White Night Review: Style Murders Substance

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Developer: OSome Studio

Publisher: Activision

Platforms: PC (Version Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One

Release Date: March 3

There is an unfortunate controversy brewing withing gaming over the question of whether “fun” is really all that necessary in an increasingly artistic medium. About that, I propose to say very little except that we’d better come up with a different name than “game” for the art form in question if we’re going to discard fun entirely, because otherwise fun is required by default.

However, it does bear repeating that however much the “fun doesn’t matter” defense is usually used to disguise its exponent’s pathetic lack of talent, there is one genre within gaming where it makes powerful artistic sense — that of the horror game. “Silent Hill 2,” for instance, is a game which treats its protagonist with as much contempt as any game could muster, and which thrives on making the player feel helpless and under siege by overpowering odds so as to induce a feeling of depression. Yet it is one of the greatest games ever made precisely because this heightens the player’s drive to discover the dark secret at the heart of the eponymous town and its sinister apparitions.

“Five Nights at Freddy’s 2,” in this author’s opinion the high point of its series, is brilliant not because it’s enjoyable to play, but because its panic attack-inspiring jump scares and dark hints at its own lore are too gripping to be ignored. “Amnesia: The Dark Descent,” “Among the Sleep,” and the recent Indie game “Hektor” all follow a similar pattern. In fact, this disregard for fun reaches a mesmerizingly effective zenith with the Gamecube game “Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem,” which literally makes the game progressively more unplayable the more the main character’s sanity depletes, so as to render the player as vulnerable as their character.

Which brings us to “White Night,” a small studio horror game released recently for PC, XBox One and PS4 with considerably higher production values than an average Indie shocker. Considering it is the debut title for the newly launched OSome Studios, its more than usually impressive rollout should surprise no one. This is OSome putting their best foot forward — their “hello, world” moment.

Does it succeed? Well, if you read the intro, then you probably know that I’m hinting pretty strongly that this game isn’t fun. And surprise! It isn’t. The controls are clunky, the camera angles awkward, and the threats are insurmountable, with only fleeing in terror as an option. In other words, it’s basically just like “Silent Hill 2,” but with the enemy avoidance strategy of “Amnesia: The Dark Descent.” Or, to be even more blunt, it’s a horror game made after 2010.

What makes “White Night” unique is twofold — firstly, there is the fact that manipulation of light is the core mechanic in proceeding through the game, and secondly, there is its art style. About this latter element, a few words are necessary. Rather than attempt the photo realism of most games, “White Night” instead relies on a stark black and white, chiaroscuro-driven art style that is clearly intended to mimic an illustration. At times, it works wonderfully, and those are usually the times when it is used to depict dark, poorly lit halls, graveyards obscured by driving rain, or other tableaus where the main character is more a single element than the important one. However, when it comes to depicting actual people in close up, the game looks either so blocky that it crosses into the uncanny valley, or just like its characters are constructed from wireframes.

Sometimes, one has the sensation more of playing through an unfinished storyboard than through a Gothic illustration. There are occasional splashes of color, usually to highlight elements that are relevant to the plot or just prohibitively difficult to animate in the prevailing style, and these are universally more successful. The game’s antagonist, a vengeful spirit, is particularly effective and lovingly rendered.

If you need to deliberately withhold the tutorial to make your puzzles work, you’ve screwed up somewhere along the way.

However, it’s not clear why, beyond pure aesthetics, White Night went with this particular approach. It would have been just as plausible to render the entire thing in photorealistic black and white — in fact, it probably would have been better, judging by the few photorealistic elements of the game we do see. It’s not as though the Noir 1930’s setting required this approach unlike, say, “Neverending Nightmares,” which uses its Edward Gory-style appearance to constantly remind the player of their presence in a dream world, rather than the real thing. Rather, it appears that the game simply went with this approach because it looked cool, and because it enabled them to design their light-focused puzzles around it. Which, fair enough on the latter count, but it would have been more compelling if the story had some sort of rationale built in for its being told with this particular art style.

At least, it would be fair enough on the latter count if the puzzles were well conceived. Unfortunately, they, too, are an uneven element of White Night. Some are so easy as to barely tease the brain at all, others are so mind-bogglingly counter-intuitive that they enter 90’s adventure game territory (the final puzzle springs to mind), and yet others inflate their otherwise minor difficulty in possibly the most irritating way — by purposefully obfuscating the controls needed to solve them. One very early puzzle had me stumped simply because I had no idea how to make my character move an object out of his way. This isn’t creating a sense of helplessness, it’s just taking the player out of the action while they Alt-Tab over to GameFAQs. If you need to deliberately withhold the tutorial to make your puzzles work, you’ve screwed up somewhere along the way.

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Moreover, White Night inflates the difficulty of its ghostly antagonist by not telling you that the ghost is blind until you’re a decent amount of the way in, which means you’ll probably end up taking precautions you don’t have to take. And unlike other titles, where this sort of information withholding might be necessary to keep the player on a relatively linear path (annoying, but acceptable in some cases), here it clearly is just put in to lengthen the game. The fixed camera angles in the game also act as something of an irritant, since they make keeping track of where exactly you are in the game’s sprawling haunted house setting more of a hindrance than it should be, even in a horror game, and are, once again, clearly inserted at some points to make muscle memory send you on a collision course with the ghost and pad its short, four hour run time. In other words, to make the game look like it has more substance than it does.

Next: Discussing White Night's Story & Our Verdict