White Day: A Labyrinth Named School
Genre: Survival Horror
There are a thousand and one ways to scare an audience. In writing, you’re limited by the reader’s imagination- but the imagination is a powerful tool in this case. Filmmakers are limited by budget but with skill and creative angles and production, even the most mediocre offering has its moments. When it comes to video games, there are still limitations, but the sky is the limit when it comes to effects, locations, and most other elements. There are a variety of styles to be experienced from the years of exploring themes and methods of exacting terrifying encounters in electronic worlds.
White Day: A Labyrinth Named School is a remake of a game from 2001, but this is the first that the United States has seen of it on consoles or in a full translation. Between the county’s interest in foreign horror offerings and gaming, there have only been a few titles that were made originally in Asia and remade for worldwide distribution (Corpse Party being another recent example) but they have been appearing every so often to the excitement of horror fans.
Given the fourteen years the US waited for White Day to hit consoles, how did it transition into the ever-growing library of chilling games that we’ve been seeing over the past few years- and was it worth the wait in any case?
Let’s start with some real world education: White Day is observed a month after Valentine’s Day in China, Japan, South Korea, and a number of other Asian countries. Where Valentine’s Day is seen as a holiday for women to give gifts and sweets to men they feel affection for, White Day is meant for men to reciprocate, usually by giving gifts equal to three times the value of the gifts they were given a month before. As the moniker would suggest, these are usually white- white chocolate, white lingerie or clothing, or other similarly hued items.
White Day takes place at Yeondu High School where Lee Hui-min, a new student, decides to bring a White Day gift to So-yeoung, a girl he has a crush on, after the school has closed for the day. Shortly after, he realizes that he has cannot leave the school grounds, along with a handful of other students. Events take place that make Hui-min realize that not only is the school plagued with paranormal occurrences, but there are a host of spectres, ghosts, and other dangers that have unfinished business keeping them within the walls of Yeondu High.
As the plot unfolds, Hui-min finds himself trying to survive and dissect the mysteries of Yeondu alongside Seong-ah, a snarky friend to So-yeoung, and Ji-hyeon, a shy and easily frightened girl. A new protagonist for the remake, Ji-min, is apparently also available, though I didn’t run into her in my first playthrough. Hui-min’s interactions with the characters help decide how the plot unfolds, along with certain documents and items that he finds in his travels. Not all of the characters you come across are friendly, however, as Hui-min will find himself pursued by malevolent presences that patrol the halls.
Ultimately, Hui-min’s goal is to escape the school and to survive along with the other people he runs into. There are a multitude of smaller plots that revolve around ghosts that can be found in the school and how they ended up that way. The grand plot revolving around So-yeoung and how she is involved with what is happening around Yeondu High.
White Day plays out in first person, which is one mechanic that sets the game apart from a majority of horror games right off the bat. It makes for a unique experience as you makes your way through the halls of the high school. You do have a few maneuvers at your disposal to help your survival. Hui-min can sprint, if he needs to make a quick escape, and he can crouch to hide though his movement is slower. Since hiding is a big part of how the game plays out, there are plenty of ways to conceal yourself. Lockers, crouching in shadowed corners or behind desks, or jumping into a bathroom stall are the most convenient methods.
Other methods of survival lie in items you’ll find around Yeondu. Felt-tipped pens are littered throughout the school and like ink ribbons from Resident Evil, they are used to save at designated spaces. Rather than typewriters, you need to find bulletin boards with polaroids tacked to them to mark up and save your game. You will also come across healing items in case you have too close of a run-in with a dangerous entity, and if you can’t find them, you can find coins that will let you purchase them from vending machines throughout the school. If you search hard enough, you shouldn’t have a difficult time keeping healthy.
The most prominent function of the game involves the ‘stalkers’ that pace through the school (which the player is introduced to by witnessing a somewhat effective scene where an average looking older janitor bludgeons a student to death while Hui-min remains out of sight). There are telltale signs when they are around- the jingle of keys or a lackadaisical whistle, for instance- and in the Normal difficulty and lower, there is an indicator as to whether the stalker is within viewing range, alert that you are nearby, or actively chasing you. Aside from seeing Hui-min, which is the most obvious way they can be alerted to your presence, other stimuli can set them off. Running will create more noise that can attract attention, as can closing doors or turning on lights in rooms. In an almost clever twist to enforce that last action, unless there is light, Hui-min cannot interact with any items that he finds or that are glimmering without the player receiving the message ‘it’s too dark to see anything’.
The player has ways to counteract these, of course. Crouching, while slow, becomes a preferred method of movement. While stalkers will check on open doors they find, usually they won’t walk into the room with anything more than a cursory glance (and even then, when they leave, they’ll usually shut the door for you). If you need a light but you’re worried about someone seeing it, you also have a lighter at your disposal which will light a small area around you but is less likely to be detected and still lets you interact with items. Figuring out the mechanics and how best to work to reach your goals and survive is important in White Day. Usually.
