The term “film noir” traces back to 1946 and the French film critic Nino Frank. He used the phrase in an article titled, “A New Kind of Police Drama: the Criminal Adventure,” which focused on films like Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, and Murder My Sweet. They were films, Frank said, “that we used to call the crime film, but would best be described from this point on by a term such as criminal adventures, or better yet, such as criminal psychology.”
It is one of my favorite genres of film. The moody atmosphere, the melodrama, the complex characters, the heavy use of light and shadow, it makes for exquisite movie going. It also adapts brilliantly to the world of video games. In my last post, I wrote about Grim Fandango, one of the all time greats of film noir gaming. Titles like Max Payne and Heavy Rain are built on the foundation of films like L.A. Confidential, Chinatown, and the Big Sleep. However, before any of these games there was Deja Vu.
Released in 1985, Deja Vu was the story of “Ace” Harding, a retired boxer who had gone into the private detective business. It was the first game to use the MacVenture engine (the others being Uninvited, Shadowgate, and Deja Vu II: Lost in Las Vegas). It was a point and click game with a menu interface. Like the early film noir movies, the original version of the game was in black and white, and for similar reasons. The technology to make a detailed color game simply wasn’t around. Far from being a detriment, the game embraces the stark black and white, using it to help set the atmosphere.
The story begins in the middle of all the action, with Ace waking up in a bathroom stall. He is suffering from amnesia. Complicating matters, there’s a dead body upstairs. You didn’t kill him, at least not that you can remember, but you’re about to take the fall for the murder. The rest of the plot is Ace’s desperate attempt to learn the facts and prove his innocence.
The game’s puzzles required a significant amount of lateral thinking. So while the gameplay mechanics are incredibly simple, it remains challenging. Your memory loss gets worse as the game progresses, which means that, in addition to proving your innocence, you have to track down an antidote to whatever wiped your mind clean. Like an great mystery, the real pleasure of the game is watching as the twists and turns of the plot slowly unfold.
Numerous ports of the game were created after its initial release for MacIntosh. Color graphics were added to later versions. Ostensibly this is an improvement, unless you’re a noir purist. For my money, the best way to experience the game is in glorious black and white.