Setting the Stage: Nordic Noir

Nordic Noir, or Scandinavian Noir, is best known as subgenre of crime fiction, often set in the Nordic countries and written by Nordic authors. Its key elements are moral complexity, social criticism and realistic tone. In the role-playing game The Quick, Nordic Noir describes the themes and general mood of the setting. This way the game combines the key elements of the genre with urban fantasy and supernatural horror.

Nordic Noir was created as a portrait of the dark side of the “Folkhemmet”, the Scandinavian welfare society. In a more general sense Nordic Noir tells stories of the monsters in the suburbia. It deals with the inability of any middle-class society to acknowledge horrible things happening under its clean surface. The seemingly equal, tolerant society that promotes social justice covers up darkness like racism, misogyny and violent hatred. And more often than not when this darkness emerges, the society is most interested in finding a way to forget about it as soon as possible. It is this indifferent facade of decency and the darkness under it that serves as a background for  the ghost stories of The Quick.

The world of Nordic Noir is dark, and its heroes are broken. They often come from troubled background and have their share of nasty package of their own. Yet broken and stained as they might be, they at least try to do their share of fixing things, or turning back the true horrors. Or at least do their job decently. The heroes of The Quick come from many paths, but none of them are knights in their shining armors, and none are undamaged.

Social criticism is an important part of the atmosphere of Nordic Noir, and should be present in the setting of the game. This does not mean preaching political message, but the role that the society plays in the stories. The system that has been built to protect people and to take care of those in needs is revealed as not really caring, at least not when it would mean discomfort for those in charge. Often the police are burying the curious murder case not because they are corrupt (though sometimes they are), but because they care more about dealing with their mortgage payment than wasting their time or even risking their careers in digging deeper. Since keeping up the appearance is easier than really taking care of problems, that is exactly what most people are more eager to do when encountering the darkness under the surface.

Even the heroes might have to come face to face with the limitations of what they can really do, and how easy it is for them to accept bad things instead of seemingly hopeless fight. Or they might choose to fight the windmills, knowing that in the end the best that they can hope for is to make the world just a little bit better place. Role-playing in the world of Nordic Noir shouldn’t need to be completely hopeless, but it should be evident that not every wrong can be made right. There’s room for heroism, but it’s often a little bit dark and tragic.

Since The Quick is a game about death and ghosts, violence plays a significant role in it. Violence in Nordic Noir is brutal, but both society and people living in it are not accustomed to it. In the genre, the grim and savage violence serves as one way of emphasizing the contrast between the pretense of niceness of the society and the dark side covered under it. While some of the player characters might have more experience of it in their background, it should never be presented as trivial matter, even to the most jaded homicide detective or mystically-inclined death cultist.

In its tone, Nordic Noir tends to be realistic and terse, even laconic. The atmosphere and the mood is the autumn of a little town in Scandinavia: Dark and cold with slowly pouring rain. The people get on with their lives, often pretending to be just one lottery-ticket away from their dreams. There’s happiness to be found, but usually it’s more about being content of what one can have than achieving something grand.

Nordic Noir is not present in just the mundane. The themes are also important part of the supernatural of the game. Much like brutal violence rips the cover of the civil society, in the world of The Quick it tears the reality itself, opening way to the horrors beyond. Society reacts to its dark side with the same feign and deliberate ignorance be it natural or supernatural. The supernatural problems that the heroes encounter are not black and white questions, and moral complexity is ever present, even when fighting monsters.

While many of the examples of the fiction set in Nordic Noir are specifically situated in the Nordic countries, the setting of The Quick doesn’t need to be. The themes and the mood are important, but the setting is not tied to these countries. While the cold, dark weather and welfare society together with “Folkhemmet” might be specific to the Fenno-Scandia, human selfishness and the need to keep up the appearance instead of dealing with the darkness are universal.

Examples of Nordic Noir

Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson

Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

The Bridge, Swedish/Danish tv -series

Occupied, Norwegian tv -series