Night In The Woods
Stealing has never been quite so nerve-wracking. From pickpocketing as Corvo Attano or Ezio Auditore to smashing villagers’ urns and scooping up their hidden rupees as Link, we’ve become masters of casual theft over the years. Yet as Mae Borowski stretches out a paw to grab a chunky belt buckle while a shop assistant shifts her gaze in the other direction, we find ourselves reflexively tensing. This is low-stakes stuff as far as crimes go, but Night In The Woods has convinced us that it matters. As we hurriedly exit the shop with our ill-gotten gains and breathe, along with Mae, a sigh of relief, we realise why. It’s because we care.
That’s quite the feat, since Mae isn’t always the easiest protagonist to like. At the tender age of 20, she’s dropped out of college and has returned to her home, the gloomy town of Possum Springs, which has evidently been in steady decline for some years. While her parents fret over finances, her former schoolmates have been forced to adjust quickly to the realities of adulthood, with three of them working in the handful of local stores that haven’t been shuttered. Everyone has moved on, in other words, yet Mae hasn’t done much growing up, and seems oblivious to the trials of her friends and family. As such, the dialogue options you’re given are often a choice between two equally insensitive options. The first time someone calls her an asshole, you’ll be quietly inclined to agree.
Still, with her self-destructive tendencies and propensity for insensitivity, Mae is the kind of flawed lead we don’t see enough of. While she may sometimes be careless and unthinking, her heart’s in the right place, even when her mouth isn’t. The rest of the cast are realised with similar nuance. Among her friends, alligator Bea is fittingly snappy, but her irritation at Mae’s immaturity belies a demonstrable affection. Meanwhile Gregg (an endearingly irresponsible fox) and Angus (a thoughtful, compassionate bear) are two seeming opposites whose relationship nevertheless feels sweet and sincere. The quality of the writing is such that you’ll seek out incidental dialogue and interactions. Reaching past a flyer (‘Possum Springs? More like Awesome Springs’) Mae rolls her eyes at the presence of a ball of yarn, before reacting with delight as she bats it about. “Oh, man,” she says. “It bounces.”
An early discovery of a severed arm sets up a dark mystery plot that takes its sweet time to come to the boil. For almost all of its first half, and much of its second, Night In The Woods is less concerned with story than character. There’s more than a dash of Richard Linklater’s loose, unhurried style and generous humanism here, while the humour carries the same warmth and occasional bite you’d expect from Mike Judge. Somehow the dialogue, with its off-the-cuff remarks and idiosyncratic phrases, feels almost improvisational – a terrific recurring gag where Gregg and Mae imagine increasingly grisly fates for one another rings wonderfully true. As, too, do the messenger chats on her laptop, with their occasional spelling mistakes and pregnant pauses. The strength of the writing is such that you’ll barely notice that you’re spending most of your time walking (and jumping; every third leap gets a Marioaping height boost) around Possum Springs looking for people to talk to. Besides, developer Infinite Fall regularly tries to disrupt the routine with various asides, like the aforementioned shoplifting sequence and a cathartic striplight-smashing episode in a parking lot at sunset. Mae will jot down the day’s activities in her journal, the words and doodles becoming a personal document shaped by the decisions you make and your performance in the minigames. Three increasingly challenging rhythm-action interludes see Mae pick up her old bass guitar to jam with her friends; after we struggle to adjust to a fast-paced number, she diarises her failure thus: “RIP my bass playing”.
Such moments of levity are the perfect counterpoint to an undercurrent of darkness that grows steadily more pervasive as the story moves into its third and fourth chapters. Just as Mae begins to settle into a routine, her dreams grow stranger and more unsettling. These take the form of simple platforming sections, which at first represent another change of rhythm and style, but soon begin to outstay their welcome: the environments are large and sparse, with awkward layouts that enforce backtracking. More damningly, you’ll come to realise there’s no real reason for their existence. Until then we were happy to fall in with the meandering pace. It really didn’t need slowing down any further.
If these nightmares are a forgivable misstep, the final chapter’s deluge of plot developments and an ill-advised dip into cosmic horror are more damaging. The relatable human drama is hastily shunted aside for something harder to pin down; the thematic strands never come close to knitting together, and one potentially horrifying reveal is handled so clumsily it left us spluttering. And if earlier exchanges were on the brink of overindulgence, there are moments here in dire need of an editor’s knife.
An affecting epilogue salvages plenty from the wreckage. Its message, delivered with humour and feeling, is a heartfelt missive to the dejected and disaffected; a reminder that when life feels more darkness than light, there’s always a good reason to keep plodding on. Night In The Woods might test your resolve in similar fashion, but it’s a testament to the characters that you surely will. Perhaps that’s Infinite Fall’s ultimate triumph: with a group of 2D animals it’s built a cast that’s more rounded and identifiably human than any mo-capped blockbuster.