One of my favorite things of 2017 was Night in the Woods, a game developed by Infinite Fall and Secret Lab. I listed it as my absolute top thing of 2017 in our year in review episode, but I didn’t feel like I said enough about it. I recently replayed the game, along with a patch (the “Weird Autumn” expansion) that turns the game into a director’s cut of sorts, and knew that more attention needed to be paid to this charming game.
Night in the Woods was released in early 2017, but it’s been in development for years. Originally the product of a successful Kickstarter campaign, the game follows Mae Borowski, a recent college dropout, who returns to her small hometown of Possum Springs. Some instigating event pushed Mae to quit school, but the details of that event aren’t fully revealed until much later in the game. Mae--and others around town--also mention something that happened in high school, something that earned Mae the nickname “killer”-- but that comes later as well. Mae lives day to day in Possum Springs, hanging out with her old friends and talking to people in town. Mae also begins to uncover a malicious plot that threatens to young people of the town.
If you don’t want to be spoiled for the game, stop reading now. Go ahead. I’ll be here when you get back.
OK, so you loved the game right?
There are a lot of things that make this game great, but its deft handling of mental illness is what makes it truly shine. It’s possible that my reading of the game as the story of a young girl dealing with untreated mental disability isn’t the only way to view the game, but it is an important one. The game never specifically names what’s going on with Mae, but her symptoms line up with depression and anxiety. Mostly, Mae strugglings with feeling empty. She can’t sleep normally (both because she has terrible, weird dreams and because she stays up at weird hours). She focuses on and imagines wild scenarios. She gets obsessive.
Most importantly, the game doesn’t punish Mae for this, and neither do the other characters in the game. Yes, her friends call her on her crap--they don’t let her be a jerk--but they also show concern and love. They show Mae grace when she doesn’t have any to give in return.
This is a story we need in the world.
Small Town Life
Possum Springs is a true small town and it feels very familiar to me specifically, because my town seems similar; Soperton once had lots of jobs and a better economy, but all that was gone by the time I was born. Now, store fronts are boarded up and people all have to travel outside of town to work or do their shopping. Everyone in Possum Springs knows Mae and will never forget her transgressions. To those who don’t know her well, Mae is frozen in time as her high school self. She can’t escape the past, and that sometimes overwhelms her.
Also, there’s the added issue of there being nothing to do in Possum Springs, leading Mae and Gregg do do what they call Crimes (which, you know, are actual crimes, but also seem pretty minor in their illegality).
The setting also allows the game to comment on class in a way many other games can’t or don’t. Mae does have some amount of privilege, but it has its limits. For example, the Borowski’s seem to be an immigrant family (judging from their name, Mae’s grandfather’s stories of the old country), but they’ve settled into a fairly comfortable life. They have a house, unlike Bea or Gregg and Angus, and Mae is the first Borowski to go to college. However, the Borowskis are in danger of losing their house because of the therapy Mae had to attend after her high school incident, and because of her college tuition. Her parents don’t want Mae to know about their money struggles, of course, but she does in the way kids always know something is wrong with their parents. Mae has the privilege of time off, too; the game takes place over the fall semester.
Mae’s friends don’t seem to have as much as she does, even though her privilege isn’t infinite. Bea talks about how college wasn’t an option for her after her mom died, since she had to take over the family business and learn to be an adult. Gregg and Angus both work bad retail jobs so they can save to move to the city. No one is rich here, not even the other citizens of Possum Springs, who are struggling with a lack of jobs in their failed mining town. Possum Springs isn’t a hopeful place, but its inhabitants make the best of what they have and--much as Ladybird in Ladybird--seem to love this little town they also hate. Living in a small town conjures up a lot of emotions and a unique set of struggles that those from the “big city” might not be aware of, and this game captures that.
NITW is a narrative game, and there’s no way around that fact. Some people hate these sorts of games, and some people (like me) love them. While NITW isn’t a “walking-sim” per se, it does lean heavily on narrative elements and, in the end, the minigames and skill tests don’t really matter. Whether you successfully break the light bulbs during one of Gregg’s crime moments or not, he’ll still be your friend at the end of the day.
