Horror games have certainly had a resurgence in the past year. Fans of the genre had grown tired with what it had become – largely action-packed shooters with zombies or monsters in semi-spooky environments. While many of today’s horror games either feel like Amnesia clones or Resident Evil 4 clones, White Night stands out because it’s decidedly neither. White Night reaches back further into the past, and is something more akin to Alone in the Dark or the original Resident Evil, but without any of the combat or clunkiness those games are known for.
White Night is unabashedly story driven. Set during the late 1930’s, the game begins with the main character driving down a dark, curvy road, when a girl suddenly crosses his path, causing him to wreck his car and rendering him unconscious. When he awakens, he doesn’t remember who or where he is. Near his wrecked car is an abandoned (and creepy) mansion, chock full of creepy ghosts. That’s the basic premise of White Night. It’s largely a mystery game, driving the player to discover the truth about the main character, the mansion, and the spooky spectres.
The most definitive aspect of White Night is it’s stark black and white, high-contrast presentation. It reeks of modern film noir movies, particularly movies like Sin City and, the much less memorable, The Spirit. It adds to the game’s scary atmosphere, which draws most of the game’s scares, relying less on jump scares than most modern horror games.
The starkness of the black and white graphics creates parts of the screen which are completely devoid of anything, and wandering around in these areas will eventually kill you, essentially scaring the main character to death. Luckily, he carries a box of a dozen matches on him, which are capable of pushing away the darkness. In the light, you’re safe from the ghosts that exist in the house. If the ghosts catch you in the dark, and you’re unable to run away quickly, you die, so your matches play an important role, not only in solving puzzles, but in keeping in you safe. There are also lamps and candles littered throughout the house, many of which you need to plug in in progressively more complex ways (seriously, who runs extension cords through several rooms?). These lights not only provide you with safe haven, but if a ghost gets caught in one’s light, they die.
With all of this old-school cool comes some of the stuff that would’ve been better left in the past. The game absolutely doesn’t care at all if you only want to play for a few minutes (I understand that some people will appreciate this, but I did not). It’s save points are infrequent, and relatively far apart. At first, this seemed alluring, until I died because of the game’s crummy controls and fixed-position camera. It’s not uncommon to find yourself stuck on something in the dark, and not being able to escape. Sure, that adds to some of the scares, but it’s also a product of bad design. Scares are at their best when you’re helpless, but not due to something that isn’t your fault or scripted in the game. Yes, there are plenty of those good moments, and the game is much more tense than I had originally anticipated, but those bad moments – and they’re not altogether uncommon – frustrate more than they scare.
Luckily, the game is jam-packed with admirable scares and tension. Managing the use of your matches grows increasingly important, and knowing that you could run back through several dark rooms to a healthy stash of matches creates a sort of meta-game. How far can I get from the matches in hopes of finding more? When you see the number of your matches dwindling as low as 1 or 2, you have to make the decision whether to try to push forward another room or two, and risk dying, or running back to safety and having to traverse those rooms again. More than once I found myself stuck between a rock and a hard place, deciding between my two options.
It’s tension like this that ultimately makes White Night so good. It doesn’t want you to jump and be scared. In fact, learning of the ghosts’ positions can sometimes come as a relief, because at least you know where they are. But when you don’t, the idea that you just can’t see the big-bad is much more frightening.