In the juvenile Sin City comics and their equally juvenile screen adaptations, stark black and white shading was used for primarily aesthetic effect. Sure, Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez might spin some guff about the art style metaphorically representing the characters’ stark psyches, but let’s face it: it’s there because it looks cool. (At least, it does when viewed through Frank Miller’s brutalist worldview.)
So when adventure game White Night hoved into view with a similar monochromatic style, my interest was piqued. Could it break away from the Sin City trap of mere film noir pastiche, and actually use its (lack of) colouring for something real?
Kind of! Light and darkness aren’t just central to White Night’s look and feel. They make up the principal gameplay mechanic: the drivers of puzzles, enemy encounters and a great deal of stress and terror. Unfortunately, when it comes to the game’s story and characters, it’s still trapped in a melange of worn-out noir tropes, long since divorced from whatever meaning they once had.
So yeah, you play as a dude in a trenchcoat and fedora, stumbling wounded into a seemingly abandoned mansion after a terrible car crash. He delivers gruff and gritty narration via voiceover, his face is often shadowed by his hat, and so on. I groaned early on at the mere knowledge I’d have to spend the whole game with such a tired archetype. As the story plays out, the noir influence broadens to include some of the worst views of femininity around. You’re a solitary man surrounded by visions of nightmarish demon-women and one apparent literal angel. Our protagonist even explicitly says he’d be too afraid to talk to this woman in real life. He is that unicorn-rare personality: the Hard-Boiled Nice Guy.
But while the noirish narrative styling ranges from annoying to unpleasant, the gameplay application is actually really clever. The night (and mansion) is dark and full of terrors, and the only barrier between you and the darkness is what feeble, temporary light you can conjure with matches or electric lamps. Without light, you can’t interact with objects. Without light, your vision starts to shake and your heart to pound. Without light, you’re vulnerable to the ghosts that inhabit the mansion. Though matches are a finite resource, you’ll rarely find yourself running out, thanks to the mansion being bizarrely well-stocked; still, it’s always unnerving when a match fails to spark. Your tiny island of matchlight is a temporary oasis of sanity within the gloom. Longer-lasting and more useful are electric lamps, which bathe larger areas in light and can be used to banish malevolent spirits. The black-and-white gameplay is, largely, a terrifying and suspenseful success.
If only the rest of the gameplay sported the same innovation. White Night plays like many an adventure game in that it’s mostly walking around environments and clicking on objects that indicate interactivity. The pacing is sedate and often directionless, and at times I got stuck because I just didn’t know what the heck I was supposed to be doing. Theoretically, you’re piecing together the puzzle of what went down in the haunted mansion, but most of the story is told via diaries, journals and newspaper clippings which, while evocative and haunting, are so numerous that their impact is lessened. As your journey takes you through the house, the cellar and the dank caverns underneath, you’ll also face arcane button-pressing and symbol-matching puzzles, which feel like a throwback in a not-great way. At times even walking around is a puzzle, as directional controls stay relative to the camera even through camera angle changes. Walking “forward” continuously can land you in a loop when the viewpoint switches, which is moderately annoying most of the time and borderline game-ruining in chase sequences.
Oh yeah - in case this wasn’t clear already, White Night also wants to be a horror story, full of unspoken Lovecraftian terror. It’s scary, but in a sad, understated way; its whispers of dread and madness are genuinely unnerving. There’s a sense that the mansion has held secrets for a long time, and not just about the murder at the centre of this particular story. There are ghosts, too - malevolent spirits lurking in the dark - whose presence is heralded by fuzzy shadows and breathy handheld POV shots. Those quiet shadows are far scarier than the jump scares that set in when you get too close, and scarier still than the frustrating instant-fail chase sequences against up to a dozen of the things.
The specific ghost at the centre of the story is nightclub singer Selena. Who is she? What is she? Why is she haunting the house and our main character? Is she even real? As is often the case with mysteries, Selena is far more interesting unsolved than as a complete picture. The final reveal, depressingly, is predictable and trite, an awful twist that does nothing to recontextualise what’s come before in a constructive way. The same can be said of White Night itself. It’s more intriguing as a game mechanic than an actual game, and scarier and more atmospheric in the shadows than the light.