I like film noir a lot, even though my familiarity with the landmarks of the genre runs skin-deep: a few Raymond Chandler novels, “Double Indemnity,” “The Big Sleep,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Third Man,” and “Chinatown.” I began working up an appetite after seeing “Chinatown” in a college film class. As I watched Jack Nicholson pour two glasses of cheap bourbon — one for his sobbing client, the other for himself — I felt like I was settling into a familiar world. You don’t need to be well-read to know something about film noir. We all know the imagery, if not subliminally — suits and fedoras, diners and whiskey, jazz and Venetian blinds, shadows on rain-splattered streets. Smoking rots your body inside and out, but damn does it look cool in the movies. How did the fedora, which looked so right on even the smalltime crooks in black-and-white films, end up looking so goofy nowadays? Even as a kid I adored all of these tropes, and of course, the dialogue — the late-night monologuing, the bruised, poetic wit of private eyes and femme fatales.
Perhaps even more integral to film noir are the themes, many of which could just as easily be described as philosophies, or perhaps even fears. Personal codes in an amoral world. The pathetic fate of good and decent people. The inevitability of human weakness. The long shadow of the past.
In this 2007 adventure game for the Nintendo DS, Japanese developer CiNG captures much of the set dressing of the genre. There is the detective plot shadowed by past tragedy. Kyle Hyde is an ex-cop who shot his partner, Brian Bradley, after Bradley went rogue and fell in with the criminal organization Nile. Bradley disappeared into the Hudson River, and Hyde quit the force. The sound of that gunshot echoes in Hyde’s dreams; years later, he startles awake in cold sweat. Nowadays, he works as a knickknack salesman for an ex-police chief and flirts wryly on the phone with the office secretary. In private, he wrestles with Bradley’s betrayal and uses the salesman job to follow leads on his lost friend. He goes out on a job in the California desert, to make a delivery at Hotel Dusk. In the course of a single night, the past comes knocking. Like many noirs, a complex plot unravels, in which present mysteries inevitably call back to an unsolved past.
There is the visual style. Reminiscent of A-ha’s famous “Take On Me” music video, the black-and-white residents of Hotel Dusk are drawn by rotoscoping real actors, who inhabit a series of tics and gestures. A narrow-eyed, slightly plump writer pinches the corners of his glasses. A smartly-dressed blonde with movie star looks regards you over the bridge of her nose. Pencil-sketch shadows shift and crawl over the characters in every frame, creating visual secrecy.
There is the dreamy, smoky jazz soundtrack by Satoshi Okubo, which is food for my soul. Note the hard-boiled song titles, which are sometimes literally a step away from Chandler novels: “The Last Sleep”, “Play It Again”, “Straight Chaser”, “Big Dreams”, “Sunset Men”.
From top to bottom, Hotel Dusk looks like a familiar drink in a familiar bottle. It’s in the details that the game falls outside the normal channels of film noir. The story is set in 1979, unusually late for the genre. Many of the inciting events in the plot already happened years before the game, sometimes decades. There is almost no violence whatsoever. Often the greatest threat to Hyde is that he’ll get kicked out of the hotel for snooping around. Those who play Hotel Dusk to chase criminals may find the game slow and meandering. It is better appreciated as a synthesis of mood, dialogue, and atmosphere, in which you enjoy the company of its characters.
The plot of Hotel Dusk does unspool, slowly and methodically, driven by classic adventure gameplay, scouring rooms corner-to-corner for clues, tinkering with some truly clever puzzles that make use of the DS’s unique features (a particularly memorable one requires you to work a music box by using the DS’s clamshell design). But the game’s central commitment is to its characters and their interactions. Playing the game requires you to hold the DS sideways, like a book. This allows the characters to stand across from each other on opposite screens, giving them generous space to speak, gesticulate, and react to each other. Like many visual novels, Hotel Dusk requires you to choose the right thing to say. That is not always the same thing as telling someone what they want to hear. Sometimes you need to lie, and sometimes you need to tell the truth; some conversations call for calm and sympathy, while others require you to drill down whomever you’re talking to so they don’t worm their way out.
Often Hyde’s best tool for eliciting information is to tell someone exactly what they did, why they did it, or how they feel — “You did it because you were scared.” When you pick the wrong dialogue option, a dark shade moves downward through the character, signaling to the player that they’re on the wrong track. Too many conversational missteps will lead to a game over. When I first played this game as a fourteen-year-old, I pondered this combination. Obviously this was a visual indicator of success and failure, but why did misjudging someone often get them to clam up?
I remember figuring it out one day while I was having brunch with my family out on a sunlit lawn. As we were getting ready to go to the pool, my aunt pulled me aside. She talked to me about some of the struggles that were going on in my family. Then she said something I’ll never forget: “I know that you cry into your pillow every night.” She was completely wrong. I felt that dark shade move through me — a powerful sense of alienation. After that, I understood. When someone misjudges you so totally, why would you entrust them with the truth?
