Night in the Woods by Infinite Fall
Night in the Woods came out near the beginning of the year, but its influence and relevance is still growing – the game’s protagonist even showed up in a recent Taylor Swift commercial. Between its cartoonish yet evocative art style, wonderfully drawn characters and a storyline that somehow slips Lovecraftian mystery into a story about friends coming of age in economically depressed small-town America, Night in the Woods is the video game equivalent to Stephen King’s very au currant It – a horror story about growing up that’s as much about its setting and its characters as its plot.
The Write Stuff
An adventure game with heavy focus on narrative, Night in the Woods is the story of Mae Borowski, a college drop-out returning to her home town of Possum Springs and reconnecting with her high school friends, hyperactive vandal and Mae’s “number one crimefriend” Gregg, his more reserved boyfriend Angus, and goth girl Bea. All three are working low-wage retail jobs; Gregg and Angus hope to save enough to move to a bigger city, while Bea has taken over running her father’s hardware store.
Through the characters’ interactions and some dialogue that excels at both poignancy and humor (often at the same time), players learn about Mae and her friends’ history together as well as their individual struggles, from issues with mental illness and child abuse to current financial problems. In lesser hands this would be unrelentingly dreary, but between band practices, pizza and parties in the forest, Night in the Woods depicts the full emotional spectrum of its characters’ lives.
Supporting characters are equally well-drawn, from Lori – a high school kid with an interest in horror movies – to Pastor K., a minister with a strong sense of social justice. Particularly memorable are Mae’s father, who makes preciously believable “dad jokes,” and her mother, who is kind and tries her best to understand her daughter but doesn’t always succeed. A mid-game fight between Mae and her mother at the family breakfast table is one of the game’s most heart-wrenching moments.
The Shadow over Possum Springs (or the Mallard’s Tomb Horror)
While the dominant narrative thread involves the characters’ struggles to define themselves as adults – and, in a broader sense, to find a sense of meaning in life in general – economic anxiety and the decline of the Midwest manufacturing town are significant underlying themes. Possum Springs started as a mining town, but now the mines and factories alike are closed.
As players explore both the history and current state of the town, the decline of the middle class and the mistreatment of workers become a repeated refrain (unsurprising considering that both the game’s writer, Bethany Hockenberry, and lead artist Scott Benson are outspoken leftists). Even the late game introduction of more overt horror elements – without giving away spoilers – can be ultimately seen as caused by economic terrors rather than supernatural ones.
Similarly, Mae’s own declining mental state, caused by dreams and her increasing sense of some sort of evil goings-on in the town – she believes it to be a ghost, though her friends and family are understandably skeptical – occur in parallel with her growing awareness of her own family’s financial issues.
A Game of Cat and Mouse (and Fox and Bear and Crocodile)
A word about the art style: the characters are all drawn as anthropomorphic animals. Mae and her family are cats, Gregg a fox, Angus a bear and Bea a crocodile. And the art is brilliant – Benson’s character designs and their impact on the game’s emotional resonance can’t be overstated. Simple but very much “alive,” the way the simple shift in the curlicue of Mae’s mouth – or the way Gregg waves his arms like overcooked noodles when he’s excited – evoke the characters’ emotional states perfectly.
And yet, this isn’t a game about anthropomorphic animals. Mae isn’t a cat – the fact that her father calls her “Kitten” as a pet name aside – and Gregg isn’t a fox. They’re people that happen to be drawn a certain way. A comparison could be made to Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus, but even that made more direct use of animals as visual metaphor, with Nazis depicted as cats and their Jewish victims as mice.
Regardless of their thematic relevance, the character designs are stunning, as are the backgrounds of Possum Springs. Subtle shifts – leaves changing, autumn decorations showing up, the first flurries of snow as winter nears – beautifully evoke the seasons and depict the slow but cyclically changing rhythm of small-town life. And lead programmer Alec Holowka’s jazzy, understated chiptune soundtrack adds to the muted colors to further evoke Possum Springs as a place both living and lived-in.
So Little Time and So Much to Do
With its emphasis on narrative elements, Night in the Woods could very well have ended up as a story on rails, a “walking simulator,” and indeed the main storyline unfolds in a fairly predetermined fashion, though player choice does impact how much of each supporting character’s story is revealed.
It’s to the developers’ credit, though, that in a game so dependent on dialogue and storyline that there are as many interactive elements as there are. Exploring the game’s basic platforming mechanics – and the animations and sound effects make Mae’s running and jumping a treat – leads to lots of unexpected secrets and characters.
Night in the Woods is also loaded with more traditional mini-games, including a Guitar Hero rhythm game during band practice. Her laptop even has a complete 10-level dungeon crawler that comes off like The Legend of Zelda if Hidetaka Miyazaki had designed it.
I Want to Go into that Good Night (Again and Again)
The game elements aren’t the main reason to play it, though. It’s the people. As soon as I finished it, I was ready to play again just to learn more about the people I hadn’t spent enough time with. And while Infinite Fall has made a couple of short tie-in games – Longest Night and Lost Constellation – available on Itch.io, it’s not enough.
I want more of all of the characters. I want to know what happens to Gregg and Angus. I want to know how Mae’s parents met. I want to see the mall in Fort Lucenne back before all the stores were closed. I want to meet Mae’s granddad when he was still alive and find out why he loved ghost stories.
It’s the mark of something’s impact – whether that something is a book or a game or an album or whatever – that it leaves you yearning for more, and I can’t remember the last time a game has left me with that feeling as strongly as Night in the Woods.
Night in the Woods is available via the PlayStation Store and Steam.
Watch the official trailer for Night in the Woods below: