Back in early October, I decided to pick up Night in the Woods on a whim; I had been hearing high praise on this game for some time, and its visual direction and overall atmosphere seemed quite well matched for the season. I can say I was pleasantly surprised by this game, given its deeper narrative direction than most story-based games in spite of its simplicity, and how relatable it was for me personally.
Night in the Woods is not so much a video game as it is an interactive story featuring gameplay elements. Its main focus is on branching narratives based on character interactions which tie together along a common thread; think Shin Megami Tensei: Persona minus the roguelike elements. Since the game’s nature is tied directly to its story, I cannot say too much about it without spoiling the plot, so I will stick mostly to non-story related criteria in this article (though as of now, I am surprised if anyone has not played this game yet).
You play as Mae Borowski, a recent college drop-out returning to her rural hometown of Possum Springs after only three semesters. On her return, Mae realizes that her hometown has changed quite a lot in the short time that she was away. Throughout the game, Mae remarks on a sort of melancholic nostalgia she has for her childhood: how she used to be closer to her friend Bea, the loss of her grandfather, her time in high school, old festivals that were simply forgotten and buildings like the local grocery store that were shut down and left derelict. This is one of those points that I am sure most will find quite relatable: the sort of melancholy surrounding the loss of the familiar and looking back with the sad smile of autumn on better times.
Mae keeps a journal throughout the game, which she uses to jot down noteworthy events and her thoughts. Many of these doodles are discovered from exploring around Possum Springs and talking to many of the characters, however you can only unlock all the drawings across multiple playthroughs. This adds a nice element of replay value to the game and draws the player’s attention to more of the finer details of the game’s world. The significance of the journal is explored later on in the story, as it is tied to events in Mae’s past.
The world building of Night in the Woods is rather in depth as well, with plenty of lore and backstory surrounding Possum Springs from the war memorial and murals, to the strange turns into the realm of the supernatural. The world has a life of its own outside of the player’s interactions, with every character often being in different places every day of the week, as well as having their own interests and ambitions; this is especially true of Mae’s friends: Gregg, Angus and Bea. As such, character interactions feel natural, and sometimes uncomfortably real. This makes exploration and talking to all the characters a rewarding experience in the game.
Night in the Woods’ visual direction reminds me a lot of older picture books from my childhood, with hand-drawn anthropomorphic characters and locations that are highly stylized and graphical. This runs directly in counterpoint with the more mature themes presented in the game: mental illness, identity, nostalgia and mortality chief among them. I actually rather enjoy this contrast, given that it not only makes the subjects addressed in this game more accessible to the player, but it also ties back to the theme of nostalgia: the art style is itself a throwback to childhood imagery through the lens of an adult perspective, the veneer of naiveté made transparent from a rather jaded insight.
Rather complementary to this is Night in the Woods’ haunting soundtrack. Much of the sound and instrumentation is very reminiscent of post-rock and shoegaze blended with orchestral instruments and a classic video game chiptune aesthetic. One group I am reminded of when listening to this game’s soundtrack is Wintergatan, a Swedish group whose primary sound would be described as a mix of folktronica, experimental pop, and post-rock, and their unconventional use of instruments is a common point that really comes through in Night in the Woods’ own musical score. It has an element of familiarity ringing through it, tinged with tones of saudade for times long past, giving the overall feeling that something is missing.
The gameplay is a sort of hodge podge from various inspirations. Beyond dialogue and character interactions, most of the game is focused on platforming elements with Mae scaling buildings along power lines and windowsills to get to different areas. There exist “minigames” within the main story as well, the most notorious being the band practice stages, a direct reference to Guitar Hero and Rockband styles of rhythm gameplay. Other minigames include the “shoplifting” sections, a sort of “Red Light, Green Light” style of gameplay where you cannot move the joystick while being observed, a minigame where you hit fluorescent lights with a bat while dodging batteries, a car beat-em-up that is reminiscent of the bonus stage in Street Fighter, and a roguelike computer game called Demontower which Mae plays on her laptop to name a few.
As far as indie games go, both Infinite Fall and Finji have really outdone themselves with this game. They not only managed to create a fantastic experience with memorable characters, they created a story that hits really close to home. It speaks like a love letter to the rich and often overlooked history of smalltown America, read like a eulogy to the dead malls and empty parking lots. Yet to those that are stuck or out of a job, it promises hope for new beginnings, that we make our own meaning in this meaningless journey called life. That is perhaps the most profound thing I ever could have expected to glean from a video game, and I truly appreciate Night in the Woods all the more for it.