Emo­tional depth with a back­drop of ba­nal­ity

Im­mer­sive nar­ra­tive has char­ac­ters with foibles rarely seen in gam­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - CLASSICAL MUSIC - BY CHRISTO­PHER BYRD style@wash­post.com

I to­tally fell for “Night in the Woods” after the knives came out. That’s when Mae Borowskie and her buddy Gregg be­gin stab­bing each other’s hands to see who could tough it out long­est. Two friends hang­ing out, act­ing young, be­ing dumb. It is one of the many scenes that make the game feel more in touch with earthy, ev­ery­day life than most.

Whereas so many video-game char­ac­ters are al­pha types, suave and cock­sure, the char­ac­ters in “Night in the Woods” are the op­po­site. They fum­ble their way through em­bar­rass­ing sit­u­a­tions, men­tal-health is­sues, low self-ex­pec­ta­tions and petty cru­elty — a spec­trum of emo­tions rarely fo­cused on in video games. Like “To the Moon,” “Her Story” or “Life is Strange,” “Night in the Woods” is a re­minder of how emo­tion­ally tepid most other ti­tles are in com­par­i­son.

Twenty-year-old Mae doesn’t want to go into de­tail about why she has dropped out of col­lege and re­turned to Pos­sum Springs. Why any­one would want to re­turn to her small, seem­ingly dead-end home town, which can’t even get a cell­phone tower in­stalled in its area, is a ques­tion that hangs over the story.

Gregg is try­ing to leave the area with his boyfriend An­gus to re­lo­cate to a more queer-friendly en­vi­ron­ment. Mae’s other close friend, Bea, who calls Mae out on her im­ma­tu­rity, would ap­pre­ci­ate noth­ing more than the chance to get out of town to

“Night in the Woods” has an el­e­gant de­sign and a pared-down car­toony aes­thetic, which are paired with ex­am­i­na­tions of life’s vi­cis­si­tudes.

bet­ter her­self.

To fore­stall reck­on­ing with her de­ci­sion, Mae does her best to duck her par­ents’ gen­tle sug­ges­tions that she get a job. In­stead, like a kid do­ing ev­ery­thing she can to avoid grow­ing up, she gives her­self over to the daily rhythm of wan­der­ing around town ab­sorb­ing its eco­nomic de­cline, vis­it­ing her friends at their jobs.

When all are free, some­times the crew get to­gether for band prac­tice — an amus­ing but fruit­less en­deavor; they en­ter­tain no il­lu­sions of spiff­ing up their act to take it pub­lic. De­spite their con­stant stream of ban­ter, a sense of en­nui dances around the edges of their ac­tiv­ity, some­times trip­ping into full view. For in­stance, at a dough­nut joint, Mae has an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis. Look­ing in the mir­ror in the bath­room, she loses any sense of the fun that she thought she was hav­ing with her friends. In a flash, her de­pres­sion gives way to a de­struc­tive ma­nia that leads her to wreck the bath­room un­til Gregg in­ter­venes. The game skill­fully places such dra­matic episodes in be­tween far less in­tense mo­ments like en­gag­ing in a lit­tle fam­ily bond­ing by watch­ing bad TV.

The game’s sim­ple yet re­fined vis­ual style made me think of Chris Ware’s comic books. In both cases, el­e­gant de­sign and a pared-down car­toony aes­thetic are paired with ex­am­i­na­tions of life’s vi­cis­si­tudes. In “Night in the Woods,” peo­ple who look like birds walk next to birds just as peo­ple who look like cats cross paths with cats. Such whim­si­cal ab­strac­tions won my af­fec­tion. They bake into the game a cer­tain amount of lev­ity, which makes the emo­tional fire­works stick out all the more. I would be ne­glect­ful, how­ever, if I didn’t men­tion that I’ve read com­plaints on­line about the game’s lin­ear­ity and its length, some sug­gest­ing it would have worked bet­ter as a short graphic novel. Un­der­stand­ably, game­play-first peo­ple may take is­sue with the game’s re­laxed plat­form­ing me­chan­ics and low over­all chal­lenge. But it still cap­i­tal­izes on one of the dis­tinc­tive traits of video games — the abil­ity to fun­nel peo­ple into rou­tines.

Un­like other nar­ra­tive-driven games like “Gone Home” or “Ev­ery­body’s Gone to the Rap­ture” that can be com­pleted in less than four hours, “Night in the Woods” is con­sid­er­ably longer. (I’m not sure how long it took me to fin­ish it, but Steam tells me that I had the pro­gram open for more than a dozen hours.) Although some of the on­line com­ments found the nar­ra­tive plod­ding at points, I found the game’s length to be in the ser­vice of a healthy artis­tic strat­egy. As in life, some of Mae’s days are more note­wor­thy than oth­ers. There are days when she’ll talk to a per­son who is seated in the same spot they were the day be­fore, and the con­ver­sa­tion will be just as trite as it was then. But even­tu­ally, in­evitably, some­thing changes, and the in­ci­dent ap­pears more con­se­quen­tial be­cause it emerges against a back­drop of ba­nal­ity. I doubt I’d have found the game as af­fect­ing as I did if I hadn’t grown so se­dated by the day-in-day-out mun­dane el­e­ments of Mae’s life in Pos­sum Springs. That’s not to say Mae doesn’t go on ad­ven­tures. She goes on plenty, and I think I’ll al­ways re­mem­ber a few of those ex­cur­sions, which is more than I can say about the quests in a lot of role-play­ing games. As a mat­ter of fact, I’ve had Alec Holowka’s orig­i­nal sound­track run­ning through my head since I fin­ished “Night in the Woods,” which speaks to the part of me that doesn’t want to let any of it go.

FINJI

NIGHT IN THE WOODS In­fi­nite Fall, Finji Mac, PC, PlayS­ta­tion 4

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