Searching for hope in between the stars.
I’m a known defender of what commonly get called “walking simulators.” I think that it’s perfectly valid to not be into a game solely centered around story if that’s not your cup of tea, but less valid to act as though that’s the only possible perspective that’s worth anyone’s while. The “walking simulator,” for lack of a better term, has quickly become a genuine genre in its own regard, from the quintessential Gone Home to more abstract entries such as The Stanley Parable and The Beginner’s Guide. As such, I want to put it out there that, just like with any other genre, a lot of how I’m choosing to evaluate Night in the Woods comes from how well it does within the newly-forming genre in which it finds itself. If you expected the type of review that might tear this adventure apart for being light on actual gameplay, I hate to disappoint, but I plan to lodge what I see as the most fair critique possible, Night in the Woods is a story-first experience, and one of the most utterly moving ones I can say I’ve experienced.
Night in the Woods stars Mae Borowski, a 20-year-old college dropout (and, yes, cat) returning to her hometown of Possum Springs for the first time since leaving for college in the first place. Mae’s reasons for returning are foggy at first, taking a back seat to her efforts to reconnect to her friends, family, and neighbors, as she gets a look at just how much her economically-strapped rust belt home has changed in her time away. The harsh reality walking the autumnal streets in front of her is that things have changed. The first half or so of the game is largely dominated by a series of days spent catching up with figures from Mae’s past, from her childhood best friend Gregg and his boyfriend Angus to the distant and quietly grim Bea. The town around her suffers from local businesses shutting down and people having to make do with lower and lower quality career options.
There’s a ton of great characters in the town, and through their tidbits of backstory, they feel like people I’ve met in real life; front porch poet Selmers, the washed-up pastor at the local church, the whole bunch. It also sunk in for me, as someone currently going to school in a town much like the one Night in the Woods mirrors. It’s quite something to play a leg of the game where Mae finds out the local Italian restaurant is closing to her utter dismay, and to then turn off my console and go to a meeting of my college newspaper where we have to discuss writing an article about the landmark hobby shop in town closing its doors after 25 years. For a world filled with cartoon animal characters, Night in the Woods is actually one of the most stark, realistic depictions of a non-landmark city part of America I’ve seen in a game.
Dialogue choices are a big part of how we learn about Mae as a character. Just about anytime, every possible option is just as full of humor or tension, bleakness or joy as the next. In fact, there are a few points where dialogue choice is used in outside-the-box ways that stick in my mind as really noteworthy. One comes when she and another character are questioned about their most embarrassing memory. The three options that come up are lead-ins to three stories from completely different points in Mae’s life, all of them equal parts revelatory, entertaining, and kind of tragic. The other one comes at a point earlier on in the game, where the character faces herself in the mirror. The player is given different dialogue choices for parts of her internal monologue as she prepares to go out. The catch is that all of the choices given are either personal self-jabs and criticisms Mae lobs at what she sees in her reflection, or else futile attempts to feel better about herself. It’s a brutal moment wherein having no “right choices” is not only effective; it really hurts. Mae’s narrative is, in part, a complex story of dealing with depression. At some points this comes in almost full-on metaphysical ways, but at points like this it’s fittingly stark and literal.
Night in the Woods also sports a handful of WarioWare-ish minigames to vary things up. Mae has a known history as a childhood criminal, so what better way to introduce shoplifting than interactivity? The same goes for a knife fight in the woods, a bathroom-destroying personal crisis, and plenty of other unique moments. The game’s smallest moments like these are just as memorable as the bigger ones. One frustrating part comes when Mae and her friends decide to get the old band back together and play a number. Each time the characters organize for band practice, the player has to stumble through a sort of poor man’s Guitar Hero number, all of which are probably the game’s weakest and most stressful points.
Dialogue choices and options of who to spend different days with can lead Mae on any combination of different adventures, but all paths eventually lead back to bed for the night. Starting an hour or two in, this is where a whole other part of Night in the Woods opens up, as Mae begins having bizarre dreams that pester her through the night and leave her restless. This more ambient, starlit part of the game’s progression evolves in a series of platforming puzzles, focused around finding certain characters hidden increasingly well in the environment. Use of limited color and abstract visuals make navigating these nighttime obscure-o-scapes a fun challenge, and the one place where the more traditional gameplay of Night in the Woods shines through.
What really makes Night in the Woods special, though, stays consistent throughout most of its four acts and 8-ish hours of play time. There’s a point in the game where Mae is confronted with the guilt of having dropped out despite knowing that her parents worked hard for her be where she is. This is all with the backdrop of Possum Springs as a town in economic decline, as people are losing their jobs and the young are either skipping town or saving up to. There’s another moment when Mae wanders down into the old underground ferry station in the middle of town, and talks to some local teens. The conversation is like one anyone either has experienced, or one day will; that of trying to connect with someone not that much younger than you, and yet a world away.
It’s that last point, I think, that defines Night in the Woods at season’s end. It reminds me of the film The Graduate. 1967 classic film, and for good reason. The Graduate is essentially all about what it’s like to have just graduated college, only to be bombarded with everyone’s expectations of your future, to the point where you have no space to breathe and think on that future for yourself. It’s about someone who spends so much time having questions asked about him that he doesn’t have time to think of answers, or ask questions of his own other than “what do I do?” Night in the Woods stars a dropout as opposed to a graduate, and has a fair amount more to do with outgrowing childhood nostalgia, but in many ways, it serves the same kind of purpose. Night in the Woods is about a character who, despite having felt drawn back to her home, is adrift. The story’s latter half takes a more supernatural turn, culminating in what is ultimately a more out-there but still close-to-home version of the same scenario; if only I could get more specific, but detail begets spoilers.
Night in the Woods is a story for an audience around the ages of its main characters. Whether you’re a college dropout like Mae, a recent graduate or an imminent one such as myself, or someone fresh to college, or anticipating starting soon, this is a narrative for you. Night in the Woods shows us just how turbulent the struggle is to find personal agency when, by pure virtue of ones own age and status in the world around them, they are constantly shunned or put down for not meeting the expectations of others. No, it’s not fair to Mae’s parents to have worked for their daughter to go to college only for her to not actually want what she’s been given. No, it’s not easy for her to admit that things didn’t work out, or to accept that her friends have moved on without her in a lot of ways. It’s not easy to be shown how small you are in the grand scheme of things, whether as a student, a kid, a parent, a teacher, or something dark and sinister lurking at the edge of town. But it is real. I’ve lived it. I’ve seen others live it too. We all have.
And in that way, with only the occasional hiccup caused by gameplay-centric flaws, Night in the Woods succeeds over and over and over again at what it sets out to do. It’s okay to not have all the answers; Night in the Woods reminds us that leaving room to question things also gives us room to grow.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PS4 (Reviewed), PC; Publisher: Finji; Developer: Alec Holowka, Infinite Fall; Players: 1; Released: February 21, 2017 ; MSRP: $19.99
Full Disclosure: This review was based on a PS4 copy of Night in the Woods purchased by HeyPoorPlayer.