Title: Night in the Woods
Developer: Infinite Fall
Release Date: 21 February 2016
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Xbox One, Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch
Playtime: 60 hours
Don’t let the art style fool you, this is not a kid’s game; Night in the Woods tells a gripping tale as it gives a peek into what life is like in a small town that’s past its expiration date. The story chronicles what can only be described as a rather irregular occurrence in the less-than-regular life of twenty-year-old college dropout Mae Borowski. First and foremost, Night in the Woods is all about the small moments in life like jams sessions with friends, parties in the woods, stealing pretzels, and smashing light bulbs. Past the everyday activities of a delinquent, the story also delves into a mysterious tale of the deteriorating town of Possum Springs and the “paranormal” activity that haunts it. Some surprisingly fitting dry humor is also abundant in the dialogue between characters which brings a certain lightheartedness to an otherwise unsettling and melancholic story.
Beyond the story itself, the characters throughout are surprisingly memorable and even more so relatable. Much like the condition of the town, the people within Possum Springs are not too well off. In fact, many of the characters that you can interact with cope with some form of depression as they struggle to keep their lives together in the crumbling town. Mae herself has quite a troubled past that stems from depression, anger issues, and dissociation. Of course, it doesn’t explicitly say this right at the beginning; every aspect of each character is learned (and sometimes inferred) from the dialogue, and you learn more from every interaction. Additionally, there are always characters to interact with throughout every part of the game. Not only does this uncover more about the people Mae talks to, but also more about Possum Springs and Mae herself. This is made even better because of the small-town vibe; all of the characters seem to know each other and they feel very interconnected. Whether it be putting cups over their ears, reminiscing of the past, or just about anything else, every character leaves a lasting impression.
Despite its condition, the atmosphere of Possum Springs is dynamic and full of character. This is due to both the art style, which makes an otherwise dreary town look appealing, and also to the enchanting soundtrack composed by Alec Holowka. The music throughout the game captures the essence of each scene perfectly, whether it be hiking across town to an upbeat tune, hunting for a ghost to the haunting melodies of a graveyard, or jamming out with some friends to a song whose lyrics get more and more depressing as you uncover more of the many stories that Possum Springs has to offer. The sound design in general is all very well done, from the sounds of leaves blowing in the wind, to the subtle rainfall of an overcast day, to the sounds of shoes scuffing on the ground, everything sounds superb.
The art style of Night in the Woods is nothing short of charming, and it complements the narrative very well. The two-dimensional, simplistic style pulls you into a world that is believable, despite some of the more unrealistic aspects of the game. It also keeps the game from falling into the uncanny valley that comes with attempting to achieve a realistic style. The animal characters also make the game feel more like a fable or a Disney movie, albeit a quite perturbing one at that. Aside from the art, the characters have no voice acting, meaning that all dialogue is read out through speech bubbles. This allows you to experience each character in their own way. Because of this, the game is experienced much like a visual novel; I personally found it to work amazingly with the story, which made it quite immersive, however this style of game is not for everyone.
As I have mentioned, Night in the Woods is ‘experienced’ rather than ‘played’. While you do have control and can move Mae around and interact with others as you please, you are ultimately pushed forward through a mostly linear story. This is the one thing that hampers the enjoyability of Night in the Woods, as it limits replayability. Fortunately, Night in the Woods still offers a lot to discover throughout multiple playthroughs. This also contributes to how stable and clean the game is (bug/glitch-wise); throughout my multiple playthroughs, I only came across a single bug/glitch. All it is, however, is a small visual error in which character’s hat appears in front of things that it shouldn’t. For instance, in dialogue, you can sometimes choose between multiple options to make decisions, learn more about characters, or sometimes just as a joke (such as a scene in the game where you can decide between saying “aaaagh” or “aaaaaaaaaaaaaggghhh”). Again, ultimately, the decisions made do not have big effects on the main story or its outcome, but they do make each experience of the game unique and engaging; through multiple playthroughs, one can discover more even more after the first playthrough. Beyond the dialogue and player-made choices, there are portions of the game where you do things other than walk and talk. These activities include, but are not limited to: playing bass, shooting a crossbow, perusing a microfiche, stealing pretzels, and knife-fighting a friend; each has their own respective minigame-esque sequence to go along with them. Thanks to this, you always have something more to do and the gameplay never really gets old.
Like I’ve said before, Night in the Woods is about more than just the shenanigans of a couple small town delinquents. Infinite Fall set out not only to tell a gripping tale of ghost hunting and paranormal activity, but also to show what life is like in the small towns throughout the rust belt, a rather realistic depiction of depression (as well as other mental disorders), and to relive the experience of growing up. After the many factories in the rust belt closed down, innumerable jobs were lost and the small towns built around them remained to slowly rot away. Possum Springs itself is a reflection of the mining and industrial towns in rural Pennsylvania, which are not too far off from what Night in the Woods presents. Another thing that Night in the Woods does right is its portrayal of mental disorders such as depression and dissociation, specifically through the main characters. It never explicitly says that each character suffers from such afflictions and it’s all figured out on one’s own through the dialogue and actions of each character. Mae herself struggles with both of these throughout the game, and unless one is familiar with what depression looks like, this factor could be completely overlooked just like it does so painfully often in real life. This true-to-life depiction is exactly what people need to see in order to actually understand depression, and while Night in the Woods isn’t centered around it, the game does a great job of depicting it. Not only does the game give a glimpse into many things that most games don’t delve into, it also gives a rather nostalgic look back at growing up. At 20 years old, Mae (like many others) finds herself in a weird spot. Caught between childhood and adulthood, she is treated differently by everyone. The younger residents of Possum Springs refer to her as if she were an adult, whereas the older residents almost exclusively refer to her as still being a child.
The game explores a weird point where one is caught in between two parts of life; between the carelessness of a teenager and the responsibility of an adult. But physical age isn’t all, when Mae returns to Possum Springs from college, she still has the mindset of a teenager. As you can probably imagine, this can lead (depending on player choice) to several less-than-legal shenanigans with her friend Gregg. While it does start this way, you come to see how much they change throughout the game, slowly becoming more mature as they come to realize that they can’t act young and irresponsible forever. One scene in particular that really got to me was one in which Mae is talking to Bea, the youngest and most mature friend in the group (for reasons I will not state for the sake of brevity). At one point, Bea refers to Mae as a kid, Mae shoots back that she is two months older than Bea and Bea replies with “Yeah well, I stayed here and got older while you went off and stayed the same.” It may not have the same impact out of context, but that line stuck with me throughout the entire game.
Night in the Woods sends you on a philosophical trip, exploring the smaller aspects of life and bringing them into the spotlight. It features a memorable cast of main characters, several lovable side characters, and plenty of lore to immerse yourself in. All this is supported by a charming art style, a fantastic soundtrack, and an extraordinary lack of bugs and glitches (compared to a lot of other games that have come out in recent years). While the replayability is limited by the linear storyline, the amount of rich story that you can uncover more than makes up for it. With its story, Night in the Woods set out to leave a lasting impression, and it sure does, so if you’re looking for a nice game to play while wrapped in a cozy blanket and having an existential crisis, this game is just what you’re looking for.
Final Score: 99/100