White Night

This is the latest challenge from the gang at the Indie Game Riot, who matched my White Night purchase price ($14.99) as a charitable donation to the Epilepsy Foundation. I buy the game, they match the price, everyone benefits. Except my brain, because given their selection of games for me, I’m starting to think they hate me.

In the interest of fairness, I should concede that I almost certainly never had any chance of liking White Night right from the get-go. This is for a couple of reasons. I never got into horror games. As a child, my parents didn’t let me play M rated games. I guess they didn’t want me to grow up cussing a blue-streak or making obscene jokes. The results speak for themselves. By time I was an adult, I had epilepsy. Horror games are meant to be played in the dark, with all external lighting turned off. That’s the biggest epilepsy no-no there is. But, White Night was mostly done-in for me by relying on fixed camera angles. I hate those. My first Resident Evil was #4. Also known as the one that ditched the fixed camera angles in favor of, you know, anything but fixed camera angles. You’ll notice almost nobody talks about the first three Resident Evils as the pinnacle of the series. Resident Evil 4 was so good it made the first three retroactively bad. More outdated than natural aging should have made them, and that’s almost entirely on the fixed camera angles. I get the point of them, especially in horror games. Like a theme park dark ride, they direct your attention in a specific direction to optimize the terror when something scary comes into view. The problem with that is, it compromises optimized gameplay for stylized storytelling. Games aren’t movies. Gameplay should always be paramount.

And, in the case of White Night, the graphics style does not mesh well at all with the fixed camera malarkey. This gets proven nearly every time something is introduced that’s intend to drive the plot in some way. There’s a scene in the second chapter where you’re in a dining room (I think it’s a dining room) and the game’s plot takes over: a ghost girl who needs your help. She appears suddenly and then walks through a door. When she does, the cinematics take over so you can see her walk through the door. You then return to the fixed camera you were at, and it’s almost impossible to figure out which door she just went through. The game is drawn in black and white graphics and the gimmick is most of the game is shrouded in darkness.

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Here’s an example of how the puzzles in the game don’t work in a logical sense. See the statue casting a shadow on the grave marker? There’s a key hanging where the shadow is. It’s not an Indiana Jones type of thing where moving the shadow of the statue activates a mechanism that reveals the key. No, the key is apparently just hanging there (you can even feel it before you move the statue) but you can’t actually claim it until you move the statue and can see it. Oh COME ON! It’s right fucking there. It’s just so damn silly that it breaks immersion right off the bat. This is literally the prologue to the game and the concept is already ruined. Sigh.

It doesn’t work as a play mechanic or a storytelling device. Hypothetically, the player character saw the ghost and knows which door she went through. That’s why it’s scary. Because holy fuck that was a ghost! But the player can’t tell which door she went through, so the plot grinds to a halt once again while you stumble around slowly, lighting matches to illuminate dark areas and clicking every object hoping to make the god damn slow-as-radioactive-decay story unfold just a sliver more. This breaks immersion, because in a cinematic experience (like White Night strives to be), the guy who, again, just saw a fucking ghost crying for help and walking through a door, would know which door she went through and follow her. In the game, the players are left to stumble searching for the door that the character himself saw. Are we scared yet? No, really, we’re just bored.

Oh, and by the way, the door she went through? It was locked.

Other technical issues get in the way. Even the simple act of clicking on shit to examine wasn’t handled well. The game kicks off with a car crash that injures the main character. I’m not sure if he spends the whole game limping around, but at the point I quit (which, granted, was very early in), he staggers with all the urgency of a murderer being dragged to the gallows. The limping animation leads to making lining up with stuff that you need to click a needless exercise in frustration. I’ve slammed the examine when the magnifying glass appears on-screen, only the dipshit you control was still dragging his leg in the animation and thus by time the game acknowledges that you hit a button, the character is no longer in position to examine the thing in question. Normally I would label this “lag” but it’s not really lag. It’s just bad design.

I don’t want to call it “Style over Substance” because that implies the game’s creators made a conscious decision that the gameplay could be mediocre as long as the art work was striking (and it is). I think White Night is a victim of the development team knowing how to play their own game and forgetting that you develop games for everyone else. Like an expectation that players will play the game the way the game’s creator does. For example, save points are notoriously spread far apart. In theory, this is done to heighten tension, making players practically pray they that come across one so that all the progress they’ve made isn’t lost. In practice, players just make a tiny bit of progress, return to the last save point they found, then venture back to make a little more progress, rinse, repeat until they stumble upon a new one. Thus 10 minutes worth of gameplay takes an hour to complete. I’ve never seen a game where that’s an option and most players opt to just risk making it to checkpoints. That’s especially true with White Night, because the game unfolds so fucking slowly, with miserable play control, that fear of having to repeat the tedious activities is more terrifying than any jump-scares or creepy atmosphere the game can throw at you.

