White Shadows by Monokel
White Shadows is – if you were to put marketing shorthand on it – Inside crossed with Animal Farm by way of The Matrix as directed by Fritz Lang. Yes, that’s a lot of direct references to other media, but it’s also a pretty accurate explanation.
Bird is the (Bad) Word
Because White Shadows is a moody platform puzzle game set in a dystopian industrial future and rendered in bleak but brilliant monochrome, just like Inside. And it’s loaded with none-too-subtle Orwell references, right down to the phrase “All animals are equal.”
The modifying clause, in this case, is “except birds,” which is implicit from the get-go and explicit by game’s end, with birds of various flocks standing in for everything from slave labor and worse. Fowl are not only forced to lay eggs, but their chicks are actually ground up for electrical power (shades of the Matrix films, as mentioned).
Meanwhile, ravens – like the game’s protagonist – are even more despised, vilified as “plague birds” and either killed on sight or tortured to death for an audience of eager upper-class swine.
Yeah, White Shadows isn’t subtle.
Chutes and Levers
And while its flightless white raven heroine and her journey are absolutely compelling, it’s not necessarily fun.
You’ve got your standard platform antics: jump over or duck under killing machines, carefully time jumps between platforms and ladders, learn your patterns and master them.
You’ve also got your visual puzzles: turn the wheels, pull the levers, make the circles line up until the door opens, that kind of thing.
You’ve even got a couple of classic “stick to the shadows” stealth pieces.
It’s all competently executed, and the more twitch-oriented parts are thankfully forgiving with plenty of auto-save points, but they sometimes feel like bullet points on a “what defines a video game” checklist, distractions from the real strengths of White Shadows: the massive set-pieces.
And lord, are these set-pieces massive and stunning. Between the huge diesel-punk factory scenes, disturbing (and occasionally touching) character animation drawn from the creepier side of clay animation, and some masterful use of classical music, White Shadows is one of the most distinctive and cinematic things I’ve seen in I don’t know how long.
The literally dark dystopia of endless factories – not to mention dissonant interludes of advertising and a game show segment that feels a bit like Cuphead if the someone was pushing down on the “cruelty” side of the whimsy/cruelty scale – is stunning on a purely visual level, and clever twists on Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” throughout the latter half of the game help develop an initial sense of adrenaline-fueled terror into a more surreal creeping dread.
What Are You, Chicken?
There’s also a Matrix-inspired factory-farming scene set to “The Blue Danube” by Strauss that made me consider giving up poultry products altogether.
These skillfully directed set-pieces – and some of them, especially a scene involving jumping between freight trains on a series of suspension railways do manage to combine the jaw-dropping visuals with actual interactive mechanics – are more than enough pay-off for the occasional flow-breaking puzzles.
Similarly, while the social commentary isn’t by any means subtle, it is at least thoughtful, and the wordless raven girl’s journey through what seems like nine circles of industrialized hell and deliberate cruelty manages to be touching without getting too maudlin, at least for the most part. (One scene did break the “make the player do something awful to progress and then shame them for it” rule, alas.)
German developers Monokel aren’t going to win over casual players with their debut, but White Shadows deserves plaudits for its direction. I’m not convinced it wouldn’t have been equally good – if not better – as an animated film, but in any case, it’s very much worth seeing.
White Shadows is available via the Sony PlayStation Store, Microsoft Store, Steam, and the Epic Games Store.
Watch the official trailer for White Shadows below: