On the morning of May 20, I sat in a white lawn chair, wearing a black and maroon cap and gown, and waiting for a stage in my life to end. I sat with friends, fellow students, complete strangers. There was about half a frat sitting together behind me, who acted as a MST3K-style riff narrative through the entire first hour of the ceremony. It was pretty great, honestly.
Through it all, I kept doing something I’ve been doing a lot since late February: thinking about Night in the Woods. I reviewed the indie project not long after it launched, and it just kept following me around. On that morning, I saw Mae Borowski in one of the Sophomores who stood, staying at the school to cheer on a graduating friend. After it was all over, I saw the town of Possum Springs in my tiny college stomping ground in northern New York. I just kept seeing it.
And as our featured graduation speaker, a sports writer whose motivational speech was far more powerful than my ability to remember his name, stood up on a stage in the sunlight of an abnormally warm late May day, I noticed a pattern. There was a theme to everything we were being told, by everyone who came up on stage, and every teacher whose hand I would shake after the ceremony had ended. Every one of them was determined to make graduation all about not endings, but beginnings. Meanwhile, the game whose cast of intensely human animal-folk had followed me around in my footsteps through most of the semester had all come from a story that, for a while, felt to me to be more about endings.
The true irony, I realized as I was shuffled into line to receive my diploma, was that the purposes of both the game and this day could be so easily flipped. Night in the Woods, despite starring a college dropout, is every bit as much about graduation as my actual damn graduation was. The tagline for Night in the Woods is “at the end of everything, hold on to anything,” but I found a different version in playing it: “at the end of everything, find the beginning of the next.”
Warning: spoilers for Night in the Woods lie ahead.
The idea of “graduation” is funny to me, because it so often gets seen as a purely academic thing. One graduates, ideally, to a higher and more complete level of knowledge. That’s the idea, anyway. Night in the Woods reminded me, on a snowy weekend a few months back, that “graduation” can mean more than what we most commonly think about. Really, the word at its core means a slow, step-by-step passing of change. One could even call that change, well, gradual.
Everyone in Night in the Woods is graduating from something. Some are more obvious. Poor Bea, as one of the Possum Springs teenagers to stay within the town’s cycle of life, is graduating from the grief caused by her mother’s passing. Protagonist Mae Borowski herself is graduating from her own disillusionment with the world around her, and her tendency to hide from herself. Gregg, Mae’s childhood best friend, is in a stage of graduating into commitment to another person. Angus, as his boyfriend, is obviously doing the same to some degree, but is also graduating from his own past. Hell, Angus is the graduation star of the whole thing.
The thing about the graduations that occur in Night in the Woods is that they are exactly that: gradual. Bea doesn’t have any gigantic, emotional arc of getting over the death of her mother, but we watch the small steps in how she interacts with others that could be part of that arc if the game took place over something like a year. We see Gregg learn to stabilize his confidence and self-worth relative to Angus, and we see Angus grow closer to others in general. Mae is our protagonist, and fulfills the protagonist prophecy of getting the most development, but even hers isn’t earth-shattering, not really. When Night in the Woods starts, we don’t know why she’s come home so suddenly. Neither does anyone else. Mae’s graduation, I think, actually happens right in the game’s epilogue, where she approaches her parents and declares herself to be ready to actually start talking about why she left, and what the future looks like. If anything, Mae is making the graduation from one thing’s abrupt end, and into another things beginning.
Night in the Woods helped me through my final semester of college because it made me realize that graduation isn’t about beginnings or endings at all. No matter how much the people on stage told us about the adventures we had yet to come, or how many of us looked around at friends and felt like our time together was drawing rapidly to a close, neither of those is actually what graduation is about. Graduation, like life in general, is about transitions. Night in the Woods is, too. And I’m sure that when Mae left town to start college, she thought everything was ending, too. When she left, she had nothing to hold onto, and so back she came. “At the end of everything, hold on to anything,” the refrain once again. Starting to see it yet?
Mae Borowski goes though a lot, both in the month of her life that we play, and what we learn about her journey before that. She put a kid in the hospital, and, as we eventually learn, she doesn’t even know why. She struggles with self-hatred, and a severe disassociation with reality. Her dreams haunt her, becoming increasingly bizarre the longer she stays in Possum Springs. Even so, she felt called to come back, and so back she came. By game’s end, there is no tearful realization of the true beauty of being yourself, or any kind of sudden break where she realizes that life is worth living. Not in any such blatant terms, and certainly not all at once. The larger transitions aren’t the point. If anything, the game’s last-act supernatural twist can be seen as the pressures of others to either accelerate those changes, or stop them altogether. Neither way makes anyone’s lives better, really.
It’s the tiny transitions that matter. The little changes that mass together in legion and become the large. Mae first arrives home, and immediately sees her friends growing up and moving on without her. By the end, though, the story is all about what can still unite them after so long. Nothing changes at once, after all. Only ever gradually. As Night in the Woods goes on, Mae gets used to the changes that have come in the lives of her loved ones, and manages to see what has stayed the same regardless.
To close this meandering mess of a piece, I guess I’ll say it like this. Whether you’re going through college, starting a new job, about to propose to your significant other, or any number of other things, sometimes life feels like nothing but giant leaps. But Night in the Woods reminded me that it’s really not. We all go through hundreds of tiny changes, all the time. When you feel like the wave of change coming your way is too much, remember that the graduation, the first day, the proposal is all the same as the new store down the street. All beginnings are endings, all endings are beginnings, and all things are transitions. The end of everything is just a torch passing out of your hands, freeing your hands up to hold on to anything.
At the end of everything, hold on to anything. That’s graduation, right there.