me really happy that it is kind of hitting home for some people. And our ambition was never to make a masterpiece because, I mean, it’s our first game. But to have a cult classic where there might be a lot wrong with it, but there’s some stuff that’s very, very right and very surprising and different, that kind of carries the naivety of making our first game like this.
BUT WHY THO: Were there any other games you guys looked to for inspiration?
Jeremy: A big one was Windowsill, a game by VectorPark, which has a very similar sort of style of figuring out how to interact with these objects in this space. And it doesn’t really do much storytelling, if any, I don’t think. It’s kind of just a bunch of little toys to play with. So that was kind of the inspiration for the interactions themselves.
Evan: We like when you enter a scene and there’s not instructions that tell you how to manipulate it. And VectorPark, his work is just so phenomenal because his work is very surreal. Like one of his games is called Feed the Head and there’s just a giant head. It’s like a silhouette, it’s very simple. There’s a block in the room, you pick it up and he opens his mouth, you put the thing in his mouth, pull out his eye, feed him his own eye, it just gets very weird.
So, his work is phenomenal in that there isn’t a story, but he spends so much time on a singular scene and adds so many delightful, surprising interactions that just build up on top of each other that from where the scene starts to where the scene ends it’s not very recognizable. Genesis Noir ended up not that focused on just transforming one particular scene. We ended up focusing more on storytelling and characters.
Jeremy: There’s a nice balance though.
Evan: Yeah, our interactions do have a bit of the heritage of VectorPark.
BUT WHY THO: I just have one last question for you guys. I know you said you were wanting to work on free DLC, does Feral Cat Den have anything else in the pipeline? Any other ideas you guys are hoping to explore at all?
Evan: We have a ton of ideas that we want to make. It’s just at this point, we’re very uncertain about what our future is. It depends on how well the game does financially if it makes sense to do those. And also, we’re at an age now where we can’t do another 4-year project as a two-man team and not have the potential of health or family things really destroying a project. And the people who helped us were mostly pals from school or freelancers we had worked with at various studios who are also in their 30s now and thinking about homes and families and other priorities. So, we’re at the stage where we have to grow to an actual studio with mentoring junior people and having a bigger team that can sustain any sort of problems that could happen to any individual. So, yeah that’s a big question of one, “do we do financially well enough?” And, two, “do we have the business acumen and desire to do it right?”
There is a certain magic that comes to playing Genesis Noir. It casually carries the player through such heavy concepts without feeling as though it is preaching or laying it on too heavy. It provides intuitive tools and places players in curated sandboxes that utilize procedural generation and artistic flair to allow players to make their own art in an organic way. I can’t recommend Genesis Noir enough, as it is unlike anything else out there, and I deeply hope that Feral Cat Den continues their work, because I eagerly await whatever they make next.
Genesis Noir is available now on PC and Xbox family of systems.