“Everything sucks forever.”
Don’t be mistaken by its delightful presentation, Night in the Woods is a game whose aesthetic frequently contradicts its tone. It’s a story about reminiscing on unfulfilled dreams and the reality of disparate circumstances. It’s about the exploration of identity through past friendships, and the monumental gaps between generational ideologies. It’s about other stuff too. Weird, creepy, not altogether lucid, stuff.
In fact, there’s an awful lot to parse while playing Night in the Woods, a lot of themes being wrangled together under the guise of a children’s pop-up book. If there’s one thing that it does best, without question, is expertly craft a very habitable world, and throws in a cast of sincere, lovable characters to bobble around inside of it. It’s just too bad that it ends up losing some of its charm when you actually have to sit there and play the thing.
You follow the hijinks of a dingy cat named Mae, a 20-year old self-indulgent, highly uncontrollable college drop-out. Having just returned to her hometown of Possum Springs, with seemingly no goals or plans, she reunites with her troubled family, and tries to rekindle more than a few long since ignored friendships. Some relationships turn out to be colder than others, and as the weather turns in kind, Mae finds herself hearkening back to the good old days of her town; which has by now lost all of its industrial mining business, and exists only as an ever-dwindling shadow.
As I’ve mentioned, Night in the Woods is quite good at establishing its all too familiar setting. From the backwood mountain trails to the quasi abandoned railways, there’s a wide area to explore inside the city; though most of your adventures require some advancement of the story proper through special events. While hopping around on your tiny cat feet, you may stumble across new town residents or hidden caches of Possum Spring lore. You definitely get the sense that the town is struggling, as more businesses shutter their windows and once esteemed hotspots are left decrepit or vandalized. There’s an air of loneliness that hangs about the place.
There are a handful of shops and restaurants crowded around the central town hub, which is where you’ll be spending most of your time, because it’s also where Mae’s best friends hang out. These are the freakazoids that you’ll be spending your time with. First there’s Bea, the cigarette huffing alligator with a chip on her shoulder and a partiality to cynicism. Next, we have Gregg, Mae’s caffeine-riddled partner in crime. Lots of real crime. Knife crime. Finally, there’s Angus, the sweater toting teddy bear with a heart of gold, lungs made of tissue, and has an interest in computers.
Chances are that you’ll attach yourself to one of these characters and try to spoon gobs of information out of them like hair ridden scoops of ice cream. You see, you only have an unspecified number of days before the story ends, and on most days, you’ll have to decide with whom to spend your evenings. Choose to go biking with Gregg, for example, and you’ll miss out on that sweet trip to the mall with Bae. So, you’ll have to decide which of them will become your truest of friends. It’s like the Sophie’s Choice of anthropomorphic animal people.
Spending an afternoon with one of your pals will unveil more of that character’s relation to Mae, their interests, and their deep seeded troubles. While there’s plenty of humor in the writing, this isn’t really a feel-good type of game, and it doesn’t shy away from heavy issues like depression, anxiety, and child abuse. It’s a story about coping with very real world personal problems…problems that might hit close to home for some players. But that’s okay. You’re living through these character’s experiences with them, seeing them develop as young adults, and watching them emerge, not unscathed, but all the wiser for it. It’s engrossing, and often cathartic.
I’ve been talking a lot about the game’s narrative and characters so far, because that’s the definite draw to Night in the Woods. Aside from a few mini-games sprinkled throughout the story (though all of them are cheeky good fun) there isn’t a lot going on in Possum Springs. It’s an adventure game through and through, so you’ll be roaming around and chatting up the nearest antelope or mouse that catches your fancy, but not much outside of that. Your average day might look something like this:
- Walk up and down the street and talk to every resident for new dialogue and minutely interesting residential factoids.
- Choose one of your friends to hang out with that evening (If the evening hasn’t already been pre-scheduled).
- Gator dates (Primarily more dialogue).
This repetition can grow wearisome after the first few days, especially with how leisurely the story takes itself. Events are so ploddingly paced, with no forward motion happening for long periods of time. The witty banter of your four main miscreants is meant to keep you glued to the story like a fly on paper, and it does, but just barely. The game starts off strong with the promise of a nefarious mystery, but it isn’t until significantly later that you ever see the fruits of it. There’s something to be said about building up the drama in your story, but it just feels a bit too stagnated at times.
There are also some miserably dull dream sequences that force you to platform around, finding a handful of towers before being flung back into the waking world. The music in these sections is clever, each instrument in the symphony being activated once you discover them. But Jiminy Cricket did these sections get old fast. By the end, it seemed like they were meant to be of greater significance to the story, and maybe they were, but all I could see were the 10 minute intervals of busywork to tide me over until the next narrative development.
Night in the Woods is a situation in which I might have preferred to read about the adventures of these characters rather than have to control them (or maybe just remove some dream sequences and we’ll call it square). It feels like two different games forced to live together; one a thought-provoking drama, the other a middling platformer. Everything about the writing is absolutely laudable; it’s clever and poignant, even if it tries a little too hard to be cutesy at times. During my time playing, more than a few laughs disrupted my usually austere complexion, and I’ll find it difficult to avoid quoting some of Mae’s more outrageous watchwords. Let’s be honest, I adore the eye-catching construction paper cut-outs Night in the Woods coerces me into calling my friends…through the good, and the bad.
Written by R.C. Simcoe