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City Noir

"When the darkness fell, New York City became something else, any old Sinatra song notwithstanding. Bad things happened in the night, on the streets of that other city. Noir York City."

The localized, urban version of a Crapsack World. Apathetic Citizens shuffle though a maze of overbearing black skyscrapers and Sinister Subways as sirens wail constantly in the background. Expect a very limited color palette, a palpable air of decay and depression, and an unbelievable crime rate.

Usually, cities like this will consist of a downtown area full of Corrupt Corporate Executives surrounded by a massive Wretched Hive.

It will often be informed by Taxi Driver-era New York (sinister clouds of steam emerging from the sewers, prostitutes on every corner, depressive Knights in Sour Armor narrating about how crappy the place is, etc.), though the origins of City Noir are actually in German Expressionism. It may take these things to surreal lengths.

If our story takes place in the future, it will be a dystopia full of hideously tacky black Star Scrapers (symbolizing class oppression) and other signs of a future gone wrong. If it takes place in the past, the City Noir of choice will probably either be industrial revolution-era London or a fantasy counterpart version of it. Facsimiles of cities like New York and Chicago during the Great Depression might alternately pop up, although for American audiences they may well be shot through the Nostalgia Filter.

Cities Noir often enjoy twenty hour nights and constant cloud cover. The remaining four hours of daylight are given over to two hours of rain, one hour of thunder, one hour of sunsets. Sunrises usually mean the work set here is ending.

These places are a staple of Film Noir and Darker and Edgier shows.

A sister trope to Soiled City on a Hill, Vice City, and Wretched Hive. The Shining City is the antithesis. See also The City Narrows and The Big Rotten Apple which is what you get when you cross City Noir with the Big Applesauce trope. See Cyberpunk with a Chance of Rain for the Cyber Punk City Noir weather forecast.

Examples

    open/close all folders 

     Anime and Manga  
  • Neo-Tokyo in AKIRA is a classic and influential example in the genre. It is interesting the compare the colour pallet: Neo-Tokyo evokes the sinister vibe while being much more colour-rich than the typical western example.
  • Zig-zagged by Tekkon Kinkreet's Treasure Town. It doesn't really look like a City Noir during the day — on account of all the sunshine and life. It is much less depressing than most examples, but it's definitely run-down, dangerous, and filled with people who can't stand living there. Ironically, the villain's plan is to turn the whole place into a family friendly amusement part by flat out murdering any hoodlums and street kids who don't follow the program.

    Comics 
  • Batman: Gotham is an influential example, although it wasn't always portrayed this way. The criminal element runs rampant in this city, and the law enforcement seriously cannot deal... Lucky they have Batman.
  • Sin City: The venal Basin City (known as "Sin City" to the people who live there) and the seedy inhabitants who lurk in its alleys and doorway. It's almost exclusively set in and around Basin City's criminal underworld. Exaggeration unto high art.

