Night in the Woods (2017)
Developer: Infinite Fall
Night in the Woods just recently celebrated the 2-year anniversary of its release, and in those 2 years has earned extremely high praise as unique and artistic indie title. Years before that release, it fostered a loyal fan community who supported it on Kickstarter. Although I'm a little late to this game, I decided to give it some more well-deserved attention on this anniversary. Night in the Woods is a 2D adventure platformer where you play as Mae, a sophomore in college, who has just returned to her small town home.
I'm going to very honestly describe this game as a "college dropout simulator" - at least that's what it feels like for about half of the game. This is definitely not a bad thing. It means you get to sleep in, hang out with your friends from high school (when they're done working), play bass, play computer games, jump on power lines, steal pretzels, and pick fights with your grumpy neighbors. Time isn't actually on a counter, so you can choose to do as many or as few things as you feel like doing on most days. I really enjoyed being given this freedom right away to explore and get to know this small town, especially since many people and things change from day to day. The daily routine could begin to get repetitive, but when it does it will probably be right around the time the story begins to really ramp up.
Night in the Woods has one of my favorite mechanics I've seen for keeping track of your progress in the game. Mae owns a journal, and she writes and sketches the events that happen to her or that she observes, immediately after it happens. Not only is it a helpful way to keep track of your achievements, in a way that actually fits into narrative, but it adds some really fun art to the game and insight into Mae's thoughts. I noticed before I finished the game that several scattered pages still blank, but I wasn't sure what exactly I had missed, as you can't go back to previous days. Unfortunately, by the end, I did not 100% game. I am definitely considering going back to hit up those miss-able moments, but it somewhat impedes me that the game forces you to start over fresh after the game's ending.
Maybe it's just me, but the fact that Night in the Woods includes both human-seeming character animals and non-talking animals that serve as pets kind of messes with my brain a little. I'm sure it's purposeful choice to add this contradiction in, meant to be silly, but for some reason I got held up on it and really tried to create explanation in my mind, not concluding on any certain one. In the end, you just accept it for what it is.
There's always some risk in giving the player a protagonist character to play who has a strong personality and their values already defined. I appreciate when this is done, since after playing many years of "silent protagonist" games, it does begin to make the story feel a little unrealistic. In the case of Mae, she's at the peak of dealing with some pretty deep-rooted issues that she still doesn't quite have the capacity to understand and address, even through dialogue with others in the game. I do believe this makes her more relatable - a young adult, lacking confidence and motivation, feeling like burden to her family. However, for me, there were moments where it was really difficult to understand the character and play through her eyes. I specifically find it unrealistic in media when where young adults, past the age of being teenagers, curse and belittle their parents while their parents calmly ask to know more. This isn't what Mae is like the whole time, of course, this was just one scene of the game that suck with me. Nonetheless, it made it difficult for me to side with Mae, as this was something no one in my family would have pushed towards. It becomes clear later down the story that Mae is often not in control of her emotions and doesn't know how to answer questions about her condition, but in certain moments it was a challenge to imagine yourself in her shoes.
Despite Night in the Woods mostly starting out as a tame, almost emo, story of some hometown friends, by the half-way point the events have gained both serious gravity and surrealism. Once the ending ramps up, it comes at you nonstop, before you can have a moment to figure out what is really happening. Even now, I think over some of the last scenes and their meaning, making me question a lot of real-life issues. Each of the four main characters is complex in their motivations and struggles, and you can choose to spend time with each of them as you wish to find that out. For me, that meant visiting Gregg as much as possible, since Gregg rules.
Night in the Woods is a perfect blend of cute animals and dark, somewhat grunge personalities and stories. In its appearance it could pass as a game acceptable for kids, but this would be incorrect. I'd actually say it has topics more mature and dark than most indie games I've played. The art style reflects this combat ion - bold colors, but colors that represent autumn and melancholy. The characters are reminiscent of teenagers in an indie film, desperate to break out of their small town limits but also performing a repetitive routine that they need a big push break out of. The music is fitting as well, including the tracks that can be played on Mae's bass, Guitar Hero (on a controller) style. The soundtrack is actually 3 full albums by Alec Holowka, available on Bandcamp, and is definitely one of my new favorites to listen to in its entirety.
Night in the Woods has two supplementary games available for free on itch. The first, Longest Night, feels like it's a 10-minute tidbit taken from the main game that just wasn't included; it is technically a prequel to Night in the Woods, however. The second, Lost Constellation, is a separate story on its own, although it's a story being told to young Mae. Lost Constellation is about an hour long and plays much more like the main game, but with completely different characters. I recommend checking both of these out, although Lost Constellation was especially and surprisingly good. The order doesn't really matter, I would probably just get to them after you've finished Night in the Woods and are itching for more, like I was.
Night in the Woods is an excellent piece of art; it allows us to feel things that make us uncomfortable but are important to address and process. It is also art that accurately represents the right now, especially 2017, when it was released. It feels much like a movie at times, but gives you freedom and side stories to play with explore as you choose to; unfortunately some of the best parts are miss-able, so you'll have to really make your rounds. I really believe this game is for everyone (maybe not kids), the world and its characters will reach you in expected ways, especially hitting home for those who come from a nowhere small town with quirks and a messy history.
Night in the Woods is available for PC, XBox One, Playstation 4, and Nintendo Switch.
Played on: Nintendo Switch
Playtime: 10 hrs
How I heard about this game: Recommended by friends