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.
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.