Night In The Woods

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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.

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