White Night is a striking game to look at. It’s all black and white with hard shadows to give shapes definition, like a Sin City panel come to life. At first, the game seems to contain the perfect combination of art and story.White Night is a tale in the tradition of noir, but about a haunted house. Its hard shadows hide the violent ghosts of an angry mother, and its light streams from the protective ghost of an innocent lover. It’s a beautiful and haunting game to look at, but it’s a rather annoying game to play. And it’s annoying largely due to its beautiful and haunting art.
Put simply, the art makes White Night harder to play than it needs to be. While it successfully serves a spooky atmosphere at the beginning of the game, over time it wears down that very atmosphere until you’ll be more annoyed by the dark than afraid of it. The art, and the presentation of that art, kill any sense of space or place.
Horror is all about space and place. These are the things that scare us when the monsters become rote. A sense of place gives a location personality and history and makes us afraid when nothing is chasing us. A sense of space gives the game its pacing. We grow familiar with a location only to be forced someplace new or to have that familiarity turned against us, creating a pace of rising and falling tension.
The game kills both of these by insisting on using fixed camera angles like Resident Evil (only poorly), by refusing to give you a map of the mansion, and by using the art to hide as much of the world as it can from you. This once haunted house becomes a maze with no personality.
The art and fixed camera angles work together to make the layout of the house confusing, even when it should be obvious. More than once I walked past a door that I knew was there because I kept looking in the wrong corner, the changing camera confusing my sense of north, south, east, and west. Other times the shadows hid a door from me, the hard lines of the passage looked so similar to the hard lines of a wall or bookshelf that my eyes passed right over it, unable to distinguish the door as a separate thing.
This could be mitigated with a map, and horror games have often used maps to their advantage. The maps of Resident Evil act as a guide, showing us which doors are still locked. The maps in Silent Hill make us feel lost when the world changes and all our notes are erased; the maps of Dead Space make the U.S.G. Ishamura feel real, as each level connects logically to the others. White Night mocks us with its lack of a map. Yes you can find floor plans of the house, but they’re not easily accessible. They’re only displayed as part of a massive list of notes, stuck somewhere in the middle of those notes, and they can’t be highlighted or enlarged. They’re not meant to be a judge of progress or architecture. They’re just a collectible.
Clearly the game doesn’t want to help us learn its space, so it must want us to explore on our own. However, light is a limited resource. You create light by striking matches, and you can only carry 12 matches at a time. Practically speaking, light isn’t really limited since there are matchboxes everywhere, but there’s still a psychological effect in limiting the number of matches we can carry. Light is a usable resource, if not a limited one, and that encourages us not to wander aimlessly. We can’t spend too much time looking in every nook and cranny of the mansion carefully analyzing the paintings and bookshelves because every second that we spend trying to appreciate the space is a second of wasted light.
It all comes to a head in Chapter 4, in which the game turns an open attic into a maze. The attic is filled with enemies, and naturally I died multiple times trying to explore the area. However, eventually I found a path through the darkness. I knew to follow a wire on the ground until the camera changed, then I’d move around a box, then hug the left wall beside a bed… and so on. I knew exactly how many steps to take in each direction in order to avoid the ghosts. I knew my pattern worked, but I didn’t know why it worked. Based on what I could see, the attic looked like an open and spacious place, yet when I tried to cut out a step of my pattern I’d run into a wall or box. I couldn’t match the layout of the attic with what the camera was showing me. Each angle was like a puzzle piece that didn’t fit with its neighbors. Now granted, this is mainly an issue of poor camera placement, but the art contributes to this confusion by hiding so much of the environment.
So the game doesn’t want to help us learn its space, encourages us not to learn it, and then makes it hard on us if we ever do try to learn it.
A large part of the story revolves around a sad and sultry jazz singer who stays at the house. The owner is infatuated with her, and this is best expressed by the room in which he’s turned a long party table into a makeshift stage. This is a nice detail that tells us how she’s integrating herself into his life, and it’s a detail that took me hours to see. I ran past it multiple times, even watched a cut scene with her singing, but I simply assumed it was a normal stage.
Since the art in White Night relies so heavily on stark shadows and blocky lines, it can’t portray much detail. We see the world as an outline, all shapes and simple lines. As a result, it’s hard to give the mansion much personality beyond the simple spooky trait of being a dark mansion. The kitchen looks like a normal kitchen, the library like a normal library. Even when the shapes and simple pictures are enough to tell a story (like with the makeshift stage), the game goes out of its way to hide those shapes in darkness.
The only time the game hits gold is with the mother’s paintings. She became obsessed with painting as she slowly died and her vision faded away, and her paintings are exactly the kind of thing the art is good at expressing: simple shapes and thick lines, here justified because they were drawn by a blind woman. Unfortunately, the game misuses this one excellent piece of set dressing.
If these paintings were made by the mother as her vision faded, why are they spread throughout the house instead of clustered around her deathbed? Did the son move them? If so, why did he not move her body as well since it’s still decaying in her master bedroom (which by the way is devoid of paintings)?. These items could have been used to emphasize character or story, but instead, since these are one of the few distinctive items that can be expressed by the art, they’re spread about the house simply to give dressing to some rooms that would otherwise be painfully plain.
Most of these features are in theory good for a horror game. Forcing us to consume a resource to explore makes movement tense. Denying us a map forces us to pay attention to our surroundings. The art, of course, is a striking visual representation of morality, literal light versus literal dark. Yet when combined together, or at least when that kind of art is combined with those gameplay features, they don’t complement each other. In this one rare, weird instance, good art actually ruins a game.