What Does Citizen Kane Have to Do With Mass Effect 2?

Modern games find inspiration in the techniques of classic film noir

The concept art for the forthcoming game Star Wars 1313 portrays a crime-ridden city. Lucas Arts

The figure stands in a darkened room. Pale light falls from the window. Diagonal shadows obscure his face. There has been a murder, as we can see from a woman’s body pierced by a bullet on the floor. And just from the way the scene is presented, we know this mystery figure is morally ambiguous, caught between light and dark in more ways than one.

It isn’t Humphrey Bogart in some vintage film noir. He’s a green-skinned, reptilian alien, holding a futuristic rifle. His name is Thane Krios, master assassin. And he’s not in a movie but the best-selling video game Mass Effect 2.

Video games have come a long way from the pixilated romps of the 1980s. As production values have increased, games have drawn on more inspiration from classic cinema. In particular, framing and lighting devices borrow heavily from film noir techniques to convey ambiguity and anxiety.

Modern games embody those complex feelings better than any other medium. That’s because there’s conflict not only between the story’s protagonists and the virtual world they inhabit, but between the game and the player. Whether a character lives or dies, whether a world is saved or not—these are choices that a player often gets to make. And that open-endedness compels game designers to create a spectrum of emotional visual cues.

Sometimes this mood is conveyed through cut-scenes—video clips dropped into a game to advance the story. But the greater challenges arise during actual, interactive gameplay. Casting the perfect light on a scene when the player has no control over the camera is simple, but what about when the player can manipulate the camera?

Magy Seif El-Nasr, a game designer and associate professor at Northeastern University, has drawn inspiration on lighting techniques from art, theater and film noir classics such as Citizen Kane and This Gun for Hire. In the lighting system she helped create—it’s called ALVA, for Adaptive Lighting for Visual Attention—the lighting effects and mood continuously change in response to the situation the player has created. Game design, Seif El-Nasr explains, walks a tightrope between authenticity and impressionism. “While a system can be developed to physically produce a realistic effect, it may not be the right one aesthetically. Thus, the need to balance aesthetic and realistic effects is important.”

As the next year brings a new wave of games into living rooms, several of the most widely anticipated ones will rely on the gritty interplay of light and shadows. Notably, the forthcoming Star Wars 1313 departs from the colorful universe that is its namesake, opting instead for a noir-type plot that casts the player as a bounty hunter in a crime-ridden, underground city. Gone are the clearly drawn battle lines between good and evil, as embodied by the light and dark sides of the Force. Instead, the creative team at Lucas Arts has said it wants to attract more mature audiences by “creating a world painted in shades of gray.”

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.