Night in the Woods and the Power of Representation

Copyright © 2017 Infinite Fall and Finji

Spend enough time online in the gaming community, and you’ll hear all about the ongoing debate over whether or not video games should be escapist fantasies or grounded in reality. Personally, I’m a fan of games that can do a little of both, that borrow from real-world issues and still give us pure cartoon physics. And you get a bit of that and more in an indie title like Night in the Woods, brought to us by the good folks at Infinite Fall and Finji.

Set in the small town of Possum Springs, you play as Mae Borowski, a small cat person who’s dropped out of college and moved back home with her parents. While reconnecting with her life in a changing hometown, Mae discovers how things have grown between her old friends Gregg, Angus, and Bea. And she discovers that issues from her past, like one notorious teenage incident, won’t stay settled. And Mae quickly discovers something’s wrong with the town, especially when she witnesses mysterious figures ambushing innocent people in the dead of night and spiriting them away. Between the issues in her head and the mysteries in her neighborhood, Mae and her friends go to work on trying to solve them together.

Now, don’t let the cartoon imagery of the game fool you. Mae may look like a cat, but her problems and reactions are very human. This game explores childhood traumas, quarter-life crises, unemployment and stagnant economies, Rust Belt conservatism, mental illness, and the tragic loss of friends.

Mae Borowski, of course, doesn’t understand any of this. All she wants to do is go back home, explore the town, do fun things, and hang with her friends. She needs all this explained to her.

Which, in a sense, makes her the perfect representation of the player.

In fact, everyone in this game feels more like a real person than a fictional character (a theme that, without giving the end away, Mae has wrestled with previously). Mae’s family, neighbors, friends from high school, and random acquaintances all feel like genuine people plucked from any small town in the Midwest. They’re made up of all sorts, too: liberal, conservative, religious, atheist, straight, gay, undecided, hard-working, and generally goofing off. It makes every side conversation worth revisiting, just to see how much detail and story the writers added to this world.

As for the game’s mechanics, there’s not much to say. Other than, you know, you’ve got to get really, really good at the double-jump. Master this, and there’s no limit to where you can go or what you can find in this game. Anything plot-related is usually handled for you with action and dialogue prompts. Also, it’s real cute and fun to watch Mae jumping everywhere and tiptoeing along power lines like it’s no big deal.

Without spoiling anything, I will say that this game does have a surprising turn into the cosmic horror genre. But not even the nightmares it unravels manage to take away from the overall nostalgic and true-to-life atmosphere of Night in the Woods. It’s a fun little exploration game, a mix of horror and slice of life storytelling, and an interesting commentary on contemporary small-town American culture. If you’re patient and you love quirky humor (and a bit of scary things), then you’ll like this.

Night in the Woods is available for purchase through Steam and You can learn more about the game through its official website.

Bibliography: Night in the Woods. Developed by Infinite Fall, Secret Lab, and 22nd Century Toys. Published by Finji. Designed by Alec Holowka, Scott Benson, and Bethany Hockenberry. Programmed by Alec Holowka and Jon Manning. Art by Scott Benson and Charles Huettner. Written by Bethany Hockenberry and Scott Benson. Composed by Alec Holowka, Gordon McGladdery, and Em Halberstadt. Unity (engine). Microsoft Windows; macOS; Linux; PlayStation 4; Xbox One; Nintendo Switch; iOS; Android. Original release date: February 21, 2017.

Pyre: Even When You Lose This Game, You Win

Go Nightwings! Copyright © 2017 by Supergiant Games

Supergiant Games is quickly becoming my favorite video game dev team. While I didn’t get hooked on their first hit, Bastion, I fell immeasurably in love with their follow-up title Transistor. And now, I’m enamored with the imagination and energy of their latest game, Pyre.

