Small towns and big emotions
I’m not sure how to describe Night in the Woods. Even after playing through the game twice, every attempt at defining it feels wrong. I want to say it’s a silly 2D platformer almost as much as I think it’s a soulful adventure game. Other times, I’m convinced that I should just declare that it’s a slice-of-life game with a supernatural tint — whatever that means.
But my difficulty summing up Night in the Woods doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot to say about it. Despite being a relatively short game, it’s packed with moments that have rattled around in my head for the last month. What begins as a basic coming-of-age story about a twenty-year-old cat lady (in the anthropomorphic sense, not the depressing neighbor kind), builds and builds into something larger, all while taking place in a single, sleepy little town. Night in the Woods is intimate and charming, whimsical and occasionally heartbreaking. It’s also one of the most enjoyable games I’ve played in a long time.
Night in the Woods [PS4 (reviewed), PC]
Developer: Infinite Fall
Released: February 21, 2017
At its core, Night in the Woods is a story about Mae Borowski and the town of Possum Springs. Mae’s twenty, directionless, and a recent college dropout. After calling it quits at school, Mae catches a bus back to her hometown. She’s tired of struggling away from home, and at least as far as she’s concerned, moving back into her parent’s place is an easy way to start over.
Mostly, starting over means reconnecting with the people and places that defined her youth. After a short introductory sequence — which has Mae stumbling across Possum Spring’s outskirts after her parents forget to pick her up from the bus station — Night in the Woods eases back on the direct narration and encourages players to wander around town. Possum Springs is a bit worse for the wear since Mae left for school; the mining industry has gone bust and businesses have shuttered, but it’s still an interesting location to explore. The bulk of the game revolves around Mae’s lazy routine: wake up in the afternoon, say hi to mom, hop around town, and spend the evening bullshitting with your friends. It sounds simple, and it occasionally feels repetitive, but Possum Springs and its inhabitants draw you in more than they push you away.
Exploration and conversation define the first half of Night in the Woods. There’s no shortage of small talk to be made with townsfolk, and Possum Spring’s architecture holds a surprising amount of secrets to uncover. Each day, characters have new dialogue, and specific residents — like the horror-obsessed teen Lori and Mae’s doting mother — have unique vignettes that unlock should players spend the time fostering Mae’s relationship with them.
The tidbits of folksy gossip and local myths shared by Possum Springs locals are engaging and often kind of hilarious. Despite the fact that every character is some animal, they speak like real people; ramblings about a kid who got electrocuted by a powerline are as common as meek admissions of economic anxiety. Possum Springs certainly isn’t a real place, but anyone who has ever lived in a small town will recognize the blend of malaise and offbeat insight that colors most conversations. It makes even the most trivial chat feel as though it’s somehow larger than life. There’s authenticity within Night in the Woods‘ fiction, especially when it comes to the clunky, fragile humanity that defines us.
But while the tertiary characters and small-town exploration make for a charming way to pass the time, it’s Mae’s relationship with her three best friends that keep the game afloat. To advance the critical path, Mae picks a friend and spends the evening with them. There’s Gregg, an erratic punk who is Mae’s partner in literal “crimes”; Bea, a moody goth shackled to her family business following her mother’s death; and Angus, an affable computer nerd, and Gregg’s boyfriend. Like Mae, they’re all quirky and kind of weird: a fellowship of friends tied together by a shared existence in a dead-end town. Also, they play in a band that rehearses but never performs live shows. Who hasn’t been in one of those before?
During the nightly hang-out sessions, Night in the Woods dives into its characters’ interior lives. Gregg, Bea, and Angus are all at a very different place in life compared to Mae. They share a bond, of course, but many of these character-driven scenes show how much Mae’s friends have grown in her absence. Each vignette adds emotional depth to the characters, often at the expense of showing how naive Mae’s view of the world is. Bea, for example, is forced to give up her dreams of going to college to run the Ol’ Pickaxe general store. Bea’s earnest desire for a college education clashes with Mae’s seeming indifference towards school, adding a layer of friction between the two. Following Bea’s story arc weaves discussions of responsibility and duty with scenes of two old friends salvaging their relationship. It’s a punch to the gut, at times, to see just how narrow-minded Mae can be compared to her oldest friends. But it’s for a good reason, as it allows Mae room to grow as the story progresses.
And boy does the story progress. After a few hours of listless wandering, Night in the Woods picks up steam and never lets go. Mae begins having strange dreams. She sees ghosts and interacts with apparitions that might be gods from another universe. It seems like she’s going crazy for a bit until her friends agree to research her visions. From that point onward, the game shifts gears, tightening as it races towards a conclusion that blends supernatural elements with Possum Springs’ twisted history.
It’s around this point that Night in the Woods’ massive highs meet its nihilistic lows. Watching Mae’s mental state deteriorate pulls the game in a darker direction. Suddenly, every off-hand remark about existence and life in general — lines that once seemed like innocuous quips — take on a new meaning. Night in the Woods asks pointed and philosophical questions during its last hour or two. It’s a major change of pace, but it’s not one that feels unearned. Paying close attention to previous events and snippets of dialogue alludes to the insidious nature of the game’s final act. It’s a crescendo of sorts, albeit one that sounds much foreboding than anything that preceded it.
Ultimately, the tonal change highlights what makes Night in the Woods work. The contrast between the first two acts’ whimsy and the final third’s bleak outlook reinforces a lot of what the game’s been building towards. Mae, for all of her insecurities, finally grows by leaning into change. She accepts that sometimes bad things happen and comes to grips with her own issues by acknowledging them. It’s the small stuff — her relationships with Gregg and company, as well as the charms of her hometown — that she can hang on to.
All of this — the unique pieces that make up Night in the Woods — goes back to why it’s so damn hard to define the game. There isn’t an adequate term for titles that blend clunky platforming with choose-you-own-adventure friendship simulators. Nor is there a word to describe games that feature knife-fighting minigames and Guitar Hero-inspired band practices. But, again, maybe that’s a big part of Night in the Woods‘ appeal. It’s a confident outsider, and one that takes pleasure is celebrating the weird ways that everything comes together in life.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]