    Film 
  • Taxi Driver: It cannot be pressed enough how important this film was for this trope. An insomniac and depressed New York City cab driver becomes obsessed with cleansing the city of human "trash".
  • Coruscant, in Star Wars. Underneath (As in, literally, underneath; ground level up to around forty stories) the bright starships, the shiny skyscrapers, and the epic cityscape lies a planetwide hellhole of slums, filled with crime, despair, mutated monsters, as a result of widespread dumping of waste into the Underworld (as it is called) and general lack of maintenance by city authorities.
  • The titular city of Fritz Lang's Metropolis is the Ur Example. Fritz Lang was inspired to create Metropolis by New York City. The society is divided in two, the workers on the underground and the wealthy on the exterior. There is Evil Tower of Ominousness — a gigantic, unimaginably huge tower with heliports on top overshadowing everything.
  • Fritz Lang film, M It's a city where a paranoid citizenship have begun to attack anyone and everyone in search of a child killer, and the gangsters and police think dangerously alike.
  • Dark City is this setting taken to surreal heights through deliberate use of Diesel Punk by the city's alien overlords.
  • Every location in The Matrix trilogy, both in the real world and the simulated one, seems to be either one of these or a Wretched Hive.
  • Se7en's nameless, constantly-rainy city.
  • New York in The Fifth Element uses the setting in an interesting juxtopostion with the rest of the movie which is generally light and playful.
  • Detroit/Delta City in RoboCop. Detroit is deemed as city "beyond saving", they want to tear it down and rebuild it as Delta City. Naturally, the place is a Crapsack World where the police force has been privatized and handed over to a Mega Corp..
  • The Los Angeles of Blade Runner is the Trope Codifier for cyberpunk versions of this. The film is set in a dystopian near-future City Noir version of Los Angeles and it established much of the tone and flavor of the Cyber Punk genre.
  • Brazil is set in one. The city is an inescapable bureaucratic force hewn from concrete, steel and litter.
  • This is how the year 2024 looks in Highlander II: The Quickening. "No sun, no stars, only heat and humidity."

    Literature 

    Live Action TV 
  • Downplayed in Cases of the 1st Department. Prague is not absolutely horrible and dark here, but the city is wonderfully shabby, gray, rainy or cold. It's noticeable especially if you compare it to Prague's usual idealized depictions set in sunny picturesque streets or beautiful historical palaces. Some murders happened in ghettos and poor neighbourhoods, and even the police building looks almost pitiful compared to high-tech sets of other modern police procedurals.

    Music 
  • Portrayed perfectly in the New York of Afrika Baambaataa and Leftfield's "Afrika Shox" video.
  • The Protomen: "Don't turn your back on the city"
  • The futuristic metropoli described in many Judas Priest songs, especially "The Sentinel" ("Along deserted avenues, steam begins to rise....")