In a distant fantasy land, Exiles from the prosperous Commonwealth compete with one another in the wastelands, known as the Downside, performing the “Rites” so that they might achieve Liberation and return to society, pardoned for all their crimes. One such Exile becomes the Reader for a group known as the Nightwings. Joining such characters as Hedwyn, Jodariel, and Rukey Greentail, the Reader performs the Rites against different teams, expanding their roster and developing their skills in pursuit of their freedom. And, as the Rites grow more difficult over time, in pursuit of justice as well.

Half the fun of this game is getting to know and experiment with different characters on your team. There’s not only standard trios like the optimistic Hedwyn, the brooding Jodariel, and the self-interested Rukey. There’s also Bertrude, the hissing snake-woman alchemist with some strange ideas of benevolence. There’s Ti’Zo, the absolutely adorable drive-imp who’s been around for a long time. There’s Sir Gilman, the wyrm-knight whose boasting and melodramatic speeches belie his deep-rooted fears. Everyone in the cast adds a fresh angle and splash of color to an already well-designed game.

(And did I mention how cute Ti’Zo is? Because he is. He is a little fluff-ball of delight and mayhem that makes me smile every time he’s onscreen.)

The setting for Pyre makes for an interesting type of gameplay, too. At the end of the day, the game is basically in the same vein as Rocket League or DOTA, but with far more drama and pomp than your typical basketball tournament. Every game is a Rite ordained by the holy Eight Scribes of eons past. Everyone wears “raiments” instead of team jerseys. The Downside is a multilayered, multicolored world where each match takes place near the remains of a long-dead Titan, and where Celestial Orbs are cast into flames in order to score points—er, I mean, gain enlightenment…

And on that note, can I say how refreshing it is to have a game that takes such a positive note on spirituality? As a religious person, it’s easy for me to only see faith in modern media depicted in evil fundamentalists and heroes who “stopped believing in God a long time ago.” Getting a mystical flavor in the Rites, and seeing faith in the Scribes depicted through characters like the Moon-Touched Girl, really adds to the setting for me.

Even if the gameplay boils down to “throw a ball into the enemy’s goal enough times to win” (which is pretty exciting all by itself), the devs did a good job of heightening the stakes as the game continues. Thanks to Greg Kasavin’s writing, we see a larger story unfold with the introduction of Sandalwood, the Nightwings’ mysterious backer, and the Liberation Rites at Mount Alodiel. Character goals and pasts come into focus with these Rites, and every new cycle of gameplay means the opposition gets harder as well, but in a more fulfilling way, I think.

Honestly, the best thing about Pyre is how story and gameplay are integrated. Players might have a story-based issue to explain why they’re stronger now, or why you can’t use them for a certain match (like how Jodariel and Pamitha can’t be on the same team). Even when you lose a match, the story goes on, and your teammates continue to grow in wisdom (which, in the game’s context, translates to actual skill and bonuses in future matches). Losing doesn’t trigger that automatic frustration or demand that you go back to your last save for another try. You could do that, but even a loss against the high-flying Essence team can still be a valuable lesson in the future. And the game is equally merciful when it comes to giving you practice rounds with Sandra the wraith and the Beholder Crystal.

If you want a game with beautiful scenery and an equally touching mythology, then go play Pyre. If you want a game with colorful characters and an amazing soundtrack, then go play Pyre. And if you just want to have fun playing match after match against the Beyonders or the Pyrehearts, then go where the stars align, dear Reader, and play Pyre. It may have taken a while to get here, but this is one title I’ll be coming back to for a long time.

Pyre is available for purchase through retailers like Steam and the PlayStation Store.

Bibliography: Pyre. Developed and published by Supergiant Games. Designed by Amir Rao and Greg Kasavin. Programmed by Gavin Simon and Andrew Wang. Art by Jen Zee. Written by Greg Kasavin. Music by Darren Korb. Microsoft Windows; Linux; Mac OS; PlayStation 4 (platform). Original release date: July 25, 2017.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Ep. 3: Hell is Empty: When the Fire Runs Out

Copyright © 2017 by Deck Nine and Square Enix

As I mentioned before in my post about the emotional content in media, Life is Strange is one of those franchises that gets me on a deep and tragic level, because it’s “not mindless tragedy, but a cathartic experience.” For all its nostalgia filter on the Nineties and early 2000s, and for its themes on childhood friendship and romance, there’s a dark side to life in the small town of Arcadia Bay that leaves so many players torn up by the end, no matter what our choices were.

