Night in the Woods Touched My Heart, Blew My Mind, Inspired Me, and Left me Tongue-Tied

WTF is Night in the Woods?

Night in the Woods is an indie adventure game about a college drop-out who returns to her economically-depressed home town and reconnects with her queer/goth friends just in time to solve a mystery.

It is more of an interactive story than a game, although gameplay involves making dialogue choices, completing a few minor platforming challenges, solving a handful of puzzles, and playing mostly optional mini-games that range from “easy and fun” to “impossibly difficult and annoying.”

The story, broken into missable, modular parts, is a slow-moving and unexpectedly rich narrative about identity, friendship, faith, mental illness, politics, family dynamics, and the economic collapse experienced by blue collar workers in  America.

The characters and dialogue are fucking amazing

The number one thing I remember from Night in the Woods is the warm sense of happiness I got from seeing people like me and my friends in a game. The main character, Mae, is basically a carbon copy of a few people I know and care about in real life – she’s a tomboy, and a geek, and basically a good person but sometimes an asshole for no real reason. Her friends include: Bea, an angry goth who couldn’t afford to go to college and does all the work of managing her family’s store while her dad takes all the credit; Greg, who’s terminally uncool and way too excited to smash stuff in the parking lot instead of being a responsible adult; and Greg’s long-suffering boyfriend, Angus, who had abusive parents, and is relatively more stiff and conservative, without being a total dick.

Everything from the way these characters are drawn and animated, to the words they say, to the stylized way those words appear on screen, is magic. Most of the dialogue falls into the category of witty repartee – the kind you might have seen on Buffy if the characters on Buffy were bigger nerds – but there are also lots of intense, emotional moments where the repartee breaks up, allowing the characters to deliver very natural-sounding but profound monologues on the issues affecting their lives.

The juxtaposition between the kind of casual, laid-back diction the characters use and the deeply insightful ideas they’re trying to express is used to great effect.

There’s also a sense that the game knows when to pull back – it doesn’t overstate how much the characters know, or offer simple answers to the complex problems they face. This isn’t a story where somebody sums up what happened in a short speech and tells us the lesson we learned. It’s more about the struggle we’re all in together to understand what’s even happening to us.

The story is pretty well-structured, too

There are a lot of things happening at once in Night in the Woods, and the game does a good job of foreshadowing what’s to come. For example, it’s suggested early on that there’s more to the story of why Mae left college than her casual answers suggest. When she’s minding her own business, walking back to her house, she runs into an elderly neighbour who tells her, “Everyone remembers what you did” in a way that’s totally jarring, but unexplained.

It’s a long time before we know what she did, or how it relates to college, but, by the time we find out, all the pieces fit together and make sense.

The mystery at the centre of the game is about people who keep disappearing from town. When Mae tells everyone there’s a kidnapper on the loose, they all assume she’s drunk or high, but she starts an investigation that drives the action in the latter half of the game. Eventually, the mystery spills into a story about how small towns are being destroyed in the recession, and the lengths that some people will go to to make everything the way (they imagine) it used to be.

The ending isn’t super satisfying, but we’re led up to it slowly, and I appreciate the way that Night in the Woods gives players time to sink into the setting and explore it – to get used to the rhythms of day-to-day life before everything goes sideways.

There are lots of little asides to explore, and the game uses a variety of tools, including dream sequences, to get its point across.

The gameplay is kind of uneven

Like I said before, this is more of an interactive story than a game. Because so much of the content of the story is missable, Night in the Woods does reward you for poking around, exploring, talking to secondary characters, and platforming your way into areas that look like they’re blocked off. It also punishes you with mini-games that seem impossible to beat and that you can’t retry without starting all over. There’s also a game within the game that’s impressive because it’s so long and detailed, but also so long and detailed that you have to be unusually dedicated to finish it.

I didn’t have trouble figuring out what I needed to do to advance the story, but I was sometimes frustrated that I had no choice but to actively make bad decisions – like getting drunk at a bonfire party and confronting Mae’s ex-prom date, after her friends all warned her not to. There’s a balance between creating a sense of immersion by having players participate in the characters’ actions and allowing that the player might not have chosen to do what the character does – Night in the Woods doesn’t always hit that balance, but it’s far from being alone.

All in all, this feels like it could have been a graphic novel and done just as well, but I wasn’t mad at it for being a game – I think it really falls into a category we don’t quite have yet, for interactive, mixed-media stories – and that’s exciting to me.

In conclusion

I don’t feel like I did a good job of explaining how awesome this thing really is. And part of the reason for that is that it’s not like other things. It’s a new kind of thing that’s very artistic, and cool, and interesting – and it’s hard to explain what it is. But you should definitely check it out. It does not demand much from you, if you aren’t a gamer, and it provides moments of real insight and beauty along the way.

Image: Night in the Woods; Infinite Fall | July 21, 2017