White Shadows preview: a surreal, eerie dystopia

There’s a certain allure to games that just plonk you down in the middle of a game world. No vast opening cutscene, no tutorial, no slabs of text to guide you. Limbo did this brilliantly way back in 2010, and while developer Daniel Wagner doesn’t want to be drawn too much on the specifics of White Shadows’ plot, he’s quite clear that it’s another game that lets players discover the world and its story for themselves.

“It’s about this little raven girl, our heroine,” Wagner explains. “She’s this tiny little creature in a big, powerful world that really doesn’t care for her, and actually has it in for her in some ways. And you don’t have superpowers.”

That big, powerful world is a starkly dystopian one: White Shadows’ monochrome city has a bleak, industrial look that recalls BioShock and another Playdead hit, Inside. It’s a topsy-turvy place where populations of pigs, sheep, birds, rats, and wolves coexist uneasily, and where birds are vilified for the plague that struck years before.

For Wagner, the seed for what would become White Shadows was first planted when he was studying philosophy at college. “The idea of making something about a black and white world was really interesting to us,” he says. “Like, literally everything is black and white; it’s this metaphor, this symbol of contrast. Of highs, lows, good and evil, light and darkness.

“It’s one of these metaphors that’s hard to question, even though there are lots of ugly connota-tions to that – why white is automatically good and black is automatically bad. I feel a bit self-conscious talking about it, being a middle-aged white guy making a game about racism, but we al-ways thought it would be an interesting thing to work on.”

If the retro-industrial look on display here reminds you of BioShock, Wagner acknowledges that game as one of many influences on White Shadows.

At its core, White Shadows is a side-scrolling action puzzler, though Wagner’s also reluctant to pi-geonhole it in terms of genre. “I always thought it was kind of sad that games define themselves not through what they are – the experience that they are, whether it’s a horror story, or some-thing about love or something about beauty, awe, and wonder – but by their mechanics.”

White Shadows is also one of a growing number of games that eschews colour, and instead relies on contrasts and movement to guide the player in the right direction. It’s a design process that is time-consuming to get right, Wagner explains. “It’s incredibly hard,” he says. “It usually falls on my shoulders, this type of stuff, and I keep coming up with nothing – I have to search and dig deeper for ways of directing player attention.

“All you have is contrasts, so you have to have subtle things, where you have highlights and low-lights. It’s annoying that I can’t use red for danger, or a greenish-grey for a swamp. All these kinds of things we have to do differently, where it’s the shapes that direct your attention, or move-ment… I would love to have a concept of how this works in general, but it’s really [designing] piece by piece and then examining the pieces around it.”

One of White Shadows’ chief draws is its surreal, sometimes comical yet often eerie landscape: one drawn, Wagner says, partly from the works of George Orwell, Ridley Scott’s seminal Blade Runner, and German expressionist cinema. “We use all these stories that people might have seen – Animal Farm, 1984, Blade Runner – and there are so many things in there that you could find par-allels to.

”In games, you expect to be powerful,” Wagner says. “But this game isn’t that – it’s more about, ‘We can’t beat this world’.”

“We kind of use them as a cultural tool-box to tell a story in a way that’s entertaining. There’s noth-ing more beautiful, for any kind of creator, than to take stuff you always liked, and try to give it a spin – take something that was in a movie before and make a puzzle out of it.”

But while Wagner wants to keep his animal-filled world under wraps for now, he eagerly responds to the question of whether White Shadows is a reflection of an increasingly polarised, modern, al-ways-online world. “I completely agree,” he says.

“I think we talk less. I do think we fight more. I think disagreeing has become an art form. I think yes, you can see polarisation, the black and white hierarchical structures… you can see rich and poor, you can see racism. I think there are many ways of seeing this. And I think that’s why White Shadows is interesting. That’s also why I want to tell myself to shut up now, because basically, all the game’s about is showing this!”

Genre: Platform-adventure
Format: PC / PS5 / XB X/S
Developer: Monokel
Publisher: Headup, Mixtvision
Release: TBC 2021

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