Lighting matches doesn't protect you from the more aggresive ghosts, but they'll be removed as threats by electic lights. This leads to two things. First, some of the light switches "look dangerous" and thus your character won't push them, because of course he won't. I mean seriously, you fucking pussy, you're being stalked by killer ghosts who are only scared of electricity. You're locked in the house. It's just a fucking light switch! Again, all the stuff designed to keep tension up or be a "puzzle" is handled so poorly that it breaks the immersion. In a horror game, immersion is all you have. You break that, you're left with nothing. And second, it leads to players hugging the fucking walls searching in vain for a light switch that simply does not stick out enough. Who wants to play hug the walls? White Night is a wall-hugging simulator.

Lighting matches doesn’t protect you from the more aggressive ghosts, but they’ll be removed as threats by electric lights. This leads to two things. First, some of the light switches “look dangerous” and thus your character won’t push them, because of course he won’t. I mean seriously, what a pussy. He’s being stalked by killer ghosts who are only scared of electricity. He’s locked in the house. And it’s just a fucking light switch! Again, all the stuff designed to keep tension up or be a “puzzle” is handled so poorly that it breaks the immersion. In a horror game, immersion is all you have. You break that, you’re left with nothing. And second, it leads to players hugging the fucking walls searching in vain for a light switch that simply does not stick out enough, and then when you find it, it doesn’t work. Who wants to play hug the walls? White Night is a wall-hugging simulator.

There’s not a single concept that White Night has that I feel works the way it was probably envisioned. The game gives you matches that you must use to stay in the light. You can carry 12 at a time. If you run out of matches, you die. If you can’t get a match lit in a dark area fast enough, you die. That can be problematic when you’re trying to light a match but the character is either caught in an examination animation or even a movement animation that you can’t even see. I’m guessing it’s done to be realistic, because real people would struggle to light a match in a haunted house where ghosts will fucking kill you if you aren’t able to spark the thing up. THIS ISN’T REAL LIFE! It’s a game! And besides, when the ghosts actually kill you, the death animation looks more like a mildly annoyed person trying to shoo a housefly away, not a scared-shitless person having the life force sucked out of them by a god damned mother fucking GHOST! And why the hell are the ghosts in the game instakills? And why are we even doing the ridiculous save stuff? And why in the blue fuck are matches in limited supplies? White Night has a very old, first-gen 3D horror mentality. It ignores all the major advancements in-game design that have come about over the last twenty years. A lot of people say Resident Evil 1 was scarier than Resident Evil 4. Fine, maybe it was. But horror games control better today than they did in the PS1/Saturn era. Can’t we find a healthy middle ground between good gameplay and real scares?

That’s the real shame here. White Night might actually be a really scary video game. I played it in a room with four grown men and my mother. We all had a couple “fucking game got me!” BOO moments. But typically those resulted in me dying, followed by dying several more times in a row. Then more dying. You die a lot. This is mostly because, for some reason, when a ghost spots you the movement gets even weirder and more limpy than normal. If a ghost catches you, you die. You can run away, but while doing so, you have to compete with horrible play control and the possibility that the fixed camera angles will change. Again, because of the all white and black style and the darkness versus light gimmick, the layouts of rooms are confusing at best. Often, it’s not even worth attempting to runaway.

Going off the percentages of players getting achievements for completing the second chapter, a shocking amount of people quit playing White Night at some point on the second stage, and I’m amongst them. This game is awful. Look, even scary games are supposed to be entertaining. While the game is interesting to look at, a game shouldn’t make it so easy for players to give up and quit. White Night frustrates with archaic fixed angles, clunky movement, bad play control, confusing layouts, a slow, somewhat uninteresting and far too vague story, and annoying instakills that make you replay all the annoying things. No, as someone who completely missed the fixed-camera era of horror gaming and HATES that style, I probably never stood a chance to like White Night. Was this review fair? I feel it was, because if you’re in the same boat as me, with no nostalgic affection for that style, White Night is clearly not for you. Playing White Night is practically a war of attrition, and it is in that sense only that it succeeds. I wave the white flag.

White NightWhite Night was developed by O’Some Studio
Point of Sale: Steam, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

$14.99 said “who’ya gonna call?” like a schmuck in the making of this review.

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Reunion

Review contains some spoilers.  A spoiler warning is given beforehand.

