Reclaim your shattered memories from a mysterious psychiatrist
Release: October 12, 2011 (PC)By Ian Coppock, Originally Published on May 3, 2013
Asylums are an obvious setting for a horror game. They’re naturally unpleasant, involve experimentation on human beings and are created solely for the purpose of confronting psychological pain. However, while I’ve played countless horror games in which the protagonist must escape from the asylum, this is the first one I’ve played where my goal is to get further inside. That, as well as decent level design and a ghostly narrative, made White Night my review choice. You guys also seem to love the reviews in which I’m jumping out of my computer chair straight into low orbit, so let’s down to business.
To say that White Night‘s story is vague is like saying kittens are only slightly cute, but it’s not vague in a bad way. There are games with such horrifically skeletal narratives that they hardly deserve the honorific, but White Night‘s story is different. It encourages players to draw their own conclusions from open-ended events, which I actually kind of like. You are David, a patient at the Denver state mental hospital who has been put into intense treatment for what is implied to be a murder. David wakes up one evening to find the staff gone and the asylum in a state of disrepair. He, that is, you, breaks out of his cell to recall the truth and evade overtly real or imagined threats.
|On second thought, I want to go back to my cell.|
White Night is a modification, or mod, of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which is one of the most kickass horror games ever devised by man or dolphin. The mod captures that game’s tenseness and atmosphere quite well. It builds up a growing sense of danger through scattered noises, as well as media left behind by staff and patients. David encounters voice recordings left behind by doctors and hidden notes from patients.
The game’s narrative is enhanced rather than interrupted by flashbacks of treatment sessions with a Dr. Sofia, a faceless psychiatrist who attempts to help David remember a past trauma. It’s unclear whether she is trying to help or hinder David, or if she’s even still alive.
|Dr. Sofia is literally and figuratively swathed in shadows. It’s hard to tell whether she’s trying to help David or drive him completely insane.|
Throughout most of the game, Sofia provokes David by asking probing questions. Why did David commit a crime? Why did he feel the urge to do it? How did he end up here?
The game builds tension worthy of the Cuban Missile Crisis, through the flashbacks with Sofia and through expertly-placed events and visuals. Who threw that chair out the window? Why does that doctor have a TV remote lodged in her spine? What was that thing I just saw running down the hallway?
|There’s a monster somewhere in this picture. I never got a good look at the damn thing, which made it all the scarier.|
As with Amnesia, much of the game is spent advancing through areas slowly and avoiding monsters. Some of the monsters are real while others are imagined. As David delves deeper into the asylum, it’s implied that he may have been a staff member at the hospital or related to a patient. His sanity also begins to deteriorate rapidly; I began journeying less through clean white hallways and more through cages floating in an ether of giant eyeballs and snot. There’s a reference to Silent Hill in one area.
|Is any of this real?|
White Night begins to run into a few speedbumps by so completely blurring the lines between real and imagined. I don’t mind if a game portrays a journey into that lumpy thing between my ears, but at certain points the narrative threatens to get sucked into itself. There’s a confusing bit somewhere in the middle where you have to help the ghost of a self-mutilating murderer retrieve his wedding ring, and I didn’t see how that fit into the overall story in ways other than a time-lengthening scheme. That’s the danger of writing an open-ended narrative, and it’s a worthy risk to take, but some pieces of it were more obviously irrelevant than others. Or were they? GAAH!
|For all its horror, White Night encapsulates an absorbing tragedy.|
I found White Night to be emotionally endearing in a way that most horror games are not, as ridiculous as that statement may sound. Throughout the story, David’s maybe/maybe not transgressions fall away in the face of sheer personal pain. He begins to question every fiber of his being in the face of the game’s growing horror. Will he do so until only a shell of a man remains? Will Dr. Sofia help or break his sanity? These questions serve to reinforce the meaning of the phraseWhite Night, which grows silently as the narrative advances.
Now that I’ve shed tears over the narrative in a manner befitting a freshman English major, let’s move on to artwork. The creator of White Night is to be commended for taking Amnesia, which is set in 1839, and creating an entire set of modern-day visuals. Everything from folding chairs to tiled flooring is custom-made, absorbing Amnesia‘s gameplay mechanics into a new and visually refreshing setting.
|Grime on walls? The sheer amount of detail in the reworked visuals is impressive, to say the least.|
A lot of Amnesia mods are sparse in their design, but this game puts all of that to shame. Painstaking attention to detail is made manifest through everything from dirt on cell walls to the placement of chairs, televisions and radiators. The level design is also quite excellent for an indie developer, and matched the pacing. I found myself in large hubs with many rooms that I would have to slowly and painfully explore to reach the next stage of the game. This slow-burn exploration helps make any horror game truly scary.
|White Night features many small, richly detailed environments with no easy means of escape or hiding. Perfect for creating a sense of danger.|
As with Amnesia, players have no means of self-defense and must run and hide from every threat out there. It’s not obvious that certain environments are dangerous until it’s too late for an easy exit. I hated at the time but love it as a trying-to-be-informed horror fan. There are certain hell-like sections which reminded me quite a bit of the last third or so of Portal, comprising huge rooms floating in giant orange ethers. The changeups in scenery were a bit jarring at times but overall quite intriguing.
|White Night will grace you with an occasional safe area to mentally relax and recollect yourself before descending into another monster maze.|
Perhaps the greatest artistic and atmospheric achievement of White Night is that it makes brightly lit areas scary. I actually clung to shadows in these areas even if there were no monsters. It takes smart design for a starkly lit room to make me yearn for a dark one, and is also probably an indicator that I shouldn’t have stayed up until 3 a.m. playing this, but there you go. This game’s artwork and level design is worthy of Frictional Games, the creators of the original Amnesia.
Should I get it?
I’m tempted to say that White Night is a good starting place for prospective horror fans. It’s still scary but not quite as terrifying as Amnesia. Then again, my friends tell me that I’m desensitized, so instead I recommend this game on the merits of its good design and somewhat jumbled but overall engrossing narrative. The game does, though, suffers from its share of bugs. At one point I was searching under a mattress for any sort of anti-monster substance, and the thing suddenly exploded into a white wall of light and flooded the entire hallway outside. There was another instance where a monster chasing me got stuck in a wall and vanished. But, I digress. If you’re looking for a blood-curdling tale of tragedy and fear, and are willing to tolerate the occasional hiccup, then put on some noise-cancelling headphones and download White Night. It’s free, so don’t use lack of funds as an excuse to stay away.