White Night [official site] is an eye-catching game and no mistake. I've been attracted to it since the first screenshots appeared but I always feared that the remarkable graphics might be a beautifully crafted shroud on top of a mouldy corpse. Not so. This is a slight but satisfying horror game built around a consistently impressive monochrome lighting technique.
There are furious spectres lurking in the dark corners of White Night's spooky mansion. They scream when they see me and then they scrape across reality and try to kill me. Most of the game's mysteries concern those shadowy figures and the player character's attempts to discover quite why they're so cross. It's a mystery well worth the effort it takes to unravel, mostly thanks to a glorious monochrome aesthetic that serves the interactive elements of the game as well as the atmosphere.
White Night is a game about light and, fittingly, this might be the best use of lighting in any game released in recent memory. Obviously someone will remind me that I'm forgetting a puzzle-platformer with a unique light-based mechanic called something like Tommy Edison's Blooming Bulbs but I'm sticking with White Night. You have to see the graphics in motion if you haven't already.
The darkness plays all kinds of tricks. Spend too long in the shadows and the screen starts to shake with anxiety, while your speakers cough up something unpleasant and suspiciously ANIMATED. That's nothing new though – horror game protagonists can't sleep without a nightlight because as soon as they stray into a dark spot, cockroaches crawl all over their eyeballs – and it's the least of White Night's devilry. It's the way that lights function within the mansion that really makes the game tick.
Almost everything about the game that works, and there's a great that deal that DOES work, relates to the graphics. Even when shuffling back and forth in search of a key or other such puzzle piece, I was happily enthralled in the play of light on the creaking corners of familiar rooms. It's almost liquid, the light, splashing across surfaces to reveal salvation or death. I don't know if the splendid Richard McGuire section in 2007's Fear(s) Of The Dark was a direct inspiration, but it's the only other use of such stark contrast in lighting I can remember in a horror environment.
The basic flow of the game involves exploring rooms and searching for ways to unlock doors or retrieve items. To do so, you'll need to turn on as many lights as possible. Save points, which come in the form of cosy armchairs, can't be used unless a light is shining on them and most objects can't be manipulated while you're pinching a delicate little match between your fingers.
Matches are your weapon. There's no combat and very little in the way of actual conflict, but you'll need to push back the darkness, temporarily at least. That's where the matches come in.
Here's the thing – lighting a match makes you feel shielded and vulnerable all at once. It's all communicated brilliantly. The splash of white across your surroundings that threatens to reveal a shuddering impossible shape lurking just outside the circle of safety. The counter that ticks down, always making sure you're aware that your supplies won't last forever (although I hardly ever found myself running short). The relief when you discover a light switch within reach.
And then the crushing disappointment when you flick the switch back and forth to no effect. White Night is a small game and you'll spend your time exploring a few spaces, figuring out how to unlock the next room, or set of rooms. The puzzles are never complicated and you'll rarely be forced into backtracking or trial and error, but progress might be slow because of all the creeping around you'll be doing. I spent far more time than I needed to during an early section in a library, purely because I knew there was a scary thing hiding behind a door and I didn't want to go near it.
When I did go near it, there was a jumpscare of sorts. I'm not a fan of jumpscares and White Night doesn't rely on them but it did manage to startle me on occasion. It feels right to point that out because the slow pace and emphasis on exploration and puzzles won't necessary prepare people for sudden loud noises. White Night doesn't go overboard with that sort of thing and is fairly tame but be prepared to swear at the screen at least once or twice.
I'm not entirely sure about the writing. There are lots of things to read in the game – diaries, letters, descriptions of objects and brief internal monologues – and some of them are perfectly pitched. Brief stories of madness, despair and familial fallout that build toward a decent campfire thriller. Some passages are chilling, putting weird and unsettling twists on the familiar haunted house narrative that function like the half-formed shape at the periphery of your vision. They keep you alert and unnerved, never quite sure what rules the house and its otherworldly inhabitants are playing by.
As a horror story White Night is effective and the period setting is superbly realised. But why oh why did the developers feel they had to drop a dollop of noir into the mix? I love noir but it's a difficult costume to pull off and White Night's occasional hardboiled interjections feel like an uncomfortable affectation. The gradual unwinding of a typically cynical noir lead could be an effective scare tactic, but White Night goes for the jugular too quickly to toy with its protagonist in a meaningful way. Visually and thematically, the use of shadow and symbolism would fit far more neatly with Nosferatu or Dr Caligari than Spade or Marlowe. The atmosphere wins out over the occasional clumsy wording though, and I should stress that the bulk of the writing is effective.
Other than a duff opening, in which your character is limping away from a car crash and therefore must move REALLY SLOWLY until you reach the first save point, White Night trundles along at a good pace. It doesn't have an enormous stockpile of ideas but it stretches what it does have just far enough. I spent six and a half hours playing and didn't find every scrap of paper and collectible. The game doesn't overstay its welcome and I found it just about the perfect length.
Apart from the splendid graphics, there's nothing particularly outstanding about White Night, but it's a decent horror-mystery game. It'd fit beautifully under the Alone in the Dark banner and seems like a much more obvious successor than...well...
White Night is out now.