Noir Matrix

Not that kind of matrix....

Not that kind of matrix....

It's a perennial fight: what is noir? We can start with where the term came from, and point to some of the arguments, but the most important thing for our conversations here, really, is what is it about noir narratives that make it worth thinking about?

The History

First, the history*. During World War II, very few films from the US were seen in Europe. France in particular, under German occupation was cut off. After the war ended, French film-goers 

caught up on a backlog, but something had changed. In 1946, what would come to be known as iconic noir films--The Maltese FalconLaura and Double Indemnity--hit French theaters, and a new sensibility arose. What were seen as B-movie pot boilers in the US gained recognition abroad. Later analysis would point to major industrial, political and socioeconomic changes in society as sources of the narrative depth of noir. Specifically: after-effects of the Great Depression, the two World Wars, and the onset of the cold war. Ancillary issues that bubble through as well are impacts of industrialization, suffrage, labor and civil rights movements. 

The Arguments

In 1955, Raymonde Borde and  Étienne Chaumeton began the process of defining film noir, setting off a series of arguments and wrangling which has never quite come to an end:

 Film noir as a concept also birthed a retrospective view of the roman noir, noir fiction. Enter some of the hard questions and arguments about what noir means, and what exactly is a noir film, book or other narrative. Apply this to other, contemporary narrative forms and we ask, what does a noir role playing game look like? What would constitute an Alternate Reality Game noir? What aesthetics and sensibilities make a video game noir?

The Noir Matrix

For the purposes of this blog, I'm boiling down noir to a set of elements. Not definitive ingredients, which if you combine them all off you get the noirest of the noirnstead, these are attributes that are crucial to what makes noir narratives meaningful for our purposes.

The matrix is an analytical tool to help us look at games, stories, films and other media. I'll use it to see what elements various noir texts embody. What they emphasize, how they highlight the elements. What they apply it to. How they differ from one another, and the kind of meaning their structures create.

They break down into three Issues (Identity, Society and Violence) and three Themes (Modernity, Disillusionment and Crime).

The issues are questions raised by the fiction. Themes are motifs and subjects that recur.


  • Identity  –  who are the characters, how do they understand themselves, how are they defined by others.             
  • Society  –  what is the place of these characters in their community, what does the society inflict upon its members, how does it isolate them, who is empowered.                
  • Violence  – who is vulnerable to violence, who is capable of it, what does it betray about the characters, their motivations and the truth about their relations in society.


  • Modernity  –  the urban landscape, the alienation of labor, the impacts of technology and industrialization. Political realities, transformations to cultural identity, expressions of gender, structure of relationships and the family. Psychology, class analysis, capitalism, rural/urban divides.  
  • Disillusionment  –  a cynical tone, pessimism, undermining of innocence and naiveté. Corrupt officials, exploitative relationships and decaying social institutions. An underlying idealism, perhaps, about what the world could and should be, but with a loss of hope about attaining those ideals.     
  • Crime  –  blackmail, theft, murder. Syndicates, dirty cops, petty law breakers making a living. Protagonists who cross the line between law and disorder, battered by both sides. A look at the unregulated or unacknowledged parts of society which rebel against the nominally established order.

Issues of Identity are questions raised by the stories. Such as "what is it to be human?", explored by Ridley Scott in Blade Runner (and by Philip K. Dick in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), through focusing the story on the so-human seeming replicant androids.  In Walter Mosley's novel Devil in a Blue Dress, his detective Easy Rawlins' investigation threads between white and black communities and hinges on the ethnic identity of the woman he seeks.  An Issue of Society in The Big Sleep, is "who gets away with murder?" with the wild-child Carmen Sternwood being protected from the consequences of her actions by her high-society family, while little guys like Harry Jones die for being a stand-up guy. Violence is a constant of noir. It is the primary currency in these tales. Who has the capacity for violence, who can take the most, who can conceal their ability to deal harm? Who is vulnerable to violence, and why. The issues arise in Bad Day at Black Rock, Spencer Tracy's character searches for a war hero and inadvertently uncovers the complicity of the whole town in a racially-motivated murder. 

Looking at the Themes: crime, disillusionment and modernity riddle noir. They define its parameters even when the genre is transported to the distant future, or the past. These recurrent motifs underscore what created the noir viewpoint: massive changes to human lives, along with massive loss of life on scales not possible before, and also moments of major solidarity and successful fights for emancipation, suffrage and economic opportunity. Cynicism and corruption are the downsides to the hopeful ideal of modernization and technological leaps that remind us that no matter how far forward we progress, we remain human. Many of us with our heels on the neck of someone to move forward, others beneath the heel. With a bloody past behind us, and a bloody future ahead. 

*Documented in Alain Silver and James Ursini's Film Noir Reader.


Why Noir

Role playing games give us a way to escape the world. But if we look at it from a different angle, they can give us tools to deal with the stresses we endure, and try to struggle with them. The world is a terrible place for many of us. With the transformations that our world hurtles through every year, a focus that can encompass these things is welcome. Discussion of noir fiction is ripe for this.

This may need to be proven, though. Noir, particularly film noir is often a very male-focused, white, hetero-normative affair. But, the reasons it packed a punch to the post-WWII French film critics who coined the term are the reasons it is still relevant today: it speaks of the massive trauma to the world and human psyches brought about by modernization of warfare, commerce and technology. What is often swept under the rug are the voices who spoke of oppression and loss of belief in the powers-that-be from long before the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Of the lives lost in the conquest of the Americas by Europeans, and the massive enslavement and forced migration of Africans. 

Noir narrative, also, in its structure broke conventions that bound us to one linear path to knowing a tale. The films were characterized by the flash-back, fourth-wall-breaking voiceover narrations, dream sequences, unreliable narrators, expressionistic and emotion heightening lighting, and the use of real locations over sounds-stages. Film noir creators produced a visual vocabulary which allowed their stories to break the frame of modern, conventional tales and explore contrasts and contradictions of stories from the twilit parts of our lives and minds. These techniques crossed over from literature and psychology, and map readily onto role playing games. Using the strengths and dimensions unique to each form.

Noir can't change the facts of history, but it can allow us to see history differently. It's a mode of communication that points to the gaps and breaks in what we often think of as the closed and healthy system of 20th (and now 21st) century human societies. In fiction, film and in games it is an avenue for criticism and exploration--though one which is as vulnerable to becoming watered down and repetitive as any other genre, mode or form.

Let's approach noir with fresh eyes, then. Looking at the spaces it creates in narrative for critiquing the failings of society and the individual. And as a narrative form that is meant to embrace narratives counter to the mainstream.