Reunion is a 2D survival horror game developed during a four-day game jam known as GameZanga (a Pan-Arabian jam hosted by Arabian game site GameTako). The team members included Maan Ashgar (Artist), Ahmed Al-Haddad (Designer), and Abdullah Konash (Game Design/Programming).

They describe their game as a “short, shocking horror game”, with a warning in the intro screen that “The game contains violent scenes and scary sounds” and that the player is encouraged that the “Usage of headphones is recommended”.

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Now that the cold hard facts are out of the way, let’s get this review going.

Reunion does one thing extremely well, and that’s sound design. At first I thought it was going to wow me with its aesthetics as well, since you are first treated to a beautifully illustrated title screen with what appears to be a small child holding a stuffed animal, lost in a purple hued wooded area. Unfortunately the aesthetics take a nose dive as the first cut scene (a child running from their home into the woods) has the look of a rough storyboard and has absolutely no animation. Once you are dumped into the game you see that the game has very basic aesthetics, almost cartoon and childlike, that you might expect from a quickly put together game created during a jam.

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Mind you, that’s not to say the actual in-game aesthetics are bad. They have a very beautiful charm to them. The character you control is a slightly disheveled man, the father of the child from the intro. The art style is very distinctive, with the father’s head being over sized, which allows the player a chance to see what seems to be a very worried look in his eyes, and the colors and lines are very soft… so there’s an almost pleasant, water-color like atmosphere to the visuals.

The father is surrounded by darkness and as you begin to move him around you see trees and rocks that are created in the same soft water-color style. My first impression was that the aesthetics looked too pleasant for this game to live up to its claim of being a shocking horror game, but people on Game Jolt (the indie site the game is hosted on) seemed to be raving about it, so I decided to persevere.

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It wasn’t the hype that drew me, but rather the wonderful sound design. From the very beginning you are treated to one of the more impressive soundtracks I have heard in quite some time in an indie game (or in some AAA games for that matter). Not only was the music wonderful, but it was nice to hear actual voices as the father and child, both of which have speaking parts in the game with the father being able to call out to his child, as well as the child’s breath and footsteps being heard as he appears to run deeper and deeper into the forest.

It’s very interesting how the simple combination of hearing a real person’s voice alongside a moving soundtrack can help enhance the aesthetics (and gameplay, which I will get into in a second) of a game that I think otherwise would not be very engaging.

As you begin to move the father around, searching the woods for his child (whose direction is indicated not only by sounds, but also an arrow that appears every time you have the father call out his name), one of the first sounds you will hear is that of a hissing snake. The closer you get to the snake the more intense and menacing the sound, until finally you will most likely stumble upon the source of the noise, which no surprise, is a snake.

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This is where the game mechanics are revealed, as once you are too close to the snake, a jarring noise rings out, the camera centers on the snake, and you are returned to a predetermined start position to try again. Pretty simple, right? Go through the forest, using your ears and the ability to call out to the father’s child to reveal the directional arrow… avoid creatures in the woods and presumably save the father’s son.

Once again, the best thing about this game is the sound design, but in my humble opinion, everything else falls short. While the jarring sound that is associated with seeing that first snake and the sounds of a slithering creature along with the moody soundtrack is definitely something that may get you a little spooked, the stylized cartoonish graphics are enough to take me out of the immersion. The snake is as stylized as anything else, but is equally as static as the rocks and trees. As you move the father deeper into the woods you will also come across bears which are equally cartoonish and project equally spooky sounds.

When you begin to get in the rhythm of “listen for sound, avoid sounds, follow directional arrow”, the game quickly loses its charm and the immersion is utterly broken. Not only that, but while the game developers attempt to do a decent job of creating directional sound in the game, they opt for the growls and hisses and the child running through the woods to be more expressionistic and ambient, sometimes confusingly panning around the stereo field in a way that is hard to get a fix on where to move the father. On the other hand, the confusing nature of the sound design and the inability to see much around you in the game (they obscure much of the screen with a ring of blackness, typical of creating “darkness” in a 2D game) does a fantastic job of obfuscating the very simple nature of the level design.

Though the level design is technically very simple, and it’s nice to feel like the forest is larger and more complex than it actually is, the fact that it’s hard to get your bearings every time you are reset can lead to the game sometimes feeling more frustrating rather than immersive. Thankfully as you get deeper into the forest, the game warps you to trees that have numbered “DANGER” signs so that you begin to realize you are making progress.

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[ WARNING : Spoilers below! ]

An interesting thing happened to me while playing the game. About half way through (mind you it is very short, probably 10 minutes at the most if you are doing well), and I once again credit this to the wonderful sound design, I actually became somewhat immersed in spite of how silly the cartoonish snakes, bears, trees, and rocks were.

