At first glance Night in the Woods looks like a typical cutesy 2D platformer, but it’s not really. So if you’re looking for lots of action or puzzle solving, then this is probably not for you. It’s a more game about hanging out with friends and dealing with change. A sort of interactive coming-of-age story peppered with mini-games and some exploration.
Night in the Woods centres around feisty college dropout Mae Borowski. Disillusioned and unhappy, she returns home to the small mining town of Possum Springs in a naive attempt to relive her youth and pick up where she left off with the folks she once knew. Unwilling to talk about what happened at college, all she wants to do is sleep in, chill out and hang onto to a life of aggressive aimlessness. Well, don’t we all!
Inevitably though, everyone has changed, including the town itself. Her friends have grown up and gotten jobs and partners, her parents seem older and more serious, kids treat her as just another adult now, and many of her favourite haunts have long since gone. Oh, and as the title suggests, there’s something strange happening in the woods at night.
The events of the game take place over a series of quite a few days, in which you get into a kind of routine. Each afternoon (as I said, Mae is a late riser), you drag yourself out of bed, chat with friends on your laptop, say hi to mum in the kitchen, then head out in to town for some shenanigans and parkour.
She may be older and rounder, but Mae is still pretty nimble – able to balance on power lines, get up trees, walk along window ledges and leap from roof to roof, much to the annoyance to some of the locals and Aunt “Mall Cop” Molly. But then why wouldn’t you! In all its autumn glory Possum Springs is a beautifully realised 2D playground that just begs to be clambered all over. The idyllic country town is full of sloping streets, vibrant houses and lofty rooftops, with lots of picturesque sites, an underground canal, and shops and eateries with lovable quirky names like Click Clak Diner, Snack Falcon and Fat Pocket Pawn.
Populating the Springs is a large cast of lively characters who pop up just about everywhere, even on the highest of roofs and the most isolated of locations. Much of your day will be spent interacting with these guys – shooting the breeze, learning their backstories and filling in your own, and sometimes going on little side adventures together. One of my favourites being the stargazing with your old teacher, where you learn the colourfully grim myths behind the constellations. Another one is hanging out at the rail tracks with Lori and talking gory horror movies.
Once your done exploring for the day it’s usually a case of choosing who you want to spend your evening with – the excitable and destructive Gregg or the moody and droll Bea. Either way, chances are it will involve getting into trouble and possibly setting the scene for some games. Then it’s back home to spend time with dad in front of the telly before finally turning in for the night.
Night in the Woods is a unique experience and not an easy game to categorise. As alluded to earlier, it’s certainly more interactive fiction than platformer, with the mini-games being too few and far between for my liking as well as a bit and hit miss. The Guitar Hero-style band practice is a lot of fun, even though I totally sucked at it, as was the knife fight and light-bulb smashing with Gregg. Plus there’s a rather addictive dungeon crawler called Demon Tower that you can play on Mae’s laptop, which is bloody hard I might add.
But the rest of the activities are far too simple and uninvolved, largely boiling down to pressing buttons on cue or grabbing objects that are right next to you. I was also disappointed that, aside from Demon Tower, it’s not actually possible retry any of the activities outside of restarting the entire game.
So, beyond looking for secrets and hidden areas and once the novelty of exploring the town wears off, Night in the Woods largely revolves around running from person to person and pressing the advance dialogue button until your thumb gets sore. Yet I rarely found myself losing interest or enthusiasm.
I suppose what I love about Night in the Woods is how it conjures the joyous languidness of being a teenager. Those seemingly endless, carefree and directionless days; the excitement, spontaneity and adventure but also the boredom and restlessness. You break into derelict buildings, steal things, smash stuff up, trash talk each other, go to parties and spend a lot of time in diners and loitering on the streets. Which is not entirely at odds with how I remember my own formative years!
However, despite the cuteness and general silliness, there is a more serious side to it. Night in the Woods touches on a range of adult themes such as grief, drinking, debt, depression, guilt, loneliness, prejudice and even child abuse. Mae and some of those she encounters are clearly dissatisfied with their lives and choices made, or are struggling to come to terms with traumatic events in the past. In particular, Mae and Gregg are still half stuck in childhood, not quite ready to face the responsibilities and sometimes harsh realities of becoming a grown up.
That does sound like fairly heavy going. And much further into the game, once the narrative becomes more focussed, things get genuinely weird when you investigate spooky happenings and Mae’s dreams become increasingly surreal and symbolic. Wrapped in metaphor and allusion, and even questioning the nature and existence of god, it can get a little dark and existentialist at times. Yet, the writing is always sharp, witty and entertaining. And Night in the Woods generally manages to stay upbeat and light-hearted. There’s always a joke around the corner or a touching moment between companions.
That said, I did find the ambiguous ending rather anticlimactic and I do think the pacing of the story could have been better – very little happens in the first two-thirds of the game. Then again, perhaps that’s kind of the point.
Mae herself is just fantastic. She’s rebellious, irrational, cynical, morbid, frustrated, erratic, and endlessly amusing. How can you not love a woman (well, lady cat) who once wrote a song about her ex called “Go get dead, angel face”, or who thinks about eating people when she first meets them. And I suspect that I’m going to be quoting “my mouth tastes like broken dreams” for some time to come.
There’s so many other great characters too, each given ample space to develop and shine on their own. It’s a pleasure learning their stories and I always found time to stop by and listen to Selmers’ dorky poetry, or to talk to Mae’s trashy novel-loving mum at the church, or watch the Garbo and Malloy show with her dad.
In many ways though, the real hero of Night in the Woods, and what somehow makes it work as a game, is the fabulous art work and the bustling world that Infinite Fall have created. The minimalist, children’s storybook-style visuals are just brimming with energy and personality, and manage to convey a lot of detail. The animations are superb and the characters twitch, blink and gesticulate in time with the written dialogue, which really helps to convey emotion and adds extra weight to the exchanges.
In addition, there’s always people and cars moving by, conversations and incidents occurring in the background, animals scurrying around (as opposed to humanoid animals – cartoon logic, eh?) and leaves flying all over the place. It’s incredibly dynamic – everything seems to react to your presence, right down to the surfaces you come into contact with. Each day the town and weather changes in subtle but appreciable ways that give a sense of the passage of time. And the rich sound design and spirited music immerses you into every scene. It really is a joy to behold and take in.
Overall, Night in the Woods is a vibrant, nostalgic and entertaining cartoon adventure with a very strong focus on story. In many ways it’s a bit of a mess and not quite sure what it wants to be, yet amazingly it just about works. It’ll make you laugh. It’ll make you cry. It probably won’t change your life. But you might come away with some fond memories. I know I did.