Night in the Woods takes so long to get its meandering plot moving, I almost thought it never would, and that I’d be listening to the trials and tribulations of small-town Anywheresville for seven hours. I’d even started to grow okay with that idea—and then the plot did start moving, and I sorta wished it hadn’t. Funny how things work sometimes.
It’s neither praise nor condemnation, simply a comment on how Night in the Woods defies expectations as an oft-brilliant piece of interactive fiction couched within just enough action and leaping to-and-fro to get the “This isn’t even a game!” crowd off its back. Maybe.
Taking place in the quiet mining town of Possum Springs, Night in the Woods tells the story of Mae Borowski, a 20-something college girl who bails out of college and returns home to live with her parents, hang out with old friends, “Get The Band Back Together,” eat pizza, go to keggers, and try to figure out what the hell she should do next.
Each day you’ll wake up, check to see if your friends sent you any messages, maybe say good morning (afternoon) to your mother in the kitchen, and then wander around town talking to people.
There’s your ex-best friend Bea, who works at the hardware store, takes care of her dad, and programs beats into a drum machine for the band. There’s your current best friend Gregg, who both works at the local convenience store and—when nobody’s looking—robs it. Nerdy and shy Angus rounds out the crew, caring entirely too much about his dead-end job at the how-is-this-still-in-business video rental store.
And then there’s the rest of the town—the two guys who stand outside the bar and cheer for the local sports team (Go Smelters!), the pastor trying to convert her half-empty church into a homeless shelter, and countless other people living day by day. Oh, and your dad of course, who comes home from his new job at the grocery store and spends the nights watching bad TV. Some nights, you’ll join him.
With those two groups comes two stories.
The obvious one is about Mae herself, stuck in the gray area between childhood and adulthood. She’s Dustin Hoffman, drifting in the pool in The Graduate—no job, no prospects, and no plan. She's rying to pick back up with old friends, only to find they’ve changed in the years she’s been at college.
She’s an asshole. Which is to say, she’s 20. Mae means well, but you’ll go through much of the game embarrassed, “in control” of Mae as she says contemptible things to people she cares about, selfish and callous and occasionally cruel. Later, sometimes, she’s remorseful.
It’s not always well-written. Some of Mae’s conversations are overwrought, philosophical meandering that would sound ridiculous coming out of anyone’s mouth. But then sometimes you stand on a log at a party and drunkenly yell “It’s not my fault I’m a total trashfire.”
Or you have an extended conversation with your mom about how the old grocery store disappeared and there’s a new grocery store and oh wow isn’t that crazy. The most mundane discussions—and yet there’s a spark, here. There’s a point, if you’re lucky, where you start to recognize yourself in the game, whether in Mae or one of the secondary characters. You find bits and pieces of interactions you’ve had with your own mother, or people in your life. At those moments, some small part of you goes “It’s not just me,” and that’s when Night in the Woods feels like magic.
The other story here is that of a dying town. “The jobs never come back. The kids never come back. Everything crumbles. Possum Springs bleeds to death,” as one character puts it.
It’s not a particularly unique story, maybe. You can hear bits and pieces of it in a dozen Bruce Springsteen songs, from “The River” to “My Hometown.” The collapse of American manufacturing, the slow death-by-a-thousand-cuts exodus of young people from the towns they grew up in, has been a long time in the making.
But the brilliance of Night in the Woods is that these aspects are largely implied. Aside from the bit above there’s little moralizing done here, no lengthy monologues about the death of the American dream or whatever.
Instead your parents talk about mounting bills and bad mortgage loans, neighbors talk about the mine closing down and so-and-so leaving town to go work elsewhere. It can even be as simple as a discussion about how the old grocery store went out of business and now people have to go to the one by the highway. Oh, the old building is still there of course, a boarded up husk down by the railroad tracks, standing as memorial to itself.
[Light, non-story spoilers ahead]
One of the best moments is one of the smallest. There’s a throwaway interaction between the two sports fans I mentioned earlier, standing outside the bar each day. Late in the game one of them gets a job out of town. He tells his buddy goodbye, and then he’s gone. From there on out, there’s only one guy on the porch each day when you walk by, sad and somewhat bitter when you talk to him.
It’s a nothing moment, a few lines of dialogue and entirely inconsequential to Mae’s story, but there’s more going on here than in hours and hours of many other games.
“One of the best moments is one of the smallest,” I wrote above—and that’s true. But I’d expand that to say “All of the best moments are small moments.” Night in the Woods excels because it’s built on characters that feel real, or at least in which we can recognize some reflection of reality. Even the smallest of roles, you can probably say “Oh I’ve met that person in real life.”
Which makes the final piece of Night in the Woods less satisfying. See, there are really three stories at play here, the last of which is a bizarre murder-mystery and/or supernatural ghost story that takes up the last third of the game or so.
It’s not bad per se, and there’s quite a bit to unpack about what it all means. Some people may enjoy digging into those aspects.
Me? I think Night in the Woods is best when it’s just you and your friends hanging out in some crappy practice space, talking about 20-something problems and trying to figure a way out of your dead-end job in a dead-end town. The Springsteen stuff.
Now for the standard disclaimer: Night in the Woods is not for everyone. Even hidden within the framework of a traditional platformer, there’s bound to be a group who thinks it’s “Not A Game.” Fine, whatever.
Those people are missing out though. Night in the Woods may be a pastiche of influences, but as far as video games go, there’s really nothing else like it, and there’s a lot to be learned from spending a dozen days in Mae’s life—about her and her friends, about yourself, about America and towns forgotten by time.