Sometimes a positive outlook and reassurance that things are going to be okay can be comforting, but sometimes I’ve found that a bit of realism with a dash pessimism can create its own special type of solace. Night in the Woods is an adventure-platformer about everyday life in a secluded rustbelt town where things aren’t great, but they just might be manageable, maybe.
Staring a young, anthropomorphic cat by the name of Mae, Night in the Woods takes you to the town of Possum Springs, a community whose former glory days as a prosperous coal mining town during the post Great Depression period are long gone. We find Mae coming back to the town of her childhood after dropping out of college. At the outset we don’t know the prevailing reason as to why she made this decision, but there is this underlying feeling that she might have been forced to go by her parents. Like many young adults, including myself, Mae’s parents expected great things from their child. Specifically to be the first in the family to graduate from a four year institution.
But Mae has come back to her hometown for a specific purpose, one that she might not be willing to admit to herself, and that is to recapture the feeling of being young and without responsibility. Little does she realize that her former life didn’t stay frozen in the way her fond memories recall it. The town has changed. Her friends have grown-up since she left. They have service jobs to pay the bills, they are starting to realize that their small town has no opportunities and that it has worn out its usefulness to the rest of the country. While Mae is coming back, her friends want to leave and would rather die anywhere else, but something else is happening behind the scenes in Possum Springs. People are disappearing and a severed arm has been found by the old dinner. It’s just the type of mystery and distraction that one could use when they are experiencing a quarter-life crisis.
Night in the Woods is a game about discovering yourself, discovering those who you thought you knew, and solving a Stand By Me style mystery that is presented in a distinct, slightly nihilistic style that rarely ceases to be comforting.
This small town is one with bumpy hills and the occasional sinkhole due to it being built on land prone to flooding, reinforcing the notion that it was built as a throwaway community. It’s a space brought to life by the signature and unmistakable art style of lead artist Scott Benson; characters have a rounded, simple look with specific eccentricities that give them a style that is truly their own. Primarily taking place in the Fall, Night in the Woods takes that backdrop and brings out everything that comes with the season. Not just the look, but the feelings that come with Fall. Night in the Woods has the orange, rustling leaves and vivid sunsets of autumn, but combining that with its tight knit community, it also evokes that natural feeling of warmth, a nostalgia for the Halloween and Thanksgiving’s past, and the hint of sadness that comes with realizing that another year is about come to an end. All of this is paired with the mellow and soothing music of Alec Holowka. It’s a soundtrack that regularly brings out so many intimate feelings and memories.
Most of Night in the Woods is exploring that space. It’s a lot of running around on the town’s concrete streets filled with abandoned business, jumping on power lines that make the sound of a guitar string, and looking at stone statues of figures who used to bring prosperity to the town. Along the way you will meet the townsfolk, folks like Selmers, a poet and recovering addict who really likes fruit snacks. It’s an experience that’s often engaging, but like living in a small town, after a while you get tired of walking down the same streets. After awhile you forget the small quirks that make your hometown neat and it hits you that the walk to the ol’ pizza shop is pretty long. Once you have explored Possum Springs you’re encouraged to keep visiting locations around town to encounter new events and meet new characters, but the repetitive nature of walking back and forth makes the game lose momentum. There were plenty of times where I felt the need to take a break from it because it was losing my interest.
Complementing this are the playable dreams of Mae that have you doing a bit more involved platforming while searching for specific landmarks. Their presentation strongly contrasts from the cozyness of exploring the town, as they are darker and lit with visually striking neon blues and greens. It feels as if these ancillary sections exist to somewhat mix up the gameplay, but they can be a bit obtuse and are the rare instances that can make Night in the Woods frustrating. It takes a good while to get to know your surrounding environment enough to know where you haven’t explored, where you are even able to explore , and where you need to backtrack to.
A more welcome change of pace is the fun activities you get up to on your adventure. From a rhythm mini-game where you and your friends jam out to some original punk tunes to the building of a nice robot friend made up of parts found at the abandoned food market, Night in the Woods has pockets where it really surprises with its sudden and well implemented use of mini-games and idiosyncratic instances.
The specific way Night in the Woods’ does dialogue is unusual. Yes, It’s relatable, truthful, and funny, but it really reads sincerely in a way that is rare in games. Night in the Woods has no voice acting apart from some sound effects, all dialogue is delivered through text, but it doesn’t read like dialogue from a book, script or even the way we might talk in-person. No, Night in the Woods reads like the way we talk online. Specifically the way you would talk to friends on Twitter or in a chat room. A sort of laid back, witty, and sarcastic dialogue with a very deliberate pace to it. This writing might not come across as well if it was voice acted, but reading it is a joy. That deliberate pace naturally makes you giggle at jokes and you know a character is speaking in a more serious tone when it’s absent. It’s delivery that comes across as natural, even though it really isn’t, and it absolutely lands.
Through that same writing, Night in the Woods touches on topics such as anxiety, abuse, depression, and a genuine sympathy for the lower class and blue collar worker. Night in the Woods doesn’t look down on these types of people, it instead introduces players to their world and their very real issues.
I consider myself a liberal person, or whatever that word means in 2017. Sometimes in conversations online and in-person I hear folks undermine the troubles of people who live in the rural heartland of the United States. I also hear folks undermine the plight of many foreign language speaking American immigrants.
“Just get a new job,” they say.
“If you want to live in this country, learn how to speak English,” they say.
But it isn’t that simple.
There’s a specific moment in Night in the Woods, one that has stuck with me and speaks to what I mentioned earlier. One where Mae is hanging out with her alligator friend named Bae. Mae and Bae hung out together when they were younger, but Bae stayed in Possum Springs and was given a lot of responsibility with her family’s business once Mae left because her mother died and her father became sick. Bae now feels trapped in this town and she desperately wants to leave. In this specific moment, after Bae has vented to Mae about how she hates her life, Mae and the player are given a dialogue choice. Both choices pretty much amount to the same sentiment, probably because the developers wanted the player to experience this.
That sentiment is one along the lines of “just leave.”
“If things are so bad, just run away and start a new life.”
Bae then proceeds to lose her mind on Mae and threatens to punch her in the face.
Why? Because the former coal miner can’t just find a new job because there are no jobs in his small town. The immigrant can’t take the time to learn a new language because they are too busy working a full-time and a part-time job in order to feed their family. Bae can’t just get up and leave because if she does her sick father would have to take over the business, which he physically cannot do because he is ill. Oh, and he also probably doesn’t have health insurance. Her family would lose everything.
Night in the Woods approaches this issue in a manner that’s not black and white. It’s compassionate. I honestly can’t think of many other games that even approach this issue, let alone make it a core to what the game’s identity is and manage to do it so successfully.
Night in the Woods is a beautiful and complicated coming of age tale starring cute animals who live in a town that resembles many unpopular corners of the United States. There are plenty of instances where it loses speed and can even be frustrating, but the moments where it’s great make it a memorable adventure. I haven’t even seen it all. As it’s very difficult and maybe even impossible to meet every person in Possum Springs and experience every instance in one playthrough, but I look forward to returning to that town when I’m ready and I have some fond memories until then.