Night in the Woods: An Epitaph of Suburban Culture

I mean… you could have used the pull tab but whatever…

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.

 

Yup… totally relatable…

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).

 

This is why everyone loves Gregg

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.

 

EEEEEEEEEEELS!

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.

 

Everything about this is perfect

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.

 

Oh yeah, and nobody trusts you…

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.

 

N I G H T M A R E E Y E S

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 allegorical symbolism in the game is rather on point too…

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.

 

Probably the easiest song to get a screenshot of…

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.

 

Taken out of context, this is possibly one of the best shots in the game!

Ori and the Blind Forest: A Somber, Heartwarming Tale

 

Back in 2015 a game called Ori and the Blind Forest was released, and it took my interest immediately. Its artistic style looked so vivid, striking and painterly, a feat that really makes an impression when you consider it runs on the Unity engine, showcasing just what Moon Studios managed to achieve with it. The gameplay was mesmerizing and intense, and was a real breath of fresh air into the Metroidvania genre and 2D-sidescroller style of gameplay. These initial impressions were going simply by the trailers of course, before I even got the game.

 

 

It was when I started playing that my budding appreciation for this game truly blossomed. It is for the best that the trailer explains very little about the game’s narrative, as it is best experienced by the player, though I doubt the story would be any less memorable. As you play, it almost feels like you are running through a story book as the Spirit Tree narrates your path through the game. The gorgeous, hand-painted visuals and orchestral music score are really on point, working in tandem with the game’s immersive story to deliver a truly moving experience.

 

 

Ori and the Blind Forest takes place in the fictional forest of Nibel. The world is one continuous level, with each area blending seamlessly into the next without any repeated elements. In the starting area which acts as both the tutorial and introduction of the story, you learn Ori was torn away from the Spirit Tree as a newborn during a powerful storm, and was found and adopted by Naru, a creature that looks vaguely like Totoro. It is no secret that the design team was influenced by much of Hayao Miyazaki’s works, as one of the areas “The Valley of Wind” is a direct reference to “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.” Indeed, Moon Studios was admittedly inspired by many different sources in the making of Ori and the Blind Forest, including The Lion King and The Iron Giant in regards to formulating the game’s story.

 

 

Things are peaceful for a time, until the forest of Nibel begins to whither and decay. Food becomes scarce as the waters are tainted, leaving the forest unable to sustain any of its inhabitants, including Naru and Ori. Naru dies not long after, leaving Ori to wander alone, though her fortitude too begins to deteriorate with her spirits. As she collapses, losing the last of her strength, the Spirit Tree uses the last of its power to revive her; this is where the game truly begins.

 

 

After being revived, Ori encounters Sein, the “light and eyes” of the Spirit Tree. Sein acts as a guide for Ori throughout the game, as well as her primary means of defending herself from enemies using her Spirit Flame. Sein tells Ori that the only way to bring life back to Nibel is to restore the light of the three main elements: Water, Wind, and Warmth.

 

 

Much of the game involves seeking out new abilities and upgrades in order to progress. The HUD sits neatly at the bottom of the screen, showing both Ori’s life and energy levels. The health and energy meters are extended by finding Life Cells and Energy Cells throughout Nibel. Many of these upgrades require you to seek out and master new abilities, which Ori can find at the sites of other fallen spirits. Those abilities can also be augmented, either by collecting Spirit Light from enemies or the environment to level up, or finding hidden Spirit Light Containers.

 

 

 

The save system in the game is an interesting hybrid. Your character has the ability to place white flames called Soul Links, which cost energy to produce but can be placed anywhere (except directly in dangerous spots). Alternatively, you can find and ignite Spirit Wells throughout the world which act as checkpoints, restore health and energy, and allow you to transport between wells you have already discovered (Definitive Edition only). As you would expect, dying will send you back to the last checkpoint, and you will need to repeat your progress. This does make the game a touch challenging, as it forces you to use the save system strategically.

