Noir and horror feel like a perfect match. Gaming as a whole certainly seems to agree. Going back to the original classic of survival horror, Alone in the Dark, or moving ahead to modern takes like Murdered: Soul Suspect, this is a combination that endures. In White Night, however, we’re presented with a detailed and impressive mix of classic horror and detective genres packed into a beautiful black and white haunted house.
In most ways, White Night is very much in the mold of Alone in the Dark and the original Resident Evil, which in turn owe a debt to classic point and click adventure games. White Night uses fixed cameras to frame each scene for best horror effect and the house is full of things to find, horrors to survive, and mysteries to solve. The entire game is a study in contrast between light and dark and manages a supremely creepy atmosphere.
Set in the 1930’s, during the Great Depression, White Night takes gamers off the beaten path to a once-splendid mansion outside Boston. The game places you as a stereotypical private dick type, complete with long coat and fedora. When he gets into a car wreck on this particularly dark night, our hapless protagonist wanders onto the grounds of the gloomy, disheveled mansion looking for help. What he finds instead is a multi-layered nightmare of deadly ghosts, a murderous psychopath, and deep family secrets and obsessions.
White Night is a perfect example of a story where a complete stranger just wanders into someone else’s on-going horror. The nameless protagonist has no idea what’s going on within the house, he just needs help. Slowly and methodically, the history of the house and its denizens unfold through journals of the key players, newspaper clippings, artwork, and items. None of it has anything to do the player, they’re just a victim of circumstance.
Most of White Night centers around light—almost always the creation of light to both survive and solve puzzles. The dark is fatal, so light is vital to exploring. This usually means collecting and lighting matches. It’s simple, doesn’t provide much light, but gets you moving. The violent spirits that roam the house hate light and can be destroyed when caught off guard in the shine of electrical lights.
As a result, many of the puzzles involve following electrical cords to plug lights in, which can be very dangerous. There’s no combat and close encounters with the ghosts are always fatal. Your choices are to run away or trap them with lights powerful enough to banish them. Thankfully, running is fairly viable as these angry moaners have a limited range.
Frequently, puzzles require light in order to manipulate objects. You can’t use anything except matches in the dark, and opening a chest, for instance, requires two hands. The game makes clever use of light as a primary element for the puzzles, and the whole visual tone revolves around the playing off light and dark.
All this moody black and white makes for a hell of an atmosphere for a horror game. There’s a beautiful simplicity to the visuals, a minimalist sense of style that makes the game transfixing to watch. The sound design, complete with occasional sultry jazz vocals and dramatic scoring, is excellent as well.
That said, most of the flaws with the game are holdovers from older games the developers are paying homage to. The limited lighting and fixed camera can lead to incredible navigational frustration. This is especially the case when trying to run away from spirits and the camera suddenly radically changes.
Another cause of consternation is the manual save function. White Night uses special chairs as save points. To use them, a light source must be active, which is an original touch. However, even when the game loads a new scene (such as moving to a different floor), it doesn’t automatically save way points. Instead, when dying (which happens frequently), you’re bumped back to the last manual save. This leads to incredible amounts of repetition in areas where save chairs are scarce or hard to reach.
While White Night thankfully doesn’t use tank controls, moving around can still be clumsy and many of the items require near-pinpoint precision when attempting to interact with them. There’s no doubt the game can be frustrating because of these issues, yet the overall experience is entertaining and fascinating.
White Night is a beautiful mix of noir and old-school survival horror and adventure. It’s also a shockingly polished game from a tiny independent team. The story (aside from occasional typos) is well told, the puzzles are clever and macabre, and the presentation is superb.