Somewhere between the somber music, the sounds of the child running through the forest, the father calling out in desperation for his child, and the anxiety of having to avoid the dangerous forest creatures…. somewhere between all of that, I actually began to get into the mindset of what it would be like to be a parent running after their kid who is lost in a dangerous place.

It was right about that time that the game kicked the tension up a notch. Instead of the familiar sounds of animals, I began to hear more alien noises. Psychedelic warbles and shifting that reminds me of heavy experiences I’ve had on LSD. The kinds of sounds I always associate with really good sound design in horror games and moody psychedelic rock.

But the alien noises aren’t just arbitrary, they pulse and flow as you get closer to a new enemy, an eery silhouetted figure of the father with empty glowing eyes.

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I’ll admit, the first time I saw one of the silhouetted figures and the camera jumped, and the jarring noise of being seen played I got a bit freaked out.

This was the one moment where I feel like they did well with the aesthetics of the game, as the contrast between the cartoonish looking father and the eery dark silhouette really drew me in. I want to stress that I’m not saying the art style is bad, and I truly believe the illustrator did a great job of creating a wonderful look of concern on the father’s face… but if it weren’t for the incredibly engaging sounds I don’t think I would have been as shocked or immersed by the middle point of the game.

Something about the weary looking eyes of the father in contrast to the dead glowing eyes of the silhouetted doppelgänger along with the unnerving noises truly made the middle section of the game worthy of a horror title.

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Now let’s talk about the ending.

It’s hard for me to talk about the ending.

I’ll just tell you what happens and we’ll go from there. After a short but challenging period of having to avoid the silhouetted doppelgängers, you finally come to what appears to be a bunker or mine shaft that leads underground.

I’m sure you can imagine what may or may not happen next. I mean, the game promised violent scenes after all, and while there have been some “shocking” moments, nothing violent has happened.

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Once you approach the underground entrance, the game takes control away from you and dumps you once again into a very low quality storyboard style, non-animated, cut scene where you see the child with their stuffed animal and as the camera pans to the right, you see a gun. Then it cuts inexplicably to the more cartoonish style once again, of the father pointing a gun directly at the screen, as though you are looking from the perspective of the child. The screen goes black, a gun shot is heard.

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A twist worthy of the master himself.

Here’s the thing. I’m okay with a game like this. A game where you play as a deranged lunatic who is so off their rocker that they would chase their child down into a forest and then mercilessly murder them. I think we need more games like this. More people should be unafraid to tackle tough subjects involving the nature of violence in humanity as well as other challenging subjects most people are afraid to confront through the interactive medium of video games.

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But, the game didn’t end there. The very next thing you see after the gun shot and fade to black, is the following statement.

“Mental illness is a fact, and those who are ill think, but they think in an unpredictable way.”

Well fuck you very much, but as someone who struggles with mental illness (I’d argue we all do), this statement is absolutely the most ridiculous thing I have ever read in a video game, and I play a lot of thoughtlessly made, culturally subversive piece of shit video games.

It then follows that up quickly with…

“Click on the Wiki button for more information on (Schizophrenia).”

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imageOooooohhhh, well in that case, yeah, that’s totally cool, because people who deal with Schizophrenia are all violent psychopaths who can’t be trusted and will more than likely bring harm to their loved ones. I’m glad that this game is getting the word out there that people need to remain diligent and afraid of people dealing with mental illness, especially extreme mental illness such as Schizophrenia.

Paint the walls with my brain and don’t tell anyone I was the head of MKULTRA because fuck all of that noise.

Seriously. I’m the first to defend a game for having flawed depictions of women, men, queers, cultures, babies, robots, whatever in the name of artistic freedom, but making factually incorrect statements, and literally preceding them with “FACT”, specifically in a game that creates a correlation of irrational violence and something as broad as mental illness and Schizophrenia (fun FACT : Schizophrenia is a spectrum of mental illness which they would have known if they followed their own wiki link)…. is either incredibly ignorant… incredibly manipulative (see : Oscar bait)… or just plain malicious.

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I’m more disappointed in the droves of people who bought into it than I am of the creators themselves. I can deal with some ignorance on their part, but the hype that was built up around this game (it has tens of thousands of plays with many people expressing at how moved they were by the experience)… it just makes me a little depressed (FACT : depression is a mental illness that many people suffer from and don’t get treatment for because of FACT: the stigma of mental illness).

bandicam 2013-10-06 18-12-00-944Reunion was developed by Maan Ashgar (Artist), Ahmed Al-Haddad (Designer), and Abdullah Konash (Game Design/Programming).

FACT : This game is free to play on Game Jolt.

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