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Life is complicated and full of contradictions. It’s the hollow pang of realizing what you should’ve said, the crushing weight of your greatest failure, and the emptiness of betrayed expectations. It’s the cold grip of helplessness that sets in when you realize the cosmos move without you, and that you will someday be forgotten. Life is a horrible, constant struggle to survive, both mentally and physically. But, it’s something wonderful too.
Life is also the warmth of loved ones, the comfort of home, and the golden joy of the best memories and moments we carry with us. It’s knowing that no matter who you are, there’s someone who cares about you, and that you are a real human being who is totally and wholly unique. It’s conquering obstacles, and confronting your flaws, and moving on and growing as a person. Night in the Woods developers Infinite Fall understand the complexities of life, and have created a work which reflects them beautifully.
So, what is Night in the Woods, exactly? Is it an indie platformer set in a sleepy small town? A visual novel with a little more graphical panache? Maybe just a connected series of minigames about things like band practice and criminal mischief? Really, it’s all of these things, but it’s primarily a narrative-based experience in the same vein as Kentucky Route Zero, where you’ll be doing a lot of reading. You play as Mae Borowski, a college dropout returning to her fading hometown of Possum Springs. In the midst of aimlessness and anxiety, you explore the city and attempt to reconnect with your family and friends.
Night in the Woods makes no mistake- Mae is a flawed character. She’s dropped out of college for reasons not immediately apparent, commits petty crimes for fun, and earned the nickname of “Killer” on her return thanks to hospitalizing a kid with a baseball bat. She’s well-meaning, but she’s also irresponsible, sometimes dangerously so. At a party, Mae’s nerves get the better of her, and the night ends with her getting drunk and vomiting in front of a high-school crush. Eventually, she meets a cute girl at another party, but forgets to ask for her number. I empathized with Mae not only because of her anxiety, but because I wanted her to learn from mistakes and grow as a character.
She’s helped to this end by her friends, family, and the people of Possum Springs. Your main interactions in the game are with the core group of acquaintances she left behind upon heading to college; Bea, Gregg, and Angus. Each one both contrasts and compliments Mae’s childlike demeanor, often helping define her character through their interactions. As Night in the Woods progresses, their stories become just as compelling as Mae’s: Bea is weakening under the weight of adult responsibility, while Gregg and Angus are struggling to move away from Possum Springs and make a life for themselves.
It’s almost harrowing to see these characters strive for so much while you play as someone who gave up everything her friends want in life to return home for undisclosed reasons. It’s even worse when Mae unintentionally sabotages her relationships with these friends, and with her parents. At one point, Mae and her mother get into a fight which all but annihilates the uneasy calm her parents had maintained since she unexpectedly dropped out. It cuts deep, and all I could do was watch it unfold. It left me with a desperate sense to fix things, or to make things right; but all Night in the Woods allows is to experience life through Mae’s perspective and her decisions.
That doesn’t mean you don’t have any choice at all, however. A lot of the game is deciding exactly how, or at least with who, you’ll spend your day. On most days, you can walk around town interacting with characters, such as a horror film fan who hangs out on a rooftop or an amateur poet who lives down the block. Then, you get the choice of whether you’ll spend the evening with Gregg or Bea, and sometimes Angus. This decision grows your relationship with the characters, and eventually culminates with a story arc between you and them. Since I spent most of my time with Bea, I’m assuming there’s more Gregg-related content I missed. In addition, these evenings lead to most of Night in the Woods’ entertaining minigame segments, such as the rhythm-game band practices and trying to shoplift from a Hot Topic-esque store.
The other, more minor characters will sometimes have things for Mae to do as well, all interesting and compelling in their own right. The aforementioned horror fan, Lori, will take Mae to the rail-yard to talk about life and watch trains squash metal figurines on the track. The poet, Selmers, reveals herself to be quite the wordsmith in a scene later on. On the roof of her house, there’s a jovial astronomy teacher who helps Mae looks for constellations every two days. These star formations all have their own stories, including one avid fans will recognize from the Lost Constellation supplemental game.
