Mae Borowski’s journey in developer Infinite Fall’s Night in the Woods is one which every depressed and anxiety riddled 20 something from a small Midwestern town can relate to. Being trapped in a small town with no way out and not really understanding what you’re really planning to do with your life are crippling fears that I have come to know very well. Through Mae and her rag tag group of friends Night in the Woods treats these thoughts with a soft gentle touch that very few games can compete with. While its overarching narrative might be a little bit underwhelming, the connections I made with the animal inhabitants of Possum Springs will stick with me for long after I’ve put down the controller.
Night in the Woods begins with as simply as any other adventure game. A 20-year-old girl named Mae returning home after a semester off at college. However, within the first hour it does a fantastic job of putting you into the mind of its main cat-haracter and letting you see the town she grew up in through her eyes.
Possum Springs feels like any old, run of the mill, middle America town. With sparse autumn leaves rain soaked on the pavement of a closed down strip mall, Night in the Woods does a fantastic job of capturing exactly what the rust belt feels like at the end of October. The middle of town where I spent the most of my time just exploring instantly feels like home after one or two trips through it. It doesn’t fall into the spaced out, waypoint on a map trap that giant open world games get sucked into. In Possum Spring, a trip to the video store feels like a trip to the video store. I learned quickly which buildings were which, where my friends liked to hang out, what my neighbors did during the day and so on. All of these things made this small, dying town feel alive.
Mae’s friends consist of her old bandmates that feature a bear, fox and an alligator, all of whom, depending on the time spent with them, have complex and difficult problems going on in their own lives. Much in the style of Mass Effect 2, hanging out with each of them lets you see deeper into their emotional frailty, and through Mae, understand just what makes each one of them tick.
These hangouts consist mostly of dialogue options that explore emotionally tender moments with whomever you chose to hang out with. This dialogue options are also spliced together with cute, goofy mini-games that consist of Guitar Hero style bass playing and stealth shoplifting from your local Hot Topic. What might seem like silly encounters at first delves into real topics of depression, anxiety, self-doubt and emotional and physical abuse that culminate into intense conversations that left me wondering how I could relate so much to a talking alligator or why I wanted to give a bear with glasses a long hug.
Exploration doesn’t just refer to the environments either. Exploring your relationship with the mild manner Angus is just as twisting and turning as taking a walk down main street. Learning what you can from each of Mae’s three friends really opens up their personality in ways that might not seem obvious when you first meet them. This goes for some periphery characters as well, which I wished I had gotten to hear more about and whose lives were also extremely interesting in the short time I spent with them.
The overarching narrative that surround Night in the Woods isn’t as special as the characters that it uses to tell it. What is essentially a spooky ghost hunt turns a little too meta at times. With overly long, and elaborate platforming sequences that detract from what exactly is being said in the larger context of the mystery.
Pacing is also off at some points, making it hard to keep track of exactly what you are doing at times when you are cut off too long from the central narrative. Platforming sections which are accompanied by your friends that are filled with dialogue aren’t too bad, but long sometimes tedious areas without a clearly defined plot purpose don’t really add much to the story and dragged my enthusiasm for the game at points to a grinding halt.
The lack of voice acting also bothered me if simply for the fact that it seemed like a missed opportunity that the game had to make an extra layer of emotional resonance through way of adding voices to its central actors. Constantly clicking through word bubbles just isn’t as appealing to me as sitting back having a compelling voice actor tell me a story with all the character ticks and defining features that can be added into a well-acted role.
The art of Night in the Woods with its flat earthy tones really sets the mood for quite a bit about what the game tries to convey. The simultaneous sadness and nostalgia that comes from hanging out with high school friends and reminiscing on old memories is something that I’ve never seen any medium capture as well as Mae does with every conversation about how she and Beatrice didn’t really get along for no particular reason in high school. Everyone I know has these kinds of relationships but to see it quantified in such an honest and truthful way is really heartbreaking in a lot of ways.
The dry humor and wit on display throughout often brought begrudging smiles to my face. I had to stifle chuckles at every time Mae’s overly caffeinated friend Gregg flailed his arms or when a speech bubble was filled with nothing more than three unconvincing idle dots. Night in the Woods has a unique and sardonic sense of humor which really drives home the great writing on display throughout your adventure and shines a light through what could be a dire and overly depressing situation.
Although it’s told through the lenses of cute cuddly woodland creatures, Night in the Woods‘ narrative themes of isolation and insecurity are nothing to shake a stick at. Despite its pitfalls Infinite Falls’ story about the declining heartland touched me more than any game has any abject right to. Each and every single one of its character has something you can take away from them no matter who you are. They are each relatable in their own way but really connect with the dreary sense of hopelessly that is specific to the Midwest. While it might not be an area that’s depicted in fiction too often, it’s safe to say Night in the Woods is one of the best coming-of-age tales to be set in the middle of country in quite a long time.