Snuck into online stores under the cover of relative press darkness—pre-release searches for substantial information on the game didn't pull up hype of any palpable kind— White Night is an atmosphere-rich puzzler-cum-survival-horror game for PC and current-gen consoles that represents an impressive, if imperfect debut for its French studio, the Paris- and Lyon-based OSome. But while its launch has been a quiet one for an industry fueled as much by buzz as button-bashing, it's the kind of game that leaves an immediate impression, and one that's hard to shake.
It instantly has the mind racing to clutch at parallels, although none truly stick. You play a fedora-capped gentleman who experiences a car crash in somewhere outside of Boston in Depression-era America. He staggers—you stagger—toward the only building in view: a creepy mansion behind imposing gates that immediately sets Resident Evil bells ringing (as do the game's fixed-camera perspectives). The (mostly) monochromatic visuals play like The Unfinished Swan in reverse: Rather than paint details-revealing black onto endless white, you must push back the darkness of the mansion's interior using any light you can, from matches to fireplaces to the occasional electric light. On entering, it's clear someone's been here, recently, but it's the older residents of this isolated property that should be feared and respected—those who rest in the dark and would kill a man for stepping where he shouldn't.
White Night isn't for those with a fear of the dark—it's everywhere inside the old Vesper place, shrouding some shrieking, fiendish apparitions that will chase the player when disturbed, until the buzz of a lightbulb casts them back from where they came. If they catch you, you die—there is no fighting these things, physically. All you can do is hope to find light, which when bright enough can permanently put pay to the spooks. The first few encounters with these spirits are genuinely chilling—White Night's rated as suitable for kids as young as 12, but I had to put my pad down at one point for fear that my clenching fingers were about to crack it asunder.
"They're not just here to frighten you—they're here to kill you," says the game's writer, Sebastien Renard, of the spectral terrors nestling within White Night's dark corners. "I wrote the past of these ghosts, the nightmares that fueled them, and then I just had to wait for them to take form in the hands of the [art] team. I've seen them evolving a lot through time, and I can say that today they look scarier than ever."
'White Night' trailer
It's not just the ghosts that block your progression, your search for someone, anyone to help you—the mansion is filled with puzzles, and OSome aren't about to hold the player's hand with convenient mini-map markers to point a path to solution.
" White Night is an old-school game, and it's not meant to be friendly," says Renard. "It's meant to scare you, to immerse you through a deadly night filled with ghosts, pain, obsessions, tears, and blood. The only good thing is that it keeps it elegant, and offers a light that is as beautiful as it is rare. [Those of us who made this game], we are all in our 30s, and we have played games that weren't meant to be finished [just] because you had bought them. That was a time of patience, of tenacity. In White Night the challenge is there, it just needs some reflection. But, of course, the darkness is dangerous wherever you go."
That elegance is presented through the visuals—at times stunningly beautiful on the PS4 version I'm playing through (I've not finished, yet)—and the snatches of vocal jazz that filter through the score's subtle transitions from calm into dread, implying the imminence of danger. The player's character soon catches a glimpse of the seemingly benevolent spirit of a late jazz singer ( pictured below), and she provides not just directional assistance also but drops useful items.
The look of the game was settled very early on in its development, as Renard explains. "I think the first two elements we decided on were to make it black and white, and for it to have survival horror elements. Then the rest came little by little. It was also a coherent move considering the fact that the game runs on a custom engine, the OEngine, created by our two programmers—it's a work of many years. This thing is lovely, but it's not as powerful as today's 3D behemoths, even though it's as versatile in terms of possibilities. An artistic choice must also take into account how much it will cost, technically. It took a lot of time to get the game to look the way it does. Of course it could be way more beautiful with more-advanced technology, but it wouldn't be the White Night you have today.
"The decision to make White Night came from several desires: First, to do a unique game, visually stunning, in order to differentiate ourselves from the indie game scene that was already exploding when we started. Then, to make something that we really love: an adventure game wrapped in a survival horror. Finally, we had to bring it all together by settling on the historical setting, the gameplay, the sound, and the jazz music. It didn't all come together immediately, but one thing called for another and eventually White Night became what it is. This is what indie games are meant to be: risks that must be taken."
And most of those risks have been rewarded, as White Night is a good game, recommended to players with fond memories of Alone in the Dark, of the tension that could manifest itself when you were low on supplies in early iterations of the Resident Evil series. Its story is compelling, books and letters filling you in on the history of this place, and the horrors it's seen—photos with faces slashed out rarely represent happy families. There's also the noir factor to consider, as the game positively drips in such cinematic influences, probably more so than Rockstar's the-clue-is-in-the-title detective romp of a few years back, L.A. Noire.
It's a few muddy, bloody footprints short of being excellent, though—for one thing, why can this guy only carry 12 matches at a time? The fixed camera can make precise control difficult, and instant-death encounters combined with some erratic save points can prove beyond frustrating. Whatever the previous experience of its team, White Night is every inch a debut from makers eager to stand out in the indie market: ambitious and unlike much else on the digital shelves, but compromised by a slight shortage of polish, missing those little tweaks that bigger teams with more time and money on their hands might well have implemented after longer QA testing.
At least, that's based on what I've seen so far. A game of unforgiving enemies, White Night isn't one to just cruise right through. It's going to test the grey mush inside your skull, not to mention the patience, and the way I've been approaching it—late at night, after work, shattered—probably isn't conducive to seeing it out. I'll be back soon, though—when the sun's just set, the darkness of my own living room playing tricks at the corners of my eyes. That's what White Night's done to me: I'm afraid of my own shadows. Give it a chance and it may do the same to you, so, my advice: keep a lighter in your top pocket. Better illuminated than incapacitated.
White Night is out now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
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