By that same token, the prequel Life is Strange: Before the Storm is just as heartwrenching, but with no option to rewind time and try again. Every choice, every scar, every loss or victory—it’s all final.

In the final act, Episode 3: Hell is Empty, we see Chloe and Rachel still reeling from the revelation about Sera Gearhardt and her true relationship with Rachel’s father. Meanwhile, Chloe is trying to patch things up at home with David and clean out her debts with Frank Bowers, who’s in his own kind of trouble with Damon Merrick, the top drug dealer in Arcadia Bay. Everything hinges on Rachel’s safety, a possible showdown with Sera and Damon, and getting the whole truth out of James Amber.

Compared to the ups-and-downs from Life is Strange‘s Season 1 finale, Hell is Empty has a far less drastic and more soft-spoken delivery. Its plot doesn’t hinge on murderers abducting girls and town-ending storms, but there are plenty of psychopaths to go around, from Damon the drug dealer to Eliot the obsessive classmate. Instead of a traditional adventure of kicking down doors and taking names, Chloe and Rachel’s journey here comes in the form of confronting father figures and making a new path for themselves. They’re tired of the lies, tired of the conspiracies, and tired of settling down and pretending nothing’s wrong.

Chloe’s personal journey here is one of the better parts of the episode. She’s caring toward Rachel in the wake of her trauma, she has a chance to reconcile (for the moment) with Joyce and David, and she begins to define her “brand.” Namely, putting together her iconic truck, outfits, and blue hair dye. Chloe becomes a more serious punk in this episode, as opposed to the wannabe trailing after Rachel from Episode 1. Even her ghostly interactions with William Price are more confrontational than before, as she comes to terms more and more with his loss.

As for the climax, the story and gameplay is a touch… well, anticlimactic. Even when compared to Max’s dream sequence and final choice in Polarized. Here, Chloe is involved in the big shutdown of the conspiracy behind Rachel’s parentage, but she’s nowhere as active as other side characters turn out to be. Her role is more akin to that of a herald, bringing news between characters and either revealing a painful truth to Rachel or learning to lie to her. But then again, “Everybody Lies,” as Chloe has tagged on various walls in Life is Strange.

And then there’s the post-credits scene. Ooh, boy. That is a dark place for the game to end on. Even though it’s a tie-in for what happens in the first Life is Strange series, it’s still a punch to the player’s gut, and a bit cheap at that. We could’ve had a more tender moment of Chloe mourning Rachel after she goes missing, or perhaps a sense of what happens with Rachel’s parents. But instead, we get this. This sharp reminder of how nothing or no one ever stays safe for long.

In some ways, Before the Storm has been a good prequel to the shifting tides in Arcadia Bay, as best expressed in Rachel’s backstory and Chloe’s transformation into a dropout and rebel. It’s the same drop in innocence and safety that Max Caulfield goes through, but it’s more focused and fleshed-out on two characters rather than on one character trying to balance friendships with solving mysteries and handling time travel. While there are one or two potholes in the road, overall the spirit of the game is a worthy add-on to the series, and it leaves me somewhat optimistic for where things will go in the continuing saga set in Arcadia Bay.

The third episode of Life is Strange: Before the Storm, “Hell is Empty,” is available for purchase and download through Steam, the Xbox Store, and the official website.

