Emotional depth with a backdrop of banality
Immersive narrative has characters with foibles rarely seen in gaming
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.
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.
NIGHT IN THE WOODS Infinite Fall, Finji Mac, PC, PlayStation 4