The Good, The Bad, and…
White Day has its issues. We’ll get to those. There are some positives that should be highlighted before those, though.
Overall, the game feels like a Playstation 2 or Dreamcast era game, but it does bring some fresh ideas to the table. Hiding can be really effective, and you usually have a good idea regarding whether you’ll be spotted or not. In one instance, while running from a night watchman, I ducked into an alcove, dimly lit by a vending machine, and tucked myself into a dark corner next to it. The watchman reached the opening. I watched the beam of his flashlight waver before him. He looked around before him, scanning for any movement to prompt him to action. After a tense moment, he walked away, satisfied that I was gone and that he could return to his patrol. Tense moments like this litter the game and, when the game lets them happen, they are etched as some of the best moments in recent horror history.
Really, the game handles atmosphere very well. Lighting, set pieces, and even running into some of the more supernatural beings have a feeling of dread that is well translated. There is something dismal about knowing that you are trapped but being able to see clear into the courtyard through the rain pelting the windows of the hall. Even at some of the most fantastic moments, the atmosphere remains dark and, at times, frenetic.
Going back to the first line of the section, though: White Day has its issues. Above all else, and this may be a personal preference, but the game tries to do a lot. There are a large number of ghost stories to be had, there are stalkers roaming around, there’s a mysterious teacher who appears with little to no explanation; unless you cling to a guide of some sort to progress, all of these plot points feel segmented and disjointed. In my playthrough- and I know I missed plenty of plot in my first run- it felt like I was playing through a bunch of short horror games rather than through one large narrative.
On a similar note, the characters are lackluster at best and their interactions, while well voiced enough and decently written, seem inconsequential when choices are available. Much like in horror movies where this is the case, the characters don’t have a ton of depth or endear themselves terribly when they run into each other, so caring what happens to them beyond not wanting them to die is tough to justify. Even the timid approachable Ji-hyeon gets upset with you if Hui-min tries to talk with her too often. Hui-min is too much of an ‘audience surrogate’ to have a personality unless you choose sharp or snarky answers while he speaks with other students. Notes from the TV Tropes website say that the creator based the girls’ personalities on characters from the popular anime title, Neon Genesis Evangelion, but beyond some surface traits, it is hard to define any character beyond their initial impressions.
The most glaring issues in White Day involve the stalk-and-hide mechanic. Considering this is the primary function that the game wraps its concept around, this creates some colossal hurdles. When the game first released, a patch had to be released because stalkers were too hard to shake and detected players to an unfair degree. I still had a few issues where I would hide while completely undetected and without provocation, the stalker of the area would rush in and start to attack. In some other conditions, I would be expected to perform an action that meant that I would be stationary for a moment, but the stalker was still allowed to follow after and attack while I was in place. There are workarounds for these issues and thankfully, dying only sets you back in progress so far so that the game gets repetitive but not impossible to stomach. Given the attention that should have been given to making the way stealth and stalkers are handled in White Day, the mechanic is sloppy and arduous, teetering between tense and troublesome on a regular basis.
Plot- and Therefore Spoilers
In a few sentences, I can sum up the plot that I experienced in a concrete way throughout White Day. So-yeong is clearly involved in something involving the spirits of the school, and Hui-min appears to be just one of her many admirers. She is seen in flashes and passing interludes before disappearing- sometimes literally- into the maze that is Yeondu again. In my ending, she remains trapped there with a girl I know nothing about while Hui-min escapes, strolling through the daylight with ‘another’ So-yeong who is quite aware that the real So-yeoung is still trapped within the school.
I probably don’t have to explain that this was not a positive ending.
Ji-hyeon, who appears to be the only character that has any sort of reaction to the ghosts roaming throughout the school akin to fear, spends most of the time running, hiding, and generally being pushed around by the concerned Seong-ah. She was also seen, however, seemingly feeding some strange plants around the school toward the beginning of the game (which later wind up to be sproutlings of a tree ghost, the first ‘boss’ and timed encounter of the game). This insinuates that she has something to do with some of the occurences taking place, but given that it appears that the spirits of the school can take the form of others in a convincing manner, this may be meant to turn her into a red herring of some kind. In my playthrough, this also wasn’t explored. After she hurts her ankle in the final events of White Day, you’re given the choice to help her or go find Seong-ah. I chose to go find Seong-ah, as I had interacted with her most, but as Hui-min and ‘So-yeong’ start to leave, she mentions going back to help Ji-hyeon.
That’s the last Ji-hyeon is mentioned or heard from, so I can only assume that she’s safe outside of the school.