Bibliography: Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Episode 3: Hell is Empty. Developed by Deck Nine. Published by Square Enix. Directed by Webb Pickersgill and Chris Floyd. Produced by David Lawrence Hein and Zoe Brown. Designed by William Beacham. Programmed by Danielle Cheah. Art by Andrew Weatherl. Written by Zak Garriss and Ashly Burch (consultant). Unity (engine). Microsoft Windows; Xbox One; PlayStation 4. Original release date: December 20, 2017.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Ep. 2: Brave New World: Burning Every Bridge

Copyright © 2017 by Deck Nine and Square Enix

It’s October, which means it’s the right season for falling leaves, pumpkin spice-flavored everything, and more teenage angst courtesy of Arcadia Bay. Yes, it’s time for another look at the prequel series Life is Strange: Before the Storm, as provided by Deck Nine and Square Enix.

With the release of Episode Two, Brave New World, we pick up on the second day of the series. With Chloe facing expulsion from Blackwell Academy and David moving into the Price household, she turns to Rachel Amber for salvation. Rachel offers Chloe hope, while their mutual friend Frank offers Chloe a glimpse into the side of the Bay’s skeevy underbelly. The story culminates in three key confrontations: a run-in with a drug dealer, a performance of The Tempest, and a chance to uncover the truth behind Rachel’s father’s actions in the park.

One of the better parts about Brave New World is how much opportunity Chloe has to cut loose. She’s done wasting time on anyone else, and so she’s free to rebel against anyone and everyone, all thanks to Rachel’s inspiration (as beautifully illustrated by the opening title sequence). At the same time, Rachel shows that she’s developing more of a trickster side, using her acting skills both onstage and off to her advantange, and to constantly keep Chloe on her toes.

As much as I love this series, I found that this episode in particular seemed a bit unorganized. It had a great beginning during the scenes at Blackwell, as Chloe’s “safe” future at school unravels. But from there, the story meanders between time with Rachel, time in the junkyard, a job with Frank, a play, and (spoilers) one very awkward dinner party near the end. By comparison, the time we spent playing in Episode One had a lot more focus thanks to the common thread of Chloe trying to bond with Rachel Amber and sort out her feelings about said girl. I feel like there was a pacing issue in the new episode. While I love that so much was packed in, I also kept wondering after a certain point when the game was actually going to just end and roll credits.

I’ll also admit that, compared to when the game was in the hands of Dontnod Entertainment, the new graphics are amazing under Deck Nine’s prowess. Of course, I’m not the only one who’s also had a little difficulty trying to run the game in a single smooth sequence. It’s been all too likely for someone like me, even with up-to-date graphical drivers, to face frequent crashes and reboots within an hour or two of solid gameplay. I know there were plenty of glitches and bugs in the original Life is Strange series, but it seems unusual for the new game to come with such a common design issue while running, even on newer systems and hardware.

Overall, I’m glad that I got to experience another visit to Arcadia Bay and to the twisted lives of Chloe and Rachel. While this was a crazy collection of stories compared to the first episode, Brave New World still delivered plenty of meaningful interactions and a few solid surprises for our teenage adventurers. And it’s a very clever bit of foreshadowing that there’s still a wildfire burning in the background of every scene, still scattering ashes and misery even in the happiest moments of the game.

The second episode of Life is Strange: Before the Storm, “Brave New World,” is currently available for purchase and download through Steam, the Xbox Storeand the official website.

Bibliography: Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Episode 2: Brave New World.Developed by Deck Nine. Published by Square Enix. Directed by Webb Pickersgill and Chris Floyd. Produced by David Lawrence Hein and Zoe Brown. Designed by William Beacham. Programmed by Danielle Cheah. Art by Andrew Weatherl. Written by Zak Garriss and Ashly Burch (consultant). Unity (engine). Microsoft Windows; Xbox One; PlayStation 4. Original release date: October 19, 2017.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Episode 1: Awake: Talk Back, Move Forward

Copyright © 2017 by Deck Nine and Square Enix

Writing prequels to a story is tricky. On the one hand, you have to take details from various backstory clues and try to weave them together without contradicting the existing story we already know. On the other hand, you still have to tell a story with its own beginning, middle, and end. If you don’t do this right, you get the Star Wars prequels. If you do it well, you get a compelling tale like Better Call Saul or Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

I’d also put Life is Strange: Before the Storm in this latter category. It’s a compelling look into the past of Arcadia Bay through characters we all know and love.