It all adds a lot of personality to both the narrative and Possum Springs, which has plenty of personality to go around as it is. In addition to the game’s visual style, Possum Springs is brought to life by Night in the Woods’ fantastic soundtrack and masterful audio design. Tip-toeing on telephone wires produces the plucking of violin strings, while passing cars emit a noticeably mouth-made puttering sound. It’s a small detail, but I noticed knocking around an acorn makes a satisfying, wooden “thock” on every tumble. It all adds an immense sense of depth to the atmosphere, and the end result feels like a playable storybook out of some beautiful world constantly on the cusp of autumn.
You’ll spend a lot of time going back and forth across the town, talking to friends and strangers alike and unfolding the world of Possum Springs. I was worried for a bit that this might get boring, as there’s a lot of just walking around involved. Thankfully, the dynamism of the game’s movement keeps things energized, and the kernels of conversation you get are usually interesting and intriguing and entertaining enough to make the travel worth it. At first, it seems as though this is all Night in the Woods will consist of: Mae whittling her time away with friends and trying, but failing, to piece her life back together in a familiar place. Then, the first shoe drops, and things get weird.
In a move out of the David Lynch playbook, not everything is as it seems in this quiet town. Mae begins having odd dreams, which contain some of the game’s most beautiful and surrealistic imagery. In hazy tones of neon blue and purple, she explores cosmic dreamscapes populated by phantom musicians. In her waking moments, townspeople speak of bad weather on the horizon. The police warn kids to stay inside. A sense of dread hangs over the proceedings, but the pieces of the puzzle never really seem to come together. I got a little bit worried. Then, Halloween, or “Harfest” arrives. In the foggy dead of night, the dread takes physical form. The other shoe drops. I wasn’t worried anymore.
As the narrative barrels towards its conclusion, and the characters begin taking action, Night in the Woods goes from great to even better. The threads of mystery left to dangle in the first act are picked up and spun to fruition, and the sinister ambiguity blossoms into…..well, I won’t spoil it. Suffice to say, I didn’t realize how invested I was in Mae and her friends until the game unveiled its darkest, most harrowing secrets. All I can reveal is that for all the Possum Springs chatter of bad omens and strange things in the woods, and for every hint dropped throughout the story, the final act more than delivers.
Night in the Woods is constantly well-written throughout, and the climax is the perfect conclusion for everything that builds over the seven to nine hour playtime. I found the game to be a perfect balance of hilarious and harrowing; of humanistic and heartbreaking. I always consider it an achievement when a game can move me emotionally, and Night in the Woods definitely deserves that honor. The game will almost certainly resonate with some more deeply than others, but even then, it’s a fantastic experience that’s certainly one of my favorite games of the year thus far.
It’s true that Night in the Woods isn’t perfect. Although every character has their own unique personality, quite a bit of the dialog is written in the same witty tone. The platforming can require too precise of a jump at times, and register at weird places on the platform’s hitbox. For those who don’t enjoy a lot of talking in their games, the first bit of the narrative might drag a little. However, these are minor flaws in an experience which is wholly greater than the sum of its parts. Much like the constellations Mae discovers in the dusk sky, the entire picture is more evocative than its components; a means to an end.
In the end, Night in the Woods is a narrative about growing up, about the end of innocence and the transition into adulthood. It’s about the movement of the cosmos, and one’s place within them. It’s about holding on to those close to you, and about moving on from your mistakes even if you can’t fix them and resolving to do better in the future. It’s about trust, friendship, love, nostalgia, fear, failure, and a whole lot of other things. It’s a lot to take in, and it’s a game that begs to be replayed, especially since I felt like I still had more to learn about Possum Springs and its inhabitants.
When I began, I was under the impression that “Night in the Woods” referred to a single night in the woods, perhaps an extended sequence of a frightening evening which the main characters would carry with them forever. While this isn’t totally inaccurate, I now realize that the phrase exists in a more general sense too. Night in the woods is a terrifying prospect. It’s the feeling of uncertainty, of darkness descending and getting lost between the trees. It’s cowering in fear as the unknown lurkers in the forest cry out around you. It’s stumbling through the black, and falling, and desperately grasping to clutch and hold something familiar as you wonder when the day will break. But eventually, even after the darkest nights, the sun always rises.