I was idly browsing the forums at Pelgrane Press, when I came upon a quite interesting statement about the relationship between procedural storytelling and noir:

JustinF: I had been thinking of Noir primarily in terms of procedural investigation, but I think this is only part of the story. The cool, unemotional demeanor of the protagonist doesn’t mean its procedural (in fact it’s how he asserts his power over others, it’s often dramatic) and my thinking now is that in Noir the investigation is no more important than the drama – good Noir is not about two-dimensional wise-crackers or coldly logical Holmes characters or forensics experts. It’s about character and morality, temptation, inner conflict, redemption, sociopathy, cynicism etc, and in terms of the investigation itself, the emphasis is on relationships, trust, morality (nice summary of the genre here: The theme you mentioned of ‘information costs morality’ is one aspect, but its much more complex than that.

When we think about “Detective Fiction”, we tend to think about the sleuth bending over a clue, or interrogating a suspect to elicit the facts that will break the case open. We think about the procedural aspects first – but actually, almost all detective fictions from Conan Doyle onward, are highly formulaic fictions where clues are most like story beat placeholders. Of course, the detective does put the pieces together for you near the end of the story, but equally obviously, if that were all there were to it, you might as well be watching someone solve a crossword puzzle.
Detective fictions absolutely rely on engaging your in the life of both the detective and the various victims and suspects. Engaging you, but not drawing you too deeply into the emotional lives of the characters, because then you would have the emotional response of tragic catharsis rather than the satisfaction of restoration. So-called “hardboiled” detective fiction tends to plumb greater emotional depths than so-called “whodunits”, by widening the range of crimes and more consciously allowing tragic inflections. The taciturnity of the detective is, as Breu argues, a prophylactic against emotion, protecting the reader from the greater emotional fallout, obviating the need that “whodunits” feel for the classic “comedy” endings of marriages and so forth.
What we need to understand with respect to Roleplaying Games, is that different groups require this emotional range to be extended in either direction a lot further than contemplated in almost all detective formulations. It may be useful to think, briefly, in terms of the old GDS or GNS terminology. Detective fictions are your classic “gamist” reading experience. The early theory about the genre stresses the game-like aspects of the genre above all other considerations – you can refer to previous posts about SS van Dyne’s “Twenty Rules” as perhaps the perfect example of a cogent arguments framed around a “fair play” challenge between the author and the reader. Hammett critiqued this “game” aspect in his critical writing by emphasising the need for realistic details, which we could think about in terms of advocacy for “simulationism”, though, in practice, Hammett’s writing was structurally similar. In a lot of ways, we can characterise Chandler’s “The Simple Art Of Murder” as pointing out that this game-like quality has made detective fiction “unrealistic”, and instead of genuinely advocating for realism, his genre directives clearly want to move towards more traditional novelistic art – “dramatism” or “narrativism”.
We’re used to thinking about these terms in terms of game structure, but we can also think about them in terms of emotional needs. Games in a simulationist mode can generate emotion, but it may not be a primary goal. Conversely, games in a dramatist mode are explicitly interested in the emotional response of the players. Gamism is somewhere in between.
Gumshoe is structured around evading the clue-gathering botheration that stalls most investigative-oriented games – but that does not necessarily address the underlying emotional needs of the play-group sitting down to play, and nor does it address the inherent emotional neutrality of the originating genre. I want to characterise it, therefore, as somewhat voiding a gamist style of play in terms of competition between players and GM, but not particularly breaking the inherent emotional boundaries of the gamist mode. The choice of Gumshoe doesn’t necessarily rule out any kind of emotional preference.
In summary, I disagree with the gist of JustinF’s statement for two reasons. Most importantly, fictional investigations are not really about investigations; that emphasis in RPGs derives from a different fictional paradigm – simulationism. Secondly Gumshoe does not limit or even particularly affect the available emotional range at the gaming table. The only reason an explicitly Noir version of Gumshoe doesn’t exist is that nobody’s done it yet.

This entry was posted in The Mystery-Investigation Complex, Theory and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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