Night in the Woods is an adventure game for millennials who shrug at Hot Topic

Is this mainstream or hipster? I can’t decide!

When I wrote about a non-hipster walking simulator for Cliffy B just before PAX, I had no idea there was already a game that was basically that, only it’s 2D and features colorful animals. 

Night in the Woods is a colorful adventure game about a 20-year-old cat named Mae that just moved to her parents’ place after dropping out of college. Mae hopes to reconnect with her old friends and the city she left behind, but quickly finds that nothing stays the same, even after only a couple of short years.

The demo I played for Night in the Woods was easily the longest one on the PAX East show floor, though I wouldn’t say that is a good thing. The first half of my time with the game felt very focused on introducing characters and the town, establishing relationships, and engaging conversations; it felt tight, well written and developed. The second half, however, was spent wandering one small strip of a shopping mall, getting lost and stumbling around until I knew what to do, stalling the narrative.

You wake up with a gnarly hangover from a party the night before. You go downstairs and talk to your mom a bit, before heading out to hang out with some old friends you used to be in a band with. Along the way, Mae can talk to townsfolk to gain a bit of knowledge about them or the city in general. One character discussed how he lost his job and how the job market in town was bad, which is not a typical narrative or topic I’m used to seeing in games but one I can certainly appreciate. 

Eventually, you run into your friends and decide to have band practice. During this, you get to play a simple Rock Band-like minigame that has the characters strumming and singing on the sides of the screen. The mini-game was a welcome break from everything up to that point, which had just been walking and talking. While that’s not inherently bad, it can get a bit dull without something exciting to break it up. 

Then came the mall scene. In the mall, you and your friend go to a store that is the game’s version of the teen-angsty, punk rock/goth/geeky store Hot Topic. For one reason or another, Mae decides to steal an item, which plays out in first-person scene where you have to slowly move her paw while paying careful attention to the store attendant’s eyes.This scene might have been interesting had the AI of the attendant not just been a short looping sequence. It felt boring, which is the complete opposite I imagine one would feel while shoplifting.

Before and after this minigame, the characters scoff at the store and how they used to shop there. Realistic, I’d imagine, for most people who shopped at Hot Topic in their teenage years. It’s certainly true for me, although I do still get gaming swag there sometimes…

After their stealing spree, the characters walk around the mall a bit more, just discussing their pasts or the current state of the mall, but nothing all that important. There is no direct indication of goals, meaning a lot my time was spent walking around trying to find what to do to advance the game. Eventually, I figured out I was supposed to scale an art exhibit and pull a lever to spray passing strangers via a fish fountain. After spraying stranger for what felt like forever, the demo finally ended.

Since I had waited in line for some time, I knew there was content I had missed, but I didn’t regret that. For example, there was a mini-game where Mae swung a baseball bat at old light bulbs, shattering them as her friend threw them towards her. Like the fountain mini-game I played, this one seemed to outstay its welcome.

This brings me to the root of the problem with Night in the Woods: it just lets things drag on a bit too long and could use a bit of tightening up. I have to wonder if the developer is afraid it will be too short without the time-consuming minigames? I certainly hope that isn’t the case, but it is something that can be fixed up before release.

That isn’t to say that Night in the Woods is bad. The art style is beautiful, with bright colors and adorable personified animals, and was easily one of the best looking games on the PAX East show floor. Many attendees audibly remarked such as they passed by while I was playing. The dialogue was mostly on point; characters talked like many people in their 20s who feel lost and confused as to what to do with their lives. Mae’s story specifically was extremely relatable to me personally (although I’ve never shoplifted from a Hot Topic). For a world that looks so different, it certainly felt a lot like home to me. 

While I’m concerned that Night in the Woods could potentially end up being all style and no substance, I’m not ready to completely write it off just yet, as there is plenty here to love. We’ll find out if Night in the Woods is as fantastic as I think it could be when it releases on PC sometime in Fall 2016.

Jed Whitaker