 

 

There is a pretty decent difficulty curve to the gameplay. It does not get too comfortable to the point where the player becomes bored, nor too intense where the player becomes frustrated; it tends to keep a decent flow. The only extremes which can take away from the flow of gameplay come from the more climactic parts of the game, specifically the run-for-your-life sections after restoring one of the three elements, or the encounters with Kuro the owl; I got so frustrated after restoring the Wind element that I almost thought of putting the game down and coming back later, as not only do you get a one-shot obstacle run, but also need to evade Kuro right afterwards. Generally though, the difficulty in such sections (and indeed much of the game) comes from timing and finding the right path, so once you got it down it practically becomes reflexive. Expect to die a lot in your first playthrough, even on the lowest difficulty.

 

 

Ori and the Blind Forest is a touching coming-of-age story with strong themes of family ties in an action-adventure wrapper, sure to well up tears in your eyes, draw a gentle sigh of awe from your lungs, and ultimately embrace and warm your heart. The handcrafted visuals coupled with the orchestral composition, through both their gloomy and empowering beauty play to the narrative to convey a truly breathtaking labor of love. Without holding your hand too much, Ori keeps you immersed in its rich and mystical world, the challenge making every success all the sweeter. This is a game that I truly cherish, and I anticipate its sequel Ori and the Will of the Wisps with bated enthusiasm; it is my hope that the sequel leaps off and soars above its predecessor.

 

Yue Guang Bai: A Cup of Pure Moonlight

 

A couple of months ago, I had acquired an authentic cake of premium Yue Guang Bai “Moonlight White” from Seven Cups tea house in Tucson, and have been meaning to write an article on it for some time. It is a peculiar tea as far as Chinese teas go to be sure, and one that our Overlord has an interest in for… reasons.

This tea is sourced from Lancang county in the Yunnan province of China, and located at its heart are the Jing Mai mountains, home to ancient, thousand-year-old tea trees which are harvested year-round and yield top-quality pu’erh. When you hear about different varietals of premium pu’erh tea, this is typically the terroir they are sourced from. Here is where the story gets interesting: Moonlight White is not picked from domesticated camellia sinensis trees as a majority of teas are, but instead from a wild cousin species called camellia taliensis. In both chemical composition and appearance, it shares greater similarity to the assamica species from India, which has a maltier more tannic flavour typical of most breakfast teas.

 

 

The picking and withering method for Moonlight White is steeped in mysticism. Instead of picking and processing under sunlight, it is said the harvesters pick the buds and first leaves under the light of the full moon, and allow the leaves to dry all night under moonlight. Whether or not this is true is hard to say, but it makes for a great story. The result: a gorgeous blend of delicate, silver buds against jet black leaves. It is hard to properly classify this tea as it shares properties between white, black, oolong and pu’erh tea. It is also said that the preparation method for Moonlight White is hundreds of years old, despite Moonlight White only having been trending on the global tea market this past year.

 

 

I’ve found my favorite brewing method is to use 6g of tea leaf to 100mL of water at 95°C (205°F). Bear in mind, this is for the traditional Chinese method of flash-brewing not for Western-style brewing in large teapots. The liquor brews out a very pale, golden orange colour. The aroma of the tea is very light and woodsy with subtle sweet, honey notes. The flavour is refreshingly brisk and slightly tannic leaving a dry texture in the mouth. The most surprising thing about this tea is its long and drawn-out finish, which transforms from a subtle dry, floral flavour to one that is fruity and syrup-like, a flavour I compare to fresh peaches.

I highly recommend this tea for your collection if you enjoy the subtlety of white teas like Bai Hao Yin Zhen “Silver Needles” or the complex body and aroma of an oolong like Bai Hao “Eastern Beauty.” This tea is a great all-rounder, but best not to pair it with anything too strong in contrasting flavours; peaches, persimmons, or even lychee or longan pair nicely with its delicate, sweet character.

 

Hob: A Visual Story Made of Interconnected Parts

Waking up to find something a little off…

Around my birthday last month, I was given a copy of a newly released game called Hob, which is a puzzle-platformer with hack and slash elements. Made by Runic Games, the same indie studio responsible for the successful Torchlight action-role playing game series, it features many gorgeous locales, elegant art direction, a plethora of upgrades and choices for your character’s weapons and abilities, and a diverse cast of enemies, all in an open-world exploration package sure to give you hours of enjoyment.