In Episode 1: “Awake,” we meet Chloe Price at age 16, as she sneaks out at night to attend a Firewalk concert outside the town limits. A sudden encounter with some local toughs and Rachel Amber changes her life forever. Rather than face the ugly truth of her mother Joyce dating David Madsen, or her decline in school attendance at Blackwell Academy, Chloe latches onto the elusive Rachel. Of course, mysteries love to stack onto each other, and this first episode ties together the girls’ fate with their relationships to their respective fathers. For Chloe, it’s about confronting her father’s untimely demise, and for Rachel, it’s dealing with a parent who wasn’t what he seemed to be.

When I first played Life is Strange back in 2014, I didn’t love Chloe Price as a character. But in the episodes that followed, she grew on me. In Before the Storm, I’ve actually come to enjoy playing Chloe as a protagonist over Max. The key difference, I think, is that Max could be easily shaped by how you rewound time and what choices you did or didn’t make. Here, Chloe always has an agenda. She always has a way to get things done, but it’s more of a question if she’ll be quiet and then subvert the System later, or if she’ll get in someone’s face with sarcasm and a few keen insights. It makes Chloe stand out more, even while she’s burning bridges with the principal and making good impressions with the local D&D nerds (and by the way, did you know you can play a short Dungeons & Dragons game in Episode 1?).

On a meta level, I also respect the fact that Chloe Price isn’t being voiced by Ashly Burch, owing to the SAG-AFTRA strike. I love that Miss Burch is still involved as a writing consultant who can bring Chloe back to life, and I think Rhianna DeVries does a fine job as her vocal successor.

Meanwhile, we get a closer look at who Rachel Amber is and what makes her tick. I must say, if you’ve ever played or heard of the fan-made game Love is Strange, then I think you won’t be surprised at how similar their interpretation of Rachel is to the real deal. Or, at least, that’s how I see it. Rachel likes being an enigma, but I get the sense that she’s playing it up to cover for something deep and painful—not unlike how Chloe plays up the deliquent factor to mask her abandonment issues (which we get to see in dream sequences and one heartbreaking junkyard scene).

Besides the character depth we get to explore for both Chloe and Rachel, I love the new mechanics in this series. While Max’s time rewind powers were fun to play with, I also found them very stressful and sometimes they clashed with the plot. Instead, what we get with Chloe is Backtalk and Graffiti. With Backtack Challenges, you can basically shut down an argument with someone else through skillful wit and sarcasm. And, of course, like with any choice in Life is Strange,there will be consequences.” Except, here, the consequences feel like they mean something now. There’s no way to undo it when Chloe loses an argument. She just has to move on.

And I love, love being able to write graffiti wherever I can. Seriously, I know it can be difficult to develop, but I’d love to see more games that let me change around the environment like this. Even if it has nothing to do with the actual story content, it’s just a fun little exercise.

I don’t think Before the Storm is a perfect game (the constant AMD driver crashes on my end certainly didn’t help me with the gameplay experience), but I find it’s an improvement over some of the criticisms leveled at the original Life is Strange. Chloe’s character arc is compelling, her interactions with Rachel and other students are meaningful, and there’s room for all kinds of plot development and new game mechanics in the next two episodes. It’s amazing how a little jaunt into the past can sometimes open up a bright new future.

The first episode of Life is Strange: Before the Storm, “Awake,” is currently available for purchase and download through Steam, the Xbox Store, and the official website.

Bibliography: Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Episode 1: Awake. Developed by Deck Nine. Published by Square Enix. Directed by Webb Pickersgill and Chris Floyd. Produced by David Lawrence Hein and Zoe Brown. Designed by William Beacham. Programmed by Danielle Cheah. Art by Andrew Weatherl. Written by Zak Garriss and Ashly Burch (consultant). Unity (engine). Microsoft Windows; Xbox One; PlayStation 4. Original release date: August 31, 2017.