     Video Games 
  • Midgar from Final Fantasy VII.
  • Nightshade's Metro City is about as old an example as you're going to get. (Even if it's mostly a spoof of the genre.)
  • Condemned's Metro City is somewhat of a deconstruction of this trope.
  • Infamous' Empire City, a fictional stand-in for smaller New York. The city is quarantined due to an apparent plague, and there are three enigmatic gangs known as the Reapers, the Dust Men, and the First Sons who begin a turf war over the city. Empire City has areas in its sewer systems that can fit entire underground communities of homeless citizens.
  • Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit's Empire City (Wonder why this name is so common?)
  • Prototype's New York
  • Rapture in BioShock, especially in its state of decay. Going one better than constant rain, it is underwater. Even better, its leaking in a lot of places.
  • Max Payne gave us one of the best and most original video game example. There is nothing like New York, a winter storm, and some Norse ethos to get the noir blood running...
  • The city from Thief called... The City. Oookay.
  • The first level from The Punisher game from 2005 begins with a monologue about how even though the politicians have tried to clean up the city, all they succeeded in doing was pushing crime to other neighborhoods.
  • City 17 in Half-Life 2 was this on concept art in early stage of development, and it picked up a strong Eastern European inflection in the final work.
  • Detroit (again) from Deus Ex: Human Revolution, along with Hengsha in Shanghai, in somewhat different styles. Detroit is very obviously based on Blade Runner's LA, and Hengsha looks more like Midgar. New York from the original might have counted, too, but we don't get to see much of it, and it's too poorly-rendered to tell. The developers had big plans for the Montreal level, but time constraints forced them to cut out the entire thing in exchange of a single mission level.
  • The urban locations in Kingpin: Life of Crime. Features everything between desolate ghettos and classy, but equally vile Radio City with it's Art Nouveau architecture (bearing a suspicious resemblance to some places in Payback). Also noteable for a weird mix of modern as well as 20's, 30's and steampunk-scifi styles (Cypress Hill music, Tommyguns, and thugs with cybernetic facial modifications all in the same setting!)
  • New Mombasa evokes one of these, though it was brighter and more welcoming before the Covenant invaded.
  • The City of Steelport in Saints Row: The Third has art deco and industry seemingly running everywhere, and half of the time the game spawns you at night. Or in the rain.
  • Bezoar City of the obscure Cyber Punk shooter Hard Reset is perhaps the vastest, most towering example to be found on this page. When we say towering, we damn well mean it too; at certain points the wind whistles by fast enough to suggest you are a very... appreciable distance from the ground that you most definitely can't see. Yet, when you look up? There's still a lot more city to go. At least once you will go down the street through an industrial complex, only to find yourself on the ledge of a skyscraper.
  • Los Angleles in the Blade Runner video game. It's dark, rainy, and dirty.
  • The four nightmarish, Cog-swarming, gigantic Cog Headquarters in Toontown Online are very good examples, especially the Lawbot HQ, which appears to have an entire, New York-esque, city in the background.
  • The Jak and Daxter series has Haven City, a sprawling metropolis believed to be the last surviving city on the planet. It's heavily polluted, in a severe state of disrepair, and has a mafia that actively works with the city's evil government. By the time of Jak II, it's been under siege for hundreds of years, and the citizenry is impoverished and downtrodden due to the war and the Baron's tyrannical rule. On top of that, the government has secretly worked out a deal with their supposed enemy, the Metal Heads, to supply them with eco in exchange for attacking the city just enough to justify its continued rule. Did we mention that the Baron has a plan to destroy the Metal Heads that would also destroy the entire universe?
  • This is how Emerald City is portrayed in Emerald City Confidential. Because of its Darker and Edgier tone, Emerald City is filled with criminals, corrupt authority figures, and cynical city dwellers.
  • Cloudbank in Transistor is perhaps a slightly more colorful and opulent version, though it's still fairly bleak and Cyber Punk-esque (especially with Killer Robots running amok.)
  • Though downplayed, this trope is undeniably present in Pokémon Black's version-exclusive location, Black City; a shady metropolis dominated by skyscrapers of the color its name would suggest with battle-hungry residents, a market that tries to sell you items for up to fifty times their actual worth, and a mayor who openly boasts that his city is fueled by greed and selfishness. It's a stark contrast to its counterpart, the lush and idyllic White Forest.
  • In Skyrim, we have Windhelm, capital of the Stormcloak rebellion, Riften, capital of the Rift, and Markarth, capital of the Reach. Windhelm is full of narrow, winding streets, racism against the city's Argonian and Dark Elf residents is commonplace, and when you first arrive, the city is being stalked by an insane, necromantic Serial Killer. Since Windhelm is located in the northern reaches of Skyrim however, Windhelm trades the usual rainfall for heavy snow instead.
    • Riften is a perpetually foggy city rife with corruption; it the home to the Thieves Guild (who in a break from previous Elder Scrolls games are not a band of Robin Hood types who protect the poor, but are in fact little more than a collection of thugs, blackmailers, exortionists, and con-men). The local Jarl is incompetent and out of touch with her people, and the real power in Riften is the head of the local mead dynasty, Maven Black-Briar, who has the Thieves Guild at her beck and call, has ties to the Dark Brotherhood, and can actually become Jarl if you side with the Empire in the Civil War. It's not uncommon to see Thieves running loose in the marketplace, and Honorhall Orphanage, Skyrim's only home for orphaned children, is (initially) run by a monstrous woman named Grelod the Kind who regularly abuses her wards and refuses to let any of them actually get adopted. And be warned if you venture into the Ratway, the sewers beneath the city, which is home not only to the Thieves Guild, but also home to a number of other thugs, miscreants and outcasts who dwell down there.
    • Markarth has to take the cake however. Upon entering the city for the first time, you're treated to the sight of a woman being murdered in the middle of the marketplace (possibly) in broad daylight, before her assailant is killed by the guards who assure you that everything is under control and that there are no Forsworn in Markarth. You're drawn into a conspiracy surrounding the Forsworn, the former inhabitants of the Reach, and the powerful and corrupt Silver-Blood family that really rules the city, and by the end of the questline, you'll be looking at quite a number of dead caught in the crossfire. The city is built over an ancient Dwemer city teeming with killer robots, giant spiders, and vicious Falmer that are only kept from sweeping through the city because they're too busy killing each other, there's a haunted house that houses an artifact of Molag Bal, one of the truly most despicable Daedric Princes, and if you do Namira's Daedric quest as well you discover a not insignificant number of Markarth residents are cannibals. It's a pretty miserable place to live.

