NIGHT IN THE WOODS ON STEAM
Everyone will relate to a character in Night in the Woods, whether that be to the excitable best friend, the concerned parents, the small town of Possum Springs that is struggling to keep up with modern times, or something else. Through the beautiful design, excellent writing, and fascinating characters, Infinite Fall’s game perfectly captures the struggles of finding a place in the world as an adult and the people that can make everything feel so much better.
Night in the Woods tells the story of Mae Borowski, a 20 year old cat that has dropped out of college and returned to her home town to work out where her life is going. The mining town and its inhabitants are facing economic hardship and the realities of work and responsibilities. In the meantime, Mae sleeps until the afternoon, talks to her friends and wanders the streets during the day, and at night she is transported to a supernatural world in her dreams.
Being Mae is what Night in the Woods is about. You’ll read the phrase “hang out” in almost every scene – whether that means to wait or to simply spend time with people – because that is what you spend your time doing. Mae’s friends (Gregg, Bea, and Angus) have jobs, people to care for, and bills to pay yet Mae’s toughest decision is deciding who to spend time with each day. You and one of Mae’s friends do all kinds of things from stealing belt-buckles at the mall to fixing an old lady’s boiler. That may all seem like a tedious way to spend your time but getting to know the characters, and more about Mae herself, is what makes Night in the Woods so special.
Told through text alone, each character has their own story. Even though they’re 2D animals, they sound like real people, with detailed personalities and a vast array of issues. The pace at which the text is displayed is spot-on and the pauses and stutters add emotion to the particularly personal moments. You can feel the characters changing over the course of the game, as they begin to react to situations differently and form noticeably stronger relationships.
As Mae, you choose who to spend the day with, developing her friendship with that character. With Gregg, Mae’s childhood best friend, you go off on adventures just as the two of them did as kids. With Angus, Gregg’s boyfriend, you learn about his troubled childhood and what Gregg is like away from his friends. Mae’s relationship with Bea is different, however. They do not get along as well, so spending time with her is an attempt to rebuild the friendship. Bea was my choice for most of my play through. I saw a blossoming relationship that I wanted to follow. I also saw a chance to distract Bea from her difficult life and the sarcastic quips the two threw at each other were wonderful. It did mean that I lost out on spending time with the other two, which is something I can do in repeat playthroughs, but I followed Bea’s story through to the end and what I saw was at times hilarious and at times devastating.
The little moments are what make Night in the Woods so special. Whether they be the conversations with Mom and Dad each day, the arguments between Mae and Aunt Mall Cop, or the times you learn about the horrible things that have happened to the inhabitants of Possum Springs while Mae has been at college. The balance between amusing and heart-breaking moments is perfect. Although all the characters can be funny at times, Night in the Woods covers some dark subjects. Townspeople have money problems, cancer has ripped families apart, and depression is a theme that runs throughout the main story and many of the smaller ones. However, none of it feels out of place in the colorful world of talking animals. The fact that each personal story feels believable and evokes an emotional reaction in such an unconventional world is another testament to the fantastic writing.
You also begin to genuinely care about Mae as you learn about her family and the anxieties of adolescence she has been dealing with. At first she comes across as a jerk who is unwilling to accept the responsibilities of being an adult. She won’t explain why she dropped out of college and refuses to get a job, frustrating her friends and family in the process. However, through her conversations with her parents and friends, as well as through moments she spends alone, we begin to learn why she acts the way she does and her constant sarcasm makes her more endearing. She’s a fully-realized character, with a detailed past, secrets, and psychological issues, making her someone you feel like you know after just six hours.
Aside from the wonderful side stories, there is also a main story that is told over the four main chapters of Night in the Woods. Possum Springs used to be a mining town but the work has dried up, the town is being re-vamped, and sinkholes are engulfing people’s houses. Each night, Mae dreams of a dark world inhabited by giant creatures with deep whispering voices, presented in short platforming levels, which crop up slightly too often, in which you have to find four musicians. As Mae discovers more about her ever changing town, she learns that what she has been seeing may have something to do with town’s problems and the mysterious people that live there.
The mystery is interesting and gives the game more of a purpose than the small personal interactions, but pacing is slightly off. The majority of the main story is told in the third and fourth chapters and the final reveal is given very little build up, making it feel rushed. It is an interesting ending, and one I certainly didn’t anticipate, but the way in which it is told removes the emotional impact is should have had.
The Saturday morning cartoon art style is also beautiful. Set in fall, the bright oranges and darker browns of the setting sun, the fallen leaves, and lively wildlife make up most of Possum Springs. The dark purple of the night-time sequences make those scenes seem menacing and mysterious. There are also cute little touches such as the dust that plumes as Mae runs around, and the unique characters designs, that make Night in the Woods a lovely piece of art.
However, talking and observing is not all you do in Night in the Woods. There are other gameplay elements weaved into the story, each of which are wildly different. You’ll play bass in your band with a Guitar Hero style rhythm game. You’ll also have knife fights, steal things, smash light-bulbs, and play a long and challenging dungeon crawler called ‘Demontower’ on Mae’s laptop. Each day’s activity has its own mini game and while not all of them work perfectly, and some of them feel like they have been added to simply make the game longer, they add much needed respite in some of the more depressing scenes.
While Night in the Woods does have the platforming and exploration elements that you would expect from a 2D adventure game, it is first and foremost a game about conversation and listening. The detailed characters and excellent writing tell stories that can be hilarious and heartbreaking and, as Mae, you develop some relationships with people you truly care about. The conversations and little moments that come from hanging out with friends are what make Night in the Woods such a special experience.
Score: 4.5/5 – Great