At its core, I believe Hotel Dusk is an exercise in empathy. Noir films can sometimes seem like a parade of strange and intriguing faces — they are, after all, stepping stones to solving a murder. The stakes are rarely so high in Hotel Dusk. Over the course of a night, Hyde nurses a glass of bourbon at the hotel bar, knocks on a door to borrow a pen, solves a jigsaw puzzle with some kid, and bowls in the hallway with the bellhop. You get to know people at the hotel, judge their temperaments, make low-stakes conversation like passengers in an airplane. The characters are humanized in these passing moments. But when push comes to shove, you need them to loosen their grip on the truth. No one wants to relinquish the truth, which will expose them totally — their failures, their weaknesses. But they hold fast to the lingering, secret hope of meeting someone who can leap past their defenses so that they can finally lower them and rest. Hotel Dusk is not a difficult game, but the better you understand someone, can anticipate what they want to say and why they can’t say it, the easier it is to win their trust. After a heated confrontation, the camera silently zooms in on Hyde’s face and the face of whomever he is talking to. Hyde is sized up. Everyone wants to know that you can be trusted with the weight of who they are.
This would not be possible without strong dialogue. Blessedly, the game sports a delightful localization crammed full of American idioms and distinctly-written characters. (The hotel owner Dunning: “I’m busier’n a one-legged man in an ass-kickin’ contest.”) My favorite is Louis DeNonno, who was a smalltime crook back when Hyde was a street-level cop on the New York beat. Now a bellhop at Hotel Dusk, he slacks off and generally gives Dunning and the resident maid Rosa a headache. But he has a good heart, calls Hyde “brother,” and devotes his passions to running the hotel bar, the Seven Stars. “I’m gonna tell you somethin’, but don’t go laughin’,” he confides in Hyde. “I know it’s stupid, but I always wanted a place like this for my own.” Louis’s chummy attitude slowly erodes Hyde’s armor, until the two share in easy, mutual ribbing. A tough conversation reveals that Louis is hurt by the traumatic and violent death of a close friend. He’s a kid trying to turn over a new leaf.
Hyde himself is half of the fun — no one is safe from this grumpy bastard, for whom tact died long ago. His habit of calling it how he sees it cuts through any pretense. (“You couldn’t deduce your way out of a wet sack. That’s why your books sell worse than fried crap at a county fair.”) The only person safe from his griping is Mila, a mute girl in a white dress who Hyde passes on the desert road to Hotel Dusk. Mila’s story is tied in with Hotel Dusk’s murkiest mysteries. While Hyde is gruff with most people, he never pushes her. He asks her a question, then hands her his notebook, where she scribbles an answer. Their relationship is gentle and poignant — Hyde empathizes with her desperation, senses that the answers she seeks will bring her pain, respects her lack of self-delusion about what truth lies in wait at the end of the journey.
Those who hunt the truth in film noir are often punished with incontrovertible proof — that the past is fated to repeat itself, that we are doomed to fall prey to our lesser selves. Film critic Roger Ebert called film noir “the most American film genre, because no society could have created a world so filled with doom, fate, fear and betrayal, unless it were essentially naïve and optimistic.” In this sense, despite all of its trappings, its obvious love for the sights and sounds of an era and those stories, Hotel Dusk is not a film noir. It is a fairy tale, which I mean without condescension and entirely with affection. It is near impossible that these characters would not only find each other on this night, but come together in a search for a truth that can set them all free. The game can easily be criticized for its contrivances to reach this end.
But viewed another way, Hotel Dusk wants nothing more than to grant its characters the redemption they crave. Almost everyone in this game suffers from the loss of someone who was once in their lives and is no longer there. The story ends in an outpouring of revelation, but there is no one around to take the fall for all of the hurt unleashed on these people’s lives — the villains in this story are long gone, and guns are only fired in flashbacks. What really unfolds at the Hotel Dusk are a series of conversations where the characters come to acknowledge that they are adrift, and in pain. They let their guard down, and place their trust in a stranger. They find the truth — not to seek justice, but merely to know the truth, and to understand it, and to grieve. In return, they are gifted with a sense of closure that has eluded them for a long time.
Hotel Dusk was developed by CiNG, a small company based in Fukuoka, Japan that specialized in adventure games. CiNG filed for bankruptcy in 2010, and their team scattered to the winds. Their last game was Last Window, a sequel to Hotel Dusk that focuses on a more personal story for Hyde. The loss of CiNG is a blow, particularly because it means that I may never enjoy the talents of its staff in another game again, let alone together. Character designer Taisuke Kanasaki sketches on Patreon, while writer Rika Suzuki opened a small company that produces Japanese serial web novels. God knows where the composer Satoshi Okubo is, and I wish he’d tell the rest of us.
So I offer CiNG this long and laborious goodbye. They have left behind a game that has become very special to me — a game that gets away with having its cake and eating it too. It masquerades in the cynical skin of film noir and basks in the imagery, the music, the dialogue. Meanwhile, it stubbornly refuses to let its characters go without hope. A world weathered by fear and betrayal reveals itself to be essentially naïve and optimistic, after all.