Scarcely Seeing: Light as a Limited Resource in Survival-Horror

In White Night, it is not a shotgun, but light itself, that is your only ally, and light in in this game is in terrifyingly short supply.

White Night is not the only horror game of recent years to use light and darkness as inspiration for its game mechanics. Both Shadows of the Damned (an action-horror game with more emphasis on the action portion of the equation) and Alan Wake (also probably more of an action-horror game, though probably with more emphasis on provoking scares than on pure combat) used light and darkness to drive their combat mechanics.

Since both games concern confronting supernatural horrors, it seems reasonable to associate darkness, and the terror that it presents by making things unknowable and obscure, with evil, and light, with its ability to make knowable and to clarify, as a means to combat evil. In both instances, darkness within the environment signals a lack of safety and security in the world, and darkness is also intrinsic to the nature of the enemies in the game — along with the need to purge that darkness with some form of light before making those enemies vulnerable to mundane weapons. In other words, light needs to make the dark things into something that can be combated with things we know and understand, firearms and ammunition.

White Night is even more committed to the contrast that exists between darkness and light, the obscure and the knowable, which is clearly seen in its black and white aesthetics. The world of White Night is all light and shadows. Given its additional infusion of the tone and atmosphere of film noir into the genre of horror, the game world is all defined by black and white.

Much like noir, it is the color black, though, that more often dominates any given scene in the game. Darkness is an overwhelming force, both in the evilness and oppressiveness that it represents as well as because the darkness of night and the darkness of the old manor that you explore and investigate in the game makes the game world and its narratives difficult to apprehend.

Unlike Shadows of the Damned and Alan Wake, White Night bills itself as a survival-horror game, and combat is really not a central component of any action that the game might ask of the player. Encounters with enemies usually require avoidance and flight, rather than direct confrontation, and it is the puzzles that usually allow for advances in the plot of survival-horror that probably get the most attention in the game. White Night is a horror game and its plot is definitely peppered with supernatural terror, but it is more a game about exploration and investigation, seeking the truth about the place that the protagonist finds himself trapped, which again connects it additionally to film noir, as noir is usually typified by mystery, influenced as it is by the hard boiled detective novel.

It is this focus on mystery that helps the game define its own approach to survival-horror. Survival-horror is a genre about desperation, a desperation felt in response to scarcity. Since most survival-horror games contain a fair amount of combat, the dominant concern in many of them is with when and how much ammo to commit to enemies. Should you down this zombie with two or three bullets, or would it be better to run from it in order to save those precious resources for something worse that is lurking around the next corner?

Traditional weapons are of no value in White Night, though. Light can keep enemies at bay in some instances, but since the focus of the game is on exploration, finding diaries, photographs, and other texts that help illuminate the mysteries of the Vesper family is more crucial, and, thus, light is largely used to help explore a darkened house.

In White Night nothing can be done in the dark, so a limited supply of matches is the only thing that allows you to advance, solve puzzles, and find the artifacts that will help you understand the house. Any extended time spent in the dark means that you will die, as the shadows in the Vesper’s home will eventually devour you, so it isn’t bullets that are limited in White Night, it is vision that is your most precious resource. Again, this seems exceptionally appropriate given the game’s thematic interests and its additionally layering of noir on horror. This is a game about seeking clarity and uncovering hidden mysteries. Light is your only ally and terrifyingly in short supply.

Though the game’s protagonist is seemingly not the typical noir private investigator, nevertheless, he is very much a “private eye” in the sense that seeing the world more clearly is his mission. The house then is defined largely by darkness lit only by occasional spills of light to move between. Your survival depends on making things clearer, not dispatching enemies, and this is what makes White Night a more subtle horror game about darkness and light.

The slow burn of White Night is quite literally the slow burn of the matches in your hand. Unlike in traditional survival horror, the game doesn’t allow you to store resources to save for later. It requires their constant use. Thus, there is a constant knowledge that your supplies are diminishing as you play the game. However, again, this game is not about desperate combats. It is a game about a desperate and pressing need to know the truth. That you must use up your ability to see the world regularly places the emphasis of survival on knowing and understanding the world, not on the visceral concerns of the possibilities of suffering from your flesh being flayed or by being bitten by zombies.

Games like Shadows of the Damned and Alan Wake make the violent destruction of darkness and the evil that it represents a spectacle, banging home the idea that good (light) needs to conquer (evil) the dark by making that battle into a war complete with handguns, shotguns, and the occasional AK-47. White Night more simply associates light with knowledge and darkness with that which is fearful because it can’t fully seen. Lighting matches is a more subtle form of warfare in a battle between dark secrets and the light that can destroy ignorance and fear by rendering the hidden visible, comprehensible, and, thus, solvable, a different kind of survival instinct.