The gameplay is fairly simple; the player navigates Mae around a 2-D sidescrolling town and participate in a variety of mini-games--like feeding baby rats pretzels, breaking light bulbs with a baseball bat, buzzing apartments from downstairs, and shoplifting. Each day, Mae has to decide who she wants to spend time with, always at the expense of another friend. Mae goes on a short outing with that friend that usually involves a mini-game and dialogue.
Don’t misunderstand, the gameplay is FUN, it’s just not complicated or essential to the plot of the game. The game isn’t about these minigames or choices, even though they sometimes yield hidden surprises (like the rat babies Mae can find and feed--so cute). Moreover, there’s something soothing about NITW’s gameplay. I found myself playing the game before bed at night and getting the same effects of reading a book. I felt relaxed, at ease. That’s not something I experience playing video games very often.
The game’s cast consists of anthropomorphic animals, which negates conversations about race in the game--for better or worse. There’s already a lot going on in NITW, and it’s possible that its two white developers didn’t feel like race was a topic they were qualified to cover. Also, the design is just VERY CUTE. I want to be friends with Mae and Bea and Gregg and especially Angus, the hipster bear of my heart.
The design is stylish in a minimalistic way. Characters have distinctive personalities reflected (to some extent) in their clothing and body language, but expressions are minimal and the animations repetitive. That being said, a small twitch of Mae’s ear or Angus’s raised ears might mean something significant. Minimalistic expressions is a classic, yet innovative, approach to game design. The most heralded games of the SNES era--like Super Mario World and Link to the Past--don’t have detailed facial expressions from characters because they’re limited by system output. NITW isn’t limited by graphics, but instead chooses the minimalist style, letting the characters body language and actual words speak for them. A lack of clear expressions also allows the game to avoid something I see as increasingly common in video games today--uncanny valley. New and shiny graphics look wonderful, but they also don’t age well, and they drastically change the tone of the game. The style of the game contributes to the mood, to the tone, if you will, and it works well in NITW.
The Beefy Stuff: EMOTIONS
Mae’s depression (if we want to call it that), weighs heavy on the game, and it’s no coincidence I’m spending most of this blog post talking about it. Yes, there is a plot to uncover an evil cult that is terrorizing the young people of Possum Springs, but even that is weighted with Mae’s feelings of loneliness. The cult even says that they take kids who seem “sad,” who won’t be missed by anyone in the town. Most recently, they took Casey, Mae’s friend who comes from a bad home and befriended crust punks out by the train tracks. On the outside, sure, it looks like no one cares about Casey, but each time the player opens Mae’s computer and sees Casey’s instant messenger icon, it’s clear that at least Mae cared about him. He had friends. He was loved.
At one point in the game, Mae spends the day saying goodbyes and “I love yous” to all her friends and family. She spends the day telling her friends and family she loves them, and they all seem worried. Mae never says she’s planning to kill herself, but her mannerisms seem to suggest she is. The entire day has a veil of sadness laid over it, one that the player can’t see through and has to guess at. And isn’t this the way depression really is? One day you might feel so down you can’t see the other side, and the next you might feel a bit bitter. The entire time, family and friends will worry, but they won’t no what to do. Mae has to weather through the bad days on her own, which mimics the terrible isolation of depression.
Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that the world needs stories like NITW. Tumblr and Twitter and Instagram can be terrible, abusive places, but they can also insulate us if we curate our feeds just right.
But if you watch the news on any given day, it’s clear that everything is NOT OK. It’s nice to see stories like NITW, soft stories that promote introspection and acceptance, even of the parts of oneself that are unsavory. Mae discovers, over the course of the game, that there’s no honor in ignoring your problems.
Video games are supposed to be fun in some sense, but the best ones force players to think about bigger issues. NITW does both. I’ve been thinking recently about “walking sim” games and how they’re often lauded as art, how they emotionally engage players. Games that are sheer fun, games that promise high impact action, often get overlooked as being just fun. They are somehow barred from the category of art. NITW does both.
As you can probably tell, I rate NITW 10/10, and I'll definitely be returning to it again and again. I highly suggest everyone pick it up!