 

Many collectibles like these are scattered throughout the world

It combines elements from games like the Legend of Zelda, with its platforming, adventure, combat, and collectible elements, and Journey with its voiceless narrator, the story of the game being unraveled by the player as they explore the world. Hob shares a similar high-fantasy theme with an emphasis on machinery, conveyed primarily through its world building. It plays between motifs of mechanical and artificial constructions clashing with ones of a more organic and mystical nature. Though it’s an open-world experience, the world of Hob is only a fraction as expansive as most AAA titles like Assassin’s Creed; this is actually a point in the game’s favour however as it allows for more detail to be realized, and the world feels more alive as a result (which is ideal, given the environment and exploration are the main story vehicles of the game). It didn’t feel overdone or lacking as a result, though by the end I did find myself wanting more.

 

The world of Hob is alive and moving… literally!

Spoiler alert, there is a small possibility of a sequel being planned from one of the endings of the game, but I don’t know that it necessarily needs one. The game stands on its own very well, and if a sequel (or at least a spiritual successor) is released I hope it either fleshes out more of the story we already have (ie. the events before the first game) or takes the same game play and story elements but uses them in a different context (different setting, different characters, different weapons and character abilities etc) but bear in mind this is simply speculation at this point. The ending is left ambiguous, and while I will say there are multiple endings, I can’t in good conscience categorize them as either good or bad as some have taken to doing: both endings are different in their own right, based primarily on the final choice you make, but both have good and bad aspects to them, leaving the overall tone very grey.

 

An ancient slumbering titan, a landmark from a long forgotten war…

One of the main problems so far with the game is the controls can be a bit finicky at times. Your character will tend to lock himself onto any surface he can scale when jumping, however there are points when this system suffers a hiccup. It happens more often on irregular, more rounded surfaces than flat ones; this problem occurred a lot more frequently when I was exploring the forest area, especially when scaling the trees. These little hiccups tend to be deadly from a sufficient height, and often rather aggravating as a result. Runic Games has been pretty good with patching the game thus far however, and I expect perhaps this game mechanic will be fine tuned in the future.

 

Upgrades, upgrades, more upgrades!

On the subject of upgrades, it is possible to change the cloak your character wears, and the different cloaks have different effects to the character’s stats (eg. scaling up energy, but reducing health). These cloaks however are earned through discovering them in the world. In my whole play through I never utilized the alternative cloaks as I felt there was no real benefit of doing so; the trade off wasn’t really worth it to equip them. The first two you discover reduce your health but boost other stats, which at the start of the game is not really in your best interest, especially when you have enemies that can kill you in two hits even at that point. Were they simply a cosmetic item, I may have actually utilized them much more.

 

Whether above or below ground, the world of Hob is complex and fascinating

Hob is an incredibly enjoyable game if you like environmental puzzle-solving and don’t mind having to figure things out for yourself; the game doesn’t hold your hand all the way through beyond pointing you in the direction you need to go. If you’re going to pick this game up and want to minimize the combat aspect while enjoying the environments and puzzles, I suggest starting off on the lower difficulty setting and working your way up. The difficulty curve of the game is pretty staggering and believe me, you will want to return to the workshop to upgrade your abilities often! I highly recommend playing with a controller, as the movement and control mapping feels a lot more comfortable than with the keyboard in the case of this game. Overall a gorgeous and refreshing addition to the action and puzzle-platforming niche that I really hope to see more of in the future.

Ḩ̵͘͞҉e̵l̸̴͜͡l͟͢͞͠ờ̷̀ ̸͟W̨͠o҉̸̡͟͞r͞҉l͏d̷̸̶̡͝!͝

Hello, world! This is Yutram: net demon, visual artist, tea connoisseur, and video game enthusiast. If you are reading this then congratulations, you have just stumbled upon my little slice of the Worldwide Web. Here I’ll occasionally post about the latest game I’ve gotten hold of, a new tea or tea blend that tickles my palate, my latest painting or drawing, or just what a day in the life of an infernal being born of the glitches in the system is like. I’m thinking I may even do tea pairings with different video games… so that should be fun!

Stick around won’t you? I’m only just getting started! And of course, there will be tofu and creamsicles aplenty to come. 😉