He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him see the works.
Video games can occasionally become too tangled up in their own gaminess to really capture a sense of realism. It’s tough to feel like you’re in a game when there are numbers and bars, meters and tutorials, menus to navigate and crafting systems to sift through all wafting across your screen. White Night in its minimalism, however, feels exactly like stumbling to the restroom in the pitch blackness of 3am. That includes stubbing your pinky toe against the mattress frame and suspecting beyond reason that you’re being watched in the dark.
Set in the 1930s, White Night follows on the heels of a familiar horror premise: a passing motorist is involved in an accident and flees the scene to a nearby estate in search of help. Of course the mansion is abandoned, of course it’s haunted by terrifying apparitions, and of course you’re trapped there. What develops in the darkness is the hook of a murder mystery.
The player quickly discovers that the old house is all-too acquainted with greed, self-righteousness, insanity, disease, the occult, and corruption. Scattered letters tell of a family fortune lost, an obsession with mutilation and the moon, and the steady descent of former residents into madness. One unfortunate girl becomes a recurring image as the mansion gives up its secrets, appearing not only in letters and journals but metaphysically as a visible spirit, leading the player deeper down the corridors.
To my mind, White Night is a combination of three flavors: Noir, Survival horror, and Indie.
The first describes the presentation and portrayal of the game’s narrative and characters, complete with familiar film noir characteristics (the first-person perspective narration, the inclusion of a mystery drama, a keen eye of cinematography emulation with skewed angles and heavy contrast, and delicious, delicious similes like your favorite bistro’s spaghetti and meatballs, served hot, not cold, like justice). One can’t help but be transported in memory to any number of detective films (provided you’ve seen any), archetypically complete with the hard-boiled private eye, the saucy dame, and the plot twist. You can almost smell the cigarettes and bourbon.
However, I have heard a multiplicity of takes on White Night suggesting it’s a case of style over substance, so let’s unpack that thought and see if there’s anything beneath those immediately arresting visuals…
White Night’s dedication to film noir is somewhat diluted by the simple fact that the game’s space is shared with the trappings of its two other flavors, both of which encompass its gameplay. I never got the sense I was playing an interactive movie. Contrariwise, I felt I was playing a game adaptation of film noir. That is a major difference.
Survival horror is a subgenre of video games that ought to be familiar to anyone who spends their time reading 3,000-word game critiques such as this one. The most frequent elements that survival horror consists of include limited ammunition and supplies, inventory management, mazes, elusion over combat, and the removal of layers of control from the player. The purpose is to make the player feel the very opposite of invincible. Survival horror must make the player feel inadequate, weak, poorly armed, fragile. There’s an added emphasis on horror through ambiance and a sense of being pursued as opposed to action horror games which place great effect upon direct confrontation through a host of weapons or tools available to you.
The most important elements White Night picks up from survival horror are the limited supplies and a palpable sense of isolation. There are no NPCs to have any meaningful interaction with, beyond the white rabbit that is Selena’s ghost. The letters themselves through which the voices of other characters come offer no respite. In fact, I felt like something was going to come up behind me and grab me while I was reading them! The shadows of Margaret are the game’s sole enemies. The entire experience is spent shuffling around in the darkness with just the light of a match or a few electric lamps to keep you company. That’s it. It beautifully creates a sense of loneliness.
As for the limited supplies, I have mentioned the matches already. These are your best friends. You literally cannot survive without them. However, as with real matches, they are consumable. Lighting one provides you with a quivering bubble of light to explore the house, and you cannot interact with anything in the dark, but each match will eventually burn out. Break into a dash or a run and they seem to go out even faster. Run out and you’re out of luck; remaining in the darkness for more than a few seconds will drive the protagonist mad and lead to a swift game over.
You can find several matchboxes throughout the house, left behind by the mansion’s final occupant, but you’ll surely develop a sense of their value and the limited period of safety they offer only increases the game’s tension, forcing you to take it slow when you want to run away. The amount of matches you’re carrying at any one time is constantly displayed on-screen (I would personally stuff many more than just twelve in my pockets if it were me!), which means the game is always reminding you that the clock is ticking. Only a tiny, flickering flame stands between you and whatever resides in the blackness.
Thirdly, there’s the Indie flavor. This is a little more difficult to define but what I mean by it is White Night exemplifies a lot of the things I think about when I think of indie games. It’s brief but centralized around single ideas, not at all a broad game. It has an emotionally potent story to tell in its short runtime. It is infested with puzzles involving item acquisition and implementation with an extreme demand upon developing an attention to detail.
The game’s simplicity lies on the surface and more often than not it seems like the player must bring their impressions into White Night to create the substance, create the addictive sensation of fear… otherwise, it’s just a game about a dude stumbling around in the dark. It’s the sort of game that rewards you if you’re willing to be patient with it, not in terms of the payoff of an ending sequence necessarily but in terms of the creepiness and the challenge of its puzzles.
