Noirlandia & Noir -Interview with Evan Rowland

Hi Evan! Thanks for answering a few questions about noir and crime fiction in games. It's exciting that your Kickstarter for Noirlandia is going on right now! 

First off, who is a favorite fictional sleuth of yours? Why?

E: Jake Gittes, of Chinatown, is a great character. He’s prickly and pompous. He gets on everyone’s bad side. He has a gift for detective work, and he loves the feeling of being good at what he does. But what does he do? He snaps pictures of cheating spouses.

Jake’s past seared his idealism away. He worked as a cop in Chinatown, and you can imagine he would have made a very smart policeman. But he quit, broken by the unbeatable corruption that made all his work meaningless. By the time he opened his detective business, he had given up on improving the world - he just wanted to do the work he was good at, and get a paycheck for it.

Whatever noble principles drove him early in life, when we meet him, he only has one: That he’s the best at what he does. But holding to even that one principle is enough to pit him against the most powerful people of his time. 

Jake wrestles with forces that he can’t possibly beat, and even though he never wins the fight, I love him for trying.

What aspects of crime fiction are you most interested in as you write the game Noirlandia you are making with your collaborators at Make Big Things? How do your rules help players experience them?

E: Front and center is solving the case. It’s a cooperative game, and there’s no game-master or pre-written mysteries, so nobody knows the solution. But we encounter clues, we make connections, and we draw our own conclusions.

The game uses an actual corkboard, where you’ll tack up your leads and show connections with string. The gameplay generates a confusion of clues, which players can gradually connect together. So, with a good die roll, you might have a chance to string together “The blue getaway car” with “The 9-fingered man,” and you’d get to describe the connection - “He must have been the driver, there were only 9 fingerprints on the wheel!”

But the connections we make are vulnerable to the chaos of the case - we might be proven wrong later, and have to snip the string. Even our leads are vulnerable - we might find the 9-fingered man was killed before we had a chance to question him. 

Besides solving the case, the game is also about confronting the past. As we make progress on the case, we’ll also be learning about the players’ characters, who are wrestling with their own troubled pasts. The current case inevitably throws the characters against the regrets of their past, and sometimes gives them the chance to finally make peace with what came before.

Noirlandia is built from the framework of the fantasy-themed Questlandia. What changes did switching genres bring about in the design? What characteristics do the games share?

E: Questlandia’s cooperative worldbuilding became Noirlandia’s cooperative mystery-building. In Noirlandia, we still work together to create a unique city and world, but with blood-stained hands. Everything is in the context of a world that killed someone close to us - and that leads to dangerous settings and corrupt characters.

Questlandia tracks the decline of a society, while Noirlandia tracks our investigation. A bad roll in Questlandia could lead to famine, but in Noirlandia it could lead to a key witness being shot, an apartment going up in flames, or an alibi clearing the obvious suspect.

Noirlandia has a more freewheeling pace - you’ll hunt for answers all over the city, questioning suspects, getting into trouble with both sides of the law. Questlandia’s turns are all built around a single conflict, but Noirlandia you’ll have a mix of small and large troubles - arguing with the doorman, then being stuck in a broken elevator, and finally confronting the kingpin herself.

Both games are designed as brief, 1-or-2 session games that explode into action, create memorable worlds, and are bittersweet at best in the end.

What are the influences you are drawing on, in film, books, games, etc? 

E: Paul Auster’s novel, City of Glass, is about a mystery novelist who tries his hand at playing detective, and in his search for answers, loses track of himself. It’s bizarre, surreal, and definitely an inspiration for some of Noirlandia’s tone.

Chinatown’s hollow victory is the inspiration for Noirlandia’s morality.

The Maltese Falcon features a great blueprint for building a mystery and following a winding path toward the answers.

Deep in the back of my mind, childhood memories of playing Grim Fandango, Sam and Max Hit the Road, and Max Payne have created a primal misunderstanding of the genre that drives my every decision. 

How would you rank wanting the players to experience adventure, justice, disillusionment and betrayal when they play Noirlandia? What other themes were important to you and how do you plan to capture them in your rules, background or guidance for players? 

E: I’d put adventure first - it’s about energetically hunting for the truth in a dangerous and reticent world. Every turn brings you closer to putting together the bigger picture, but runs the risk of throwing your progress into a confusion.

After that, I’d put disillusionment. Your characters start with guiding principles, with a moral code - but your beliefs will be systematically tested by the chaos of the city. Mechanically, this will come up as players offering you hard bargains - success in your efforts, in exchange for a compromise of your beliefs.

Betrayal will pin you up on the corkboard, a suspect in the same case you’re trying to solve. In Noirlandia, nobody is unquestionably innocent. Characters we met before will reappear unexpectedly, sometimes revealed as the merchant who sold the smoking gun, sometimes as the one who pulled the trigger.

As for justice - don’t expect much.

Thank you so much for sharing with us about your game! Good luck with the Kickstarter!

Evan Rowland is a game designer and artist. His published works include Questlandia and 14 Days: A Game about Life with Migraines. He claims to be innocent, but offers no alibi.

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