Grimnoir is a choice-based supernatural-detective story with an unprepossessing title.
It’s not all that grim, or at least not any more grim than you’d expect out of ‘supernatural detective.’ I’m not convinced that it’s all that noir, either, although that’s harder to assess; if noir has been hard-boiled down to “stories about crime; hard-drinking, fedora-clad PIs; and women who sometimes use sexual allure to get what they want”, then it’s noir, I guess.
Jacob Morris is a hard-drinking fedora-wearing PI with a tragic past who prefers to work alone. The main way he’s unlike the archetypical gumshoe is that he’s gay – exclusively gay, it appears, given that he describes himself as immune to the charms of his sorta-fatale succubus assistant Solene – but not really actively so, because he’s too busy being sad about his dead boyfriend.
I happen to have blown through a sizeable chunk of the Peter Grant series and the first few Dresden Files recently, and this is so squarely a Dresden Files kind of story that it’s hard not to make comparisons. This is aiming to cram seven cases into a two-hour game, and the end result is narrower, lower-stakes, more discrete. A book-sized mystery tends to have a lot of different interwoven threads going, a lot more planning and preparation and legwork and politics. Here, you poke around the scene a bit, conduct interviews, read your big book of monsters. You reach the bit clearly labelled ‘do you want to confront the monster now’, and then either you guess its purpose and release its soul, or you guess wrong and have to kill it. Each story can be wrapped up quite snappily – there’s no situation where the trail goes cold and you have to work on something else for a while. The stories can be played in arbitrary order, and you can put one on hold to attend to another, but they don’t appear to interrelate at all.
In both the book series I mentioned, the supernatural is always threatening to escalate – to catastrophically spill over into the real world and cause mass destruction. This makes for dramatic action, but I don’t mind that Grimnoir keeps things more focused on individual tragedies and sorrows. On the other hand, and this is part of why it feels a bit more like a light TV detective series than a noir piece, there isn’t much of an overarching sense of doom lingering over the story entire: Jacob’s sad, yes, but he’s not threatened. He might get his ass kicked by a monster, but he doesn’t have any long-standing enemies too big to fight. He isn’t ever obliged to piss off his allies. He isn’t ever troubled by a lack of cases and, while he doesn’t appear wealthy, being broke isn’t much of a pressing concern. He maybe drinks a bit more than is healthy, but it’s not affecting his work or relationships. He’s basically not a fuck-up, and that ain’t noir.
I liked the mix of cases. I liked its approach that every monster is driven by some fundamental motive. I don’t think, though, that there was really enough investigative process to really make an educated guess about those motives a lot of the time. Some of the stories (the Monster Emeritus, the incubus one) feel just the right length despite being quite short. Others, like the Song Garden, felt as though they needed another layer of information before you could really grok what the deal was. And I’m not wholly convinced by the bit where naming the monster’s purpose is sufficient to release its soul and stop it monstering; sometimes that feels a bit too pat.
(There was some kind of weird bug, possibly browser-specific, where links didn’t always work if they appeared at the start of a new line.)
The prose is OK; it flows fine, and often makes it through fairly lengthy passages without dragging down the pacing. It’s on the utilitarian side, though, which limits what the game can accomplish. The most boring sections were the diner sequences – in part, I think, because they’re so clearly bracketed off from the Real Plot that you’re mechanically encouraged not to focus on them, and because Jacob doesn’t really have a lot of motives for action outside of his work.
Those interwoven threads and cold trails I mentioned above aren’t just useful for clever plotting – they give the story some room to breathe. There’s not really a lot going on in Jacob or Solene’s life outside their work, but to a big extent that’s because they’re never shown not working. There’s not a lot of time spent on developing an overarching setting – the city is a major character in any decent noir piece, and in most supernatural-investigator plots too. Or – OK, maybe the deal is instead that the story isn’t really all that interested in Jacob or the city and the real focus is the monsters; the amount of attention given to the monster book might suggest that. In which case, it’d be good to have more detailed portraits of the individual monsters.
Either way, I felt as though this whole piece needed to be meatier, possibly longer, less focused on ticking the Case Solved boxes so promptly. I enjoyed myself, overall, but there are a lot of things that could be better. That’s a 6 if ever there was one.