If you just want to blow away some zombies or get through the game to play something else, don’t bother. Look elsewhere.
The 8-bit Review
Let’s talk about the most obvious feature of White Night, its visual style. Yes, almost everything in the game is either black or white. Only a few glimmering lights cast a slightly desaturated radiance over the ornate surroundings of the old house.
I’ll be honest, at first glance, when I first saw the game’s trailer, I thought “Wow, that is really cool to make an entire game that looks like a noir detective comic book, like Tracer Bullet from Calvin & Hobbes.” When I began to play it for myself (courtesy of Osome Studio and Plug In Digital), I then thought “I don’t know if I can really take this… it seems monotonous and bleak.” Once I began to get into the game and explore the house, I gained an appreciation for the things this unique style affords.
One is the effect that the game’s use of light and darkness has on the player’s imagination. I for one have a pretty active imagination. You know the kind where you imagine shapes in the dark when you’re in bed at night? That’s sort of what White Night involves. Because the light only casts a glare on the surface of objects, everything else remains completely dark. Your brain automatically attempts to fill in the blank space, naturally. This forces you to explore and remember what you’ve seen (though rudimentary maps of the mansion’s floors can be found), and it’s easy to imagine all kinds of horrors in the dark.
Perhaps why the game is scary at all in the face of its occasional cartoonishness is because of this darkness. It conceals monsters and ghosts, allows your mind to fill in the rest. Even when you do spot a black shape moving through the blackness, a shimmering shadow with grasping arms standing motionless or shambling through the halls, it’s difficult to tell exactly what you’re looking at. The apparition only lights up when you’re closest to it, close enough for it to notice you and let out a hideous shriek before chasing you. Few things are more frightening, especially after walking into a room you’ve never been in that’s pitch black. The fear of the unknown is a powerful sensation heightened all the more in White Night because of its visual style.
Another thing about these graphics, they force you to be the detective. White Night is about exploration. You won’t solve the mystery without taking the time to look around. You certainly won’t be able to advance far in the game without having an attention to and retention of details (provided you play the game without an internet guide). There were times I got stuck because I missed some object or didn’t connect the dots right away, not until I went back and retraced my house. Also, you’ll miss the light switch that could save your life if you’re not going to wear the boots of the detective.
For this, you’ll absolutely need to turn on one of the game’s options which causes interactive objects to light up orange when you step near them. This indicates to the player that you can pick up, switch on, open, read, or examine whatever it is that’s next to you. It’s essential because the lighting isn’t always enough to fully describe the objects around you.
There are eerie photographs to be found which are pretty cool though the movements of the game’s characters and their facial animations aren’t anything to write home about, which comfortably puts me in the mind to give this game’s visuals an above decent score, a pretty good one in fact. I ultimately didn’t find much to dislike about the graphics. You’re right in assuming that there’s a lot of style here and it turns out its got more than some utility to it.
We are taking the soundtrack, the sound design, and the vocal performances into consideration here so let’s handle them in order.
The soundtrack is as you would expect it: excellent with the jazz. The music itself is only used sparingly, though. The tracks which do appear, including a hauntingly vocalized intro and outro song, are in themselves magnificent. Menu navigation is linked to notes on a piano, too, which is a nice touch. I’m a fan of jazz and the smooth, almost sensual quality of the deep dark noir stuff is really something I enjoy. I only wished there was more of it during the game’s entire run, which takes me to my main criticism in this audio category…
The audio mixing isn’t very good, the vocals are pretty hard to hear over some sound effects on certain scenes. Noises such as running water or the deafening tone of a ticking clock in the first floor of the house easily drown out the gruff mumblings of our protagonist-narrator. This is a shame because the main character’s vocal performance is great.
I know that the sound design was intentionally stripped down and the sound effects are present in distinct isolation in order to heighten the game’s tension. That approach here is highly effective, though it risks alienating the player with its repetitive noise. It’s a balance that White Night was willing to try, though whether it hits home or not is up to the player. For me, I played with the volume low after a while but I missed the first few words of some narration because of that. This is most frustrating at the end of the game when the final speeches are given and they’re barely audible over the sound effects. You can’t play it sensibly without the subtitles on.
As for the vocal performance, I’ve already mentioned it’s great. The protagonist’s is the only voice of the game (minus the singer’s in the soundtrack) so there’s a lot that depends on him. I think he not only nailed the accuracy needed for the game’s film noir nods but he also convincingly portrayed the burgeoning infatuation that the protagonist develops toward Selena.
To end on a high note, here is the classic “Clair De Lune” which appears in the game:
The simple reliance upon light as opposed to ammo for a gun in this survival horror is an implementation which I found to be very effective. It forced me to think about my consumables and inventory, yes, but it also gave me a sense of having to hurry along because time was always ready to burn out. When entering a large, dark room, I didn’t exactly want to rush into things but at the same time, I knew I had to push on in order at the very least to find more matches. These were plentiful enough that the pressure (read: anxiety) never became too overwhelming, though.
