Night in the Woods Review
A highly relevant and engaging setting overcomes the lack of meaningful interaction
I think it’s hard to get a handle on Night in the Woods and that’s what I love about it. Designed by the trio of Alec Holowka, Scott Benson, and Bethany Hockenberry, this intimate examination of rural decay and its effects on those who are left behind is a game with plenty to say - and that counts for a lot with me. Visually engaging and well-written, this is a game that begs for the player to bring their own perspective and ideas to the table. It intelligently uses pacing that bucks conventional structure to develop relationships and give the story a slice-of-life feeling. Even when things start going crazy in the final chapter, with what initially appears to be an other-worldly plot point, the narrative throws in another twist and ties the narrative back to the game’s central themes. It’s smart and creative, and... well, I’m not entirely sure there’s all that much to do while you’re playing it. I also think that’s kind of the point.
Players assume the role of Mae Borowski, a college dropout and self-insert character for an entire generation of directionless millennials who aren’t quite sure what they’re supposed to be doing with their lives. Mae returns to her hometown of Possum Springs, after a couple years of college soul-searching has left her disenfranchised with higher education, if not with most societal structures. Thus, she attempts to rekindle the long dormant friendships of her youth, hoping to find a sense of belonging in a world she left behind after a violent high school episode left her marked as a social pariah. I think it’s safe to say we’ve all known a “Mae”, or maybe even have had first-hand experience with her socially awkward attempts at reconstructing the familiar comforts of her youth.
There’s a lot that I liked about the writing in Night in the Woods - which is good because there’s a lot of writing - but Mae was easily the high point. She’s hopelessly flawed and equally good natured. You watch as she tries to help her friends, and also watch while she wildly self-destructs time and again. At times she is pathetic and you want to shake some sense into her, other times you think that she might have life all figured out. She feels human - which is a weird thing to say about an anthropomorphic cat.
In addition to the writing, small animation touches help bring Mae - and her colorful casts of friends - to life. Night in the Woods is filled with little nuances that add flavor to the world. Even something as small as Mae’s cat ears involuntarily twitching, or the way leaves kick up as you walk down the street, or how Mae puts her arms out to balance while tight-rope walking on telephone lines - they all add up to give the game a more realized world.
That feeling is carried over into the whole of Possum Springs. A rural town filled with humanoid alligators, bears, cats, foxes, raccoons, and deer - it feels like a setting in Zootopia that was cut because it was depressing and boring. It’s a quiet community, and like most rural towns located miles from an urban center, very little seems to happen. The setting helps make Mae’s rebellious nature feel more good willed; her minor crimes of vandalism and trespassing seem inevitable in Possum Springs because what the hell else are you supposed to do?
This ties in well with the gameplay. Again, the frustrating element of Night in the Woods is that while the world feels lived in and realized, there’s painfully little to do in it. Though this seems like a deliberate design choice. The lack of action makes little discoveries like a den of mice in a decommissioned parade float feel on par with Nathan Drake’s discovery of lost civilizations. The town’s mundane atmosphere makes stories of divorce and drug abuse feel as interesting as the legend of the Dovahkiin.
The reason why Possum Springs feels like a ghost town has to do with narrative undercurrent involving rural decay. The game constantly reminds you that Possum Springs used to be a flourishing safe-haven for god-fearing, blue collar families, but modern times have caused it to lose much of the industrial life that once made it great. Industrial jobs such as coal mining and glassmaking have moved on, and gone are the businesses and commercial staples that had provided additional work for the town. Now, Possum Springs feels like a relic, something that has been forgotten - and its residents carry that weight with them. Without getting too much into spoilers, the subplot of Possum Springs ends up tying into the plot of Mae’s return in a surprising way. The game does a great job of giving you some red-herrings, attempting to get you wrapped up in some wild theories about the plot, only to back to a more meditative conclusion.
I don’t want you to think that’s there no gameplay in Night in the Woods, but I felt like I was more of an audience member than a participant. You mostly direct Mae through the beautiful decay of Possum Springs, investigating the little secrets and treasures the city holds - it’s a bit of a 2D walking simulator, though paced much faster. When you’re done exploring, you decide which of your friends you want to hang out with, play a small mini-game to simulate the chosen activity, and make some simple dialogue choices while spending time with them. After that, you return home for more dialogue with your mother and father, then check your online messages, and go to bed. It’s actually here, when Mae is asleep, that most of the gameplay can be found as Mae navigates her way through nightmare platforming sequences. They’re fun enough and the platforming is pretty well-tuned, but it’s hardly a distraction - there’s maybe three or four of these sequences and they don’t take long to solve.
These nightmare moments are also where the game has the most fun with its sound design. There’s a subtle and beautiful soundtrack that underscores much of your time with Night in the Woods, but in these nightmare sequences the score is pushed to the forefront as a ghostly quartet punctuate the surreal setting with jazzy tunes. The game also forgoes it’s surprisingly understated artistic tone for a swirl of blues and black accents with piercing reds and whites.
There are also times when the small mini-games that fill Night in the Woods become part of a larger narrative moment. My favorite was when Mae and her friend Bea went to the dilapidated local mall and Mae shot passers-by with the food court water fountain. The mini-game felt fun and mischievous, but Bea’s reaction was the reward that made me keep nailing suckers with blasts of water. I don’t think these mini-games always perfectly tie into the narrative, but when they did they certainly felt rewarding.
Night in the Woods is also a technically sound effort. The loading screens are wonderfully brief and I didn’t run into any technical hiccups while playing the game on the PC. It’s a small and simple game, so there’s little that will blow you away in the tech, but it runs as sturdy as they come.
I really liked Night in the Woods. I think it’s a strong first outing from this particular trio of developers. It’s rare to find video games that have so much to say and find such wonderful ways to say it. Mae Borowski is easily a front-runner for my favorite character of the year. She’s witty, charming, and hopeless - I think she perfectly embodies the frustrations of so many millennials and what is so frustrating about the millennial generation. There are moments when the game pulls all of its elements together to become something great, but sometimes it also feels empty and vapid - and while I think that’s intentional, it doesn’t always make the game engaging. Still, I have to recommend Night in the Woods because I think it’s a game that will move you - make you feel something - and sometimes that’s all games need to do.