A simple phrase at the outset of “White Night” sets this mood for this Depression-era thriller. “Times were worse than hard, and the bar was about to close.”
The words come from a down-on-his-luck man, struggling like much of the United States was in 1938. He staggers to his car, a clearly unfortunate action the player has no control over, and kicks off the game when he crashes into a tree.
What follows in “White Night,” available for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC, is a ghost story at its most cerebral.
The man (we aren’t given a name) is in desperate need of medical care when he stumbles into a seemingly deserted mansion. We know this is a bad idea. The crumbling cemetery out front makes that clear, but worried times lead to bad decisions.
Can what’s inside a country house really be worse than what’s outside, where jobs are scarce, people are starving and what little wages there are have already been spent on booze?
Relying exclusively on claustrophobic framing — a black-and-white world that’s part comic book, part German Expressionism — “White Night” is a historical tale that hits political and social nerves that uncomfortably mirror modern times.
The game, says its writer, Sebastien Renard, is a metaphor for “America struggling to reach the dawn after a long and dark night.”
“We just put blood and ghosts behind it,” he says.
“White Night,” the first from Lyon, France-based OSome Studio, relies heavily on tricks of the mind to slowly disorient the player. There’s one or two traditional scares — a ghastly specter emerging from the shadows — but it’s a descent into self-imprisonment.
The car accident at the beginning, was that caused by a woman who ran into the road? Or is that a story our downtrodden hero concocts out of his own guilt?
“This guy was meant to be mysterious,” says Renard. “It’s another beam of our thematic spectrum — this night is his night. It’s an existential path he’s going to have to walk to the end. We wanted the game to be scary while maintaining a certain depth.”
He’s a sympathetic character. That’s accomplished in part by the tone of the game. There’s little light, and stepping into darkness is not advised. For much of the game, his only companions are matches, keeping whatever is haunting the mansion at only an arm’s length away.
Electricity is scant, and the game is all shadowy outlines and white boxes, needling constantly with our perception. The doors are locked, the windows don’t have handles and strange curios protrude from the shadows — a women’s high-heeled shoe, a dirty shovel, half-finished wine glasses and a library filled with disturbing, knife-ripped portraits.
Our narrator hopes he’s simply going delusional from barely surviving a rough car accident.
“He’s typically us when we doubt and find ourselves stuck in our darkest moments,” the 36-year-old Renard says. “He’s not a superhero, he doesn’t know how to fight, but he has his strength, this need to survive. It’s quite a tragic character, one that must face fatality. All the characters are stained by the same fatality. I didn’t want to talk about happiness”
No, the world of “White Night” appears to be constantly closing in on the player.
The goal is simply to survive, to make it out of this mansion, but the game’s camera angles jolt to a different viewpoint every few steps, shifting the darkness and confusing the player’s sense of direction.
OSome Studio cites the vintage PC game “Alone in the Dark” as a primary influence, a game where exploration was paramount and patience was emphasized over action. “White Night” will have players scouring and rescouring a room, looking for something that was missed in the dark the first time.
It’s perhaps no surprise that a secondary influence is Richard McGuire’s animated short film “Fear of the Dark.” Stray piano notes, the lack of a weapon and emphasis on atmosphere created an experience that’s as cinematic as it is playful — although playful is too kind of a word.
“‘White Night’ is not especially a hardcore game, but it’s a game about exploration,” Renard says. “It’s not a game you’ll rush through, the pacing is one of a horror movie. Horror takes time to build. I personally love games like ‘Amnesia,’ that allow you to savor fear. It’s not all about feeling, but about thinking too. Half of the work is done in your brain, where you build the missing part of the setting.”
Story trickles in, as our injured anti-hero tries to piece together the history of what happened to the family in the mansion. Deaths are alluded to, infidelity is hinted at and newspapers debate the policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt while telling tales of once-proud men now begging for food.
“Nowadays we can see children die in the streets,” reads a handwritten note found in the mansion early in the game. “Is this still America?”
It’s not spelled out, but the previous owners of the game’s Boston-area mansion seem to have plunged on hard times themselves. In-game diaries hint at a fallen upper-middle-class family. Renard says the period wasn’t chosen as a parallel to our own economically stressed times, but as more historical research was done it became unavoidable.
“The world works on a predator/prey system, and the real predators, even though they are few, keep hunting,” Renard says. “I fear this is not really optimistic but, well, ‘White Night’ is about darkness.”
Developer: OSome Studio
Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4
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