In visual art, the use of strong contrast between light and dark is called chiaroscuro. It’s used to create and emphasize clear binaries—between light and dark, good and evil, subject and object. It’s a defining aesthetic of film noir: The long arm of light reaching into a darkened detective’s office as a new client walks in or the blanket of shadows around a street light hiding men with guns.
White Night is a game built out of chiaroscuro. Rendered in a minimal black-and-white style, it’s focused on finding and maintaining sources of light to create sense out of the darkness. There’s no room for gray here. Nothing exists that can’t be rendered in white and black—light and its absence. It creates a tense, stylish world that demands your gaze and keeps it peering into the shadows. But in the end, White Night’s inability to see any gray areas comes back to haunt it.
You’re coming home from a bar, some place dank and forgettable. It’s the height of the Great Depression, and everything’s settled in a boozy haze. You’re driving, and then someone appears on the road in front of you. You crash. Limping out of the wreck you look for the nearest safe haven you can find, which just happens to be a terrifying old mansion. This is how the night starts for the guy you play as in White Night, a nameless Dick Tracy lookalike with a penchant for monologues. He stumbles into the mansion to find out that he’s locked in, and—well, what do you know—it’s haunted. The specter of a dead woman lurks in its dark corners, and this mansion is practically nothing but dark corners. Your goals are simple: Find out what’s going on, find a way out, and survive.
The primary obstacles are the aforementioned ghosts and the mansion itself. The ghosts kill you if they get too close, and the only surefire way to stop one is with electric light, which causes them to fizzle and fade away like television static. So in order to push forward, you have to find and activate any source of light you can. This is where the mansion becomes a problem. It’s labyrinthine and broken down. Its doors are locked and barred, its corridors blocked or ruined. Finding light and ensuring safety means solving the mansion’s puzzles. The game becomes a loop of solving puzzles to reveal light so you can push forward toward more puzzles and maybe eventually get out alive.
When everything fires on all cylinders, it’s like playing a hardboiled detective novel living inside of a slasher flick. The stark art style that renders the darkness absolute and a beautiful soundtrack of spooky strings mixed with quiet hints of period-appropriate jazz work together to build a powerful, persistent tension. The claustrophobia is reminiscent of early survival horror games, hearkening back to Resident Evil’s legendary Spencer Mansion.
Also like those old survival horror games, White Night is entirely unforgiving. The fixed camera angles (yet another Resident Evil throwback) lend the designers a lot of freedom for their framing. They use Dutch angles and careful concealment to lend some of the best scenes a sense of vertigo. These creative compositions, however, can make it difficult to judge the distance between you and the ghosts. All the ghosts, by the by, kill you just by touching you, and if there’s no nearby light source, there’s no way to manage them except to run. You can only save your progress in specific safe places, excluding a few welcome story-triggered saves. So there are plenty of situations where you’ll get killed by a ghost you couldn’t properly detect or avoid and be forced to redo five or more minutes of progress. It’s not the worst punishment, but since the game’s pleasures mainly come from discovery, having to replay areas you’ve recently cleared is just a chore.
White Night is a game that sets up such a thick and effective network of pressures that it feels fundamentally unequipped to deal with player failure. Everything’s too, well, black and white. You’re either safe or liable to die at any moment. Moving forward steadily or totally stuck. The puzzles languish under the same sort of logic, requiring interaction with specific parts of the environment and relying on spatial cues that can be easy to miss in the darkness. I either found what I was looking for my first time combing a new room, or I ended up wandering around aimlessly, knowing I missed something but with no idea where to look for it. There is no gray area between success and failure here, just fluctuations between enthrallment and alienation.
The story is also invested in juxtaposing oppositions. You learn about a man named William, the mansion’s unseen owner. He’s disturbed and reclusive, haunted by the specters of two women: his mother, whose spirit manifests as the mansion’s pernicious ghosts, and Selena, a jazz singer who appears as a bright, angelic vision. You find yourself, like William, caught between these two women, one trying to destroy you and the other trying to aid you. It’s an intriguing setup, and as the player follows William’s trail deeper into the mansion, the game fills in details and sketches a world that’s deranged and terrible, pockmarked by madness, poverty, and fear. Even here, though, the tendency toward black and white design is a hindrance, as the story reaches toward moral complexity but never seems to quite get there. Everyone ultimately behaves as either a hero or a villain, despite White Night’s efforts to tell us otherwise.
White Night never reaches the possibility of there being a middle ground, in any respect. That’s the issue with chiaroscuro, and it’s why accusing someone of seeing in black and white is rarely a compliment. Contrast creates beauty, but misapplying contrast can breed an intolerance for necessary ambiguity. White Night has both. It’s beautiful in ways both joyful and terrifying, but it’s also impatient and cruel. The bright spots might be worth it, but know that you’re going to have to suffer through the dark to get there.
Developer: OSome Studio
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Reviewed on: PC