Seong-ah seems unfazed throughout the night, and it slowly comes to light as to why. When you first meet her, she seems irritated that Hui-min is just one of another of So-yeong’s followers. She immediately starts to demand that he help her, which leads to witnessing the death of another student as mentioned above, and throughout the game, she seems to warm up to him, even helping him elude a stalker at one point. Her backstory links to another character- a strange woman who roams the halls of Yeondu at night. She is not harried by the stalkers. She is not tormented by the spectres that target Hui-min. Through documents, logic, and the climactic ending sequence, it is revealed that the woman is looking for her daughter who tragically died from an asthma attack during a fire that broke out at Yeondu not long ago. When she finally breaks her entranced state, she plunges into a murderous frenzy and is overtaken by dark spirits of the school. Why can she roam the halls freely while others are murdered on a regular basis? The answer appears to be simple, if you find the right documents throughout the school.
Her daughter, Seong-ah, is one of the spirits stuck within the ‘labyrinth’ of Yeondu.
This explains why Seong-ah appears to be flippant and cavalier about most of the elements of the school- and why she warms up to someone who wants to help her with her machinations. Having passed away in the school, she has unfinished business- not to mention that Yeondu appears to be a magnet for unfortunate ends and trapping spirits within it. As the wandering woman seems to realize that her daughter’s soul is still confined to the school, she becomes susceptible to Yeondu’s influence and becomes possessed herself, resolving to end those that she blames for Seong-ah’s death. Though I had Hui-min choose to look for Seong-ah rather than help Ji-hyeon, I saw nothing of her after that I can remember after she impeded an incoming janitor while he bore down on Hui-min. In the end, she was the character I thought I would dislike most but ended up having the most interesting plot and connections to Yeondu that I came across.
Anything else ‘plot-related’ is in a fringe of loose ends: a giant tree spirit that steals So-yeong away, a doppelganger who attacks you from the other side of a mirror, a female ghost who appears intermittently to horrify you momentarily, draining your stamina, and a mysterious ‘night duty’ teacher who seems to have a connection to the school but I only saw once; there are so many parts that don’t sum out in the end if you progress in certain ways that it’s hard to analyze without looking into the original game further to explain how they all converge. I would guarantee that another player probably had much more or much less cohesive thoughts on the plot which is interesting but in the end, it feels detrimental.
White Day resembles the look of games on the Dreamcast and Playstation 2, to come back to a point that I mentioned earlier. This is alluring, though it has its drawbacks. Character models are fluid while still moving in a rigid fashion. The environments are the best offering from the game including lighting and weather effects. They retain the blocky style that keep them just realistic enough to be pleasant. Even semi-transparent effects like ghosts are handled well and genuinely terrifying when they appear. Some other issues of the time do crop up, though on a small scale. Flashlight effects sometimes clip through doors or walls. Some items carry an indicative glimmer to show that they can be collected while some don’t. Overall, the visuals are tight- in a 2001 kind of way.
Listening is a big part of the White Day experience, as well, and it feels like it is consistently the strongest part of the game. It doesn’t feel like there is an extensive soundtrack, but the sound effects are the highlight of the game between silences. Traveling through the atrium of the school and hearing a shattering of glass across the way is unnerving, especially when you see that nothing has actually generated that noise. Whispers, echoing footsteps, and the occasional Asian inspired musical sweep make for a interesting and uneasy environment to duck and dodge through. The voice acting is solid and features a number of people you have definitely heard in anime or other games. There is one ‘track’ that overstays its welcome. Unfortunately, it is the track that accompanies the final confrontation of the game, and it feels more like someone offering a cheesy spooky ‘oooh’ over a crescendo of what could have been a powerful, if forgettable, refrain. While unfortunately placed, it does not detract from the rest of what White Day has to offer the ears.
White Day feels like such a mixed bag. I’d be lax not to say that I looked forward to being able to play this game for a few years now in English, and if I had played through what I recently played through a few years ago, I would probably be singing the praises of this game. While there have been some clear improvements since White Day was originally released, the game plays as a beautifully flawed example of how far gaming- and specifically horror gaming- has come in the past years.
I didn’t hate my time with White Day. It just left me confused. If you enjoy horror gaming, this may still be a tough sell. Certain puzzles can be iffy, the story feels like a muddled mess, and the design is spotty in an unforgiving way at times. There is a lot of good tucked away in pockets of White Day, though, and with it clocking in at about six hours in my first play through, I’m tempted to trek through again knowing what I know. I could only give a solid recommendation to horror fans interested in experiencing a piece of history that illustrates the genre’s growth and origins. There are much better offerings on Playstation 4 (and PC, which this version is also available on), but the game appears to be cheaper than many options, as well, so you may be getting just the right amount of bang for your buck.
Much like you hear in a number of ways throughout Yeondu’s halls: proceed with caution here.