I do like that the game requires you be conscious about only running when you need to while at the same time making sure you move at a brisk pace.
The going can be very slow with not much going on other than dodging ghosts and reading lots and lots of journals, so be prepared for that if you plan to get into White Night. However, some of the puzzles can be really great, with only a handful of them being truly abstruse. A decent memory and a moderate thoroughness will see you through most everything in the game, including what I initially thought to be the hardest puzzle involving alchemical symbols and a code. However, there’s a puzzle after that one which utilizes a clock mechanism and more symbols which I just could not decipher. Sensing I was near the end, I broke down and looked up the solution online. I didn’t understand how it was reached even after I knew the answer.
An important factor in any survival horror game is of course the horror itself. So is White Night scary? I thought it was. The music does this thumping noise any time an apparition chases you and there isn’t an overabundance of jump scares; the atmosphere does most of the work where creepiness is involved.
I should also note that I was forced to do some backtracking, partly my own fault and partly as required by the game itself. There were also really long loading times, occasionally between rooms, which I found surprising. These loads took some marks off my score for gameplay.
Attention! Here be SPOILERS, so if you would like to skip ahead, Ctrl+f Accessibility to bypass this narrative breakdown.
As you delve deeper into the house, you become immersed in both its literal and its moral darkness. Through the letters and journals, you’ll learn about the Norwegian jazz singer Selena who enchanted men with her voice, the dead patriarch who went mad from a disease that wracked his body, the witch-like mother who was hated by her husband and feared by her son, the son himself, William, whose journey into insanity is well-documented in his own diaries, including his fascination with both Selena and the moon, which he believes to be his mother, somehow. It is William who became a serial murderer of young women who resembled his mother. Whatever evil inhabited his biological mother evidently passed down to him.
It’s tough to piece together all of the story since it’s told in a roundabout way in snippets, though I picked up on some themes of feminism and anti-capitalism. The final twist was one I didn’t see coming, which I felt was fitting, a little shocking, but also somewhat abrupt. (Spoilers: highlight to reveal) The protagonist ends up being the killer, the murderer of Selena, William himself.
I did not find every last scrap of information in the game. I haven’t collected all of the journals, letters, and notes but I’m not missing that many, on the other hand. I do feel that the story being told in this way adds to its mystery and its dread, though.
The nature of White Night is fairly simple so there’s not much to learn. There are no complicated controls to have to worry about (something which I felt actually hampered the freedom of exploration in a game like The Fall, for instance). You’re free to move through the house wherever you like until you meet an obstacle and then it’s just a matter of resolving the situation. The fact that the game is easy to interface with means that the puzzles remain the game’s true challenges, as they should be. A game shouldn’t create artificial hurdles for the player with a weird control scheme.
Some puzzles can be pretty hard, even more so because of the time-based nature of the matches running out. Provided enough patience and attention is rendered, you can probably figure out what needs to be done. The environments supply the clues.
Items, however, can be hard to spot since everything is black and white. I did mention that there’s an absolutely crucial option to turn nearby items and objects orange. You have to have this on. Even so, it’s incredibly easy to miss something in the most detailed areas where black blood is splattered on mottled wallpaper surrounding an ornate object you need to draw attention to.
You can’t rush it.
The visuals allow you to bring something to the game all by yourself and feed the experience with your imagination. In an age when the big name games are fully fleshed out in ultra-HD, a game which only gives impressions of objects and invites the player to suspect the rest is at the least a different if not exactly refreshing experience. The visual style is certainly the most unique aspect about White Night (it’ll catch any eye) but there’s also the reliance upon light and the matchboxes to survive which I found distinctive within the circle of my experience.
My Personal Grade: 7/10
I noticed that many reviews put White Night low and part of me conjects that my more reactionary side is just throwing up a high personal grade to be contradictory for the sake of being contradictory, so I hope my reasonings for each graded segment make some sense. With scores down in the 5 out of 10 range on the modern over-inflated scale, I believe that to be far too low. I think that White Night has its highs and its lows, but overall I felt it was a pretty great game.
White Night is oppressively slow. It’s suffocating, sometimes. It forces you to take your time, which is easier said than done when your match is about to burn out and there’s an angry ghost right behind you. I don’t often play survival horror games because I’m a wimp. That means I can’t promise that White Night will scare you as much as it frightened me, but I can report that for a layman unaccustomed to the darker side of gaming, it was an enthralling experience I enjoyed up to its sudden end, tediousness and loading times aside. If you’re willing to give White Night what it wants, though, I think you’ll find something substantial here, if not limited in presentation.
I’d like to thank Plug In Digital and Osome Studio for granting us a copy of their game for this critique! Thanks for an enjoyable and frightening time!
White Night is also available on other platforms, including PS4 and Xbox One.
Aggregated Score: 6.9
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Categories: Game Review