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Paris in the rain! What a warm and wild phrase, conjuring images of lovers embracing on bridges, of lamplight drizzled downwards onto the pavements. The city was built to be slicked and swooned over. If, however, you should find yourself with insufficient levels of amour, then fear not; in Night Call – a detective point-and-click from developer MonkeyMoon – we are treated to Paris in the pouring rain, but it’s decidedly gloomy. The game is black-and-white, enveloped in a fog of glowing greys; its streets are haunted by gruesome violence, prowled by the police, and bled of all obvious signs of joy – which seems to have sloshed down the gutters along with all the colour. But for those in need of a noirish fix, there can be no more romantic a setting: Paris in the drain!
You play as an unnamed taxi driver who is coerced by a corrupt detective into a spree of professional eavesdropping – a lowly errand for a just cause. The populace has been scarred by a string of murders, and you are the only victim to have survived an encounter with the killer. Your job is to keep one ear fixed on those in the backseat – whoever they may be – and collect any clues that come loose. The story is chopped up into nightly chunks, with each shift ending just before daybreak. In your flat, you pin evidence to a corkboard, twining together scraps of paper in an ever-creeping constellation. Why were you left alive? Why have the police come to a cabbie for help? Who is the murderer? All valid questions, to which the obvious answer is another question: who cares?
It takes all of ten minutes to work out that the real draw of Night Call has nothing to do with crime. It’s about a singular kind of pleasure, touched off by the transient nature of the deal: you pay, I drive, we part ways. What’s on offer here isn’t merely voyeurism but the chance to play pretend – to be in the bubble of another life for a few minutes, moved but unmarked, before cutting them adrift and driving away. One character – a priest, no less – compares your car to a confessional: ‘A small box removed from the world.’ Indeed, considering our driver doesn’t sport a clergy collar, it’s frankly alarming the rate at which the people of Paris are willing to let their lives spill out, as smoothly as petrol from a pump. It’s likely already a service in San Francisco: Ubertherapy – ‘The way to get where you’re going.’
The life you spend the most time with, of course, is that of the game’s unnamed hero. ‘Hero’ might seem too strong a word, at first, but his struggles – those of the sidelined and the sleepless – soon feel heroic. His nocturnal investigations lie in tension with the trappings of his job. Money, for instance, must be worried over, lest you run low on fuel and stall your investigation. Should you fall into debt, your boss will take your car back, booting you back to a previous checkpoint. This means sizing up the distance required to travel against the cash that awaits you at the end. The entire thing has the seamy smell of money, as nothing – not even justice – can be done without it. All is carried out in single clicks of the mouse: choose your fare, choose your words, and watch it all unwind.
I found myself appreciative, more than any other dialogue-driven game I’ve played, of the option to stay silent. Not only does the car fill up with talk from elsewhere but you are given leave to wonder about whose waking hours you’re inhabiting. About him we are given scarce fragments, as if someone were flipping puzzle pieces towards us: a French-Algerian, a troubled past, a deep vein of anger seething just below the skin. He is, above all, what he does. The taxi driver – that lonely urban sentinel, forever enshrined by Scorsese, cruising and oozing through the scuzz of a city – is hardly a celebrated figure, even less a champion of the just. Any crime-busting ambitions you may harbour early on are soon tamped down; ‘You’re just here to get me more information,’ says your police handler. ‘You’re no Batman.’
Not that you would know it to gaze out the windows. The place looks like something from a graphic novel, rich in shadows and glittering with moonshine. If someone, or something, were to dart across the rooftops, it would come as no surprise. If the artwork on the characters looks simplistic and splodgy, it’s because everything outside is carved with such clarity. As the conversation in the cab rolls on, the camera occasionally cuts outside: whirling through tunnels, tilting up at planes in the night sky, and flickering across shopfronts. These moments felt like sucking up cold air – brief bursts of relief from the muffled interior of the taxi. In fact, I often opted not to advance the dialogue so as to linger on these shots, pleasantly tranquilised by the electronic score, courtesy of Corentin Brasart.
Such spells are the game’s master stroke, but so too do they unveil its weakness – the drive of its narrative pales in comparison to the depth of its mood. Does it matter that I don’t mind the murders? That all depends on what else has me hooked, and how often. Night Call lives and dies by its passengers, and, rather like real humans, some are more interesting than others. A lovesick journalist on the brink of a tryst may hold you rapt, a blabbering cosplayer less so. As if sensing the onset of monotony, the game throws you into slumps of surrealism – making customers of cats and ghosts, for instance – that I could have done without. At one point, someone says, ‘It must be a real bummer, all these guys telling you their life stories…’ Not so, the real bummer is when the lives lack stories worth telling.
Should you find yourself growing tired of Night Call – and it is a sedentary experience, composed of reading, listening, watching – my advice would be to treat the game like a fare. It’s best played in fleeting fashion – ten minutes here, an hour there – and if the conversation should turn stale or irritating, tune out. It’s no wonder that the top half of the screen is given over to the map, which is, so often in games, merely functional and which here serves not to orientate but to transfix. I found my eyes floating upwards to it on more than one occasion – a silvery spiderweb littered with buzzing souls – drawn from the present to the dream of whoever was next.
Developer: MonkeyMoon, Black Muffin
Publisher: Raw Fury
Available on: PC [reviewed on], PlayStation 4, Xbox, and Nintendo Switch
Release Date: July 17, 2019
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