     Web Comics 

     Western Animation 
  • Batman: The Animated Series relies heavily on this trope for the stylistic views of Gotham City. And yes, it is often night, but that's when the bats take wing...
  • While the daytime shots of Republic City in The Legend of Korra are very beautiful, it turns out that the city hides a dark underbelly of crime and poverty. In particular, the night fight scenes in the streets take queues from this trope.
    • The same can be said to apply to Ba Sing Se of the original series, with secret agents of the government conspiring to keep the perfect balance they have created in the city, which also means keeping the hundred year world war secret to the public, and brainwashing anyone who dared to disrupt order.
  • Black Dynamite features a very limited color palette when it portrays its city setting. As well the city's palpable air of decay and depression and high crime rate, most action takes place in a ghetto overrun by whores, orphans and corruption, where the cops are crooked and the IRS is psychotic. Played for Laughs.

    Other 
  • Very common in Cyber Punk works, as befits their Film Noir roots.
  • Last Res0rt's City of Wonder. (although at least in terms of being a darkly colored city, they have the excuse of it being located inside a freakin' space station, so any sunlight or other weather that exists there is manufactured anyway...)
  • Starlight Over Detrot's titular Detrot, a Metropolis on the edges of Equestria that's been slowly decaying since the gem market went bust.
  • Supposedly, a Truth in Television with Taxi Driver-era New York City.
  • Post-Motor City Detroit is almost always portrayed this way.
  • Victorian London is often portrayed this way. Noir fiction can drawn on Victorian London.
  • It would seem that many Post-Soviet Russian metropolises embody the trope.
    • Moscow fits the trope perfectly, both in works like S. Lukyanenko's Watch tetralogy and in Real Life. The climate is dark and cold for nine months and blisteringly hot for the remaining three, the architecture consists mostly of drab Commie-era concrete towers with some neo-gothic Stalinist skyscrappers added downtown and a lot of squalid 'khrushevka' apartment houses in the outskirts, the citizens are apathetic, the Corrupt Corporate Executives are flamboyant jerks and the psychological athmosphere of the place was nasty enough even before the global financial crisis, and now it's downright unbearable.
    • St. Petersburg is similar to Moscow, but with extra gloomy clouds and extra gothic.
    • Other Russian major cities are Cities Noir, but with less decadence and more, often much more, of the city on the Wrong Side of the Tracks.
  • Rather funny, the Eastern European cities in the first 10 years after Communism fell were almost as Noir as designed by the director of RoboCop (1987) himself due to the drabness of Communist architecture combined with rusty cheapo 1980s cars and buses and explosion of street vendors, small shops, advertising panels, unemployed older people and young rappers. It was so common before the economic development of the 2000s that ordinary population got sick of it altogether and nowadays they fly into a rage when they see something like it.
  • Glasgow, Scotland is the rainiest city in the UK. Similarly, it is full of drab, square council houses, with tower blocks puncturing the earth every now and then, derelict industrial works, some truly squalid City Narrows, with an old centre filled with neo-Gothic remnants of Empire. Dark as hell in the winter too. Subverting this trope, however, is the fact that the inhabitants are A: some of the cheeriest people in the UK and B: fiercely proud of their city, often getting angry and sometimes violent towards people who make it look - AAK!


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