Night in the Woods Review
I enjoy a good novel now and then. Reading literature has never been my absolute favorite personal hobby, but every so often I feel a sudden craving to lose myself in a book, allow the words and narrative descriptions to inspire my brain or even just pass the time. I’m constantly reading something though, everyday. As a writer, reading is the most important hobby one can have; fortunately for me, I prefer essays, so even just reading a review or an online article is a great influence on my own prose.
But a great novel has the ability to consume a reader, envelop them within the author’s unique style. Fleshing out characters through words alone is quite a task, and the most effective examples involve as few explicit descriptions as possible. Show, don’t tell, as they say; make the characters actually come alive and speak for themselves. Thus is the key to crafting an involved and engaging story, regardless of medium, really.
Night in the Woods plays off as a visual novel; a great one, in fact, and I have not been as enthralled with a game such as this in quite a while. It pushes boundaries to an extent which I haven’t really seen before, and manages to consistently compel and entertain despite its length and deceptive simplicity.
Stylistically, it’s a children’s picturebook come to Life, but with the narrative sophistication of a great novel. Protagonist Mae’s return home marks a psychological retreat into infantile dependency upon her parents, friends, and general community. Even as she consistently proclaims her adulthood to those around town, the facade is never deemed convincing enough to warrant her as a mature individual.
The colorful illustrations and anthropomorphic characters all aim to constantly remind the player of Mae’s internal liminal status. She wants to be seen as an adult, but is just as equally as scared of growing up, of assuming the responsibilities that follow in the wake of post-adolescence.
Essentially, the game is a fascinating depiction of the psychological effects of insecurity on modern young-adult Americans. In this generation of internet-obsessed teens, promoting their introverted nature through meme communities, the idea of growing up can be a nightmare all its own. NitW aims to accurately exemplify this visually as well as through its storytelling, which is nearly-entirely explained through dialogue.
One may feel suffocated by the game’s abundant dialogue scenarios and limited (traditional) gameplay — and I mean this as a compliment. Sessions with Mae’s tale can often prove exhaustive, and I found myself having to take breaks throughout; but just like with any great novel, her story will refuse to leave one’s head, beckoning the player back in to experience more of her venture as she continues to recoil away from maturity.
The level design and narrative are structured around a menacing regimen in which each day (level) ends with the player retiring to bed, upon which a provocative dream sequence usually transpires — facilitating much of the platforming segments. Awaking the next morning begins another familiar cycle of checking Mae’s laptop for messages from friends (which always spark a new ‘objective’ to ‘complete’), greeting the family bird, talking to Mom downstairs, taking a walk through the town, stopping by the various folks who often remain in their same respective place each day to have a brief chat before going along with your routine.
This sequence then concludes with the player choosing which friend to visit at their particular workplace, transitioning into the more linear levels etched out by a concise scenario both utilized to expand upon character dramas and relationships as well as explore the deep-rooted haunts of Possum Spring’s history, paralleling Mae’s own struggle with her personal past. If it sounds like reality, or even a sanctioned work schedule, then the point has been made. Mae actively dismisses any suggestions to finding work, yet this consistent routine which occupies her daily activity represents a necessary appeal to biding time religiously. Constancy is an internal regulatory function of the mind, and to refuse the animal process is an impossible task.
It is a brilliant method of storytelling, positioning the player within the repetitive contexts of a video game framework, while enlightening the player regarding Mae’s insistent refusal of pursuing any form of responsibility. During the third chapter, in which a far-fetched but thematically-relevant ghost story suddenly emerges, Mae has assigned herself to the role of a detective, taking the situation (a kidnapped child and a string of missing others) lightly and jovially, disregarding the severity in lieu of having Fun playing investigator.
She so adamantly seeks tasks to bide her time, nearly as much as she refuses to go out and find real work. Though fortunately, gameplay-wise, the repetition fails to ever become monotonous, since conversations and slight disruptions manage the familiarity to instead offer something altogether engrossing. Days bleed into the next, with little to actively look forward to till the ‘objectives’ casually breathe into the routine.
Visiting friends at their places of work — the settings which trap their figures in time until Mae/the player inevitably upsets their isolation — transitions the ‘open-world’ pacing into a linear scenario involving at least the two. It’s a standard video game trope in some essence, but serves as a familiar foundation upon which more profound implications may arise. Progressing through the game equates to further developing relationships with these old friends Mae once used to know, only to realise that while she has fallen back, everyone has moved forward with their lives. It’s admirable when a game functions with familiar processes in order to elevate the tedium into more introspective context, and NitW is primarily structured around that very concept.
It is often a heartbreaking tale. One notable instance at a late night forest party finds Mae drunkenly make a scene involving a present ex-boyfriend. The silence which permeates throughout the game is undercut by the magnificently low-fi musical score, and the tone of dialogue is often interpreted through brilliantly animating the words on screen. Here, Mae’s drunken rambling is bombastic, immature, and unnecessary, a telling instance of her inability to grow up and move on from the past.
Another remarkable though understated scene both ignites dramatic tension, as well as subtly illuminates upon a specific incident, which seems to hang over Mae’s mind like a sheet over an abandoned home’s furniture. One morning discussion with Mae’s particularly-stressed mother ends with a conviction against her daughter’s current dropout status. Mae naturally storms out, but not before mentioning some past blunder which has since erupted their familial serenity, implying an unfortunately disingenuous relationship cemented ever since.
Part of what allows NitW to succeed as such an evocative depiction of developmental liminality is the correlation between setting and character. Possum Springs has changed in appearance as much as Mae has, and yet both refuse to accept any real sort of characteristic advancement. Traditions like the laughably-childish Harfest solidify the naive culture surrounding the town, and Mae’s reluctance to recognize its banality is equally perpetual, an image as pitiful as the homeless Bruce who’s stuck living in a tent in the woods.
Night in the Woods defies categorization, to some extent. For as linear its story is presented as, there are numerous subtle ways in which the player has a direct influence over the subsequent events moving forward. A few dialogue options appear to give the player a more personal attachment to Mae, as well as allow further investigation into certain plot details. Building relationships with the various town residents is almost entirely optional, and the most rewarding aspects are a result of conversing with as many of them as possible.
But Mae is also certainly defined by the player’s choice interactions. A concept I picked up on is how avoiding particular conversations can equate to a more introverted personality, illustrating the concept that Mae is prone to both introversion and extroversion. Player influence is subtly present throughout, which elevates the game from being a mere visual novel and moreso a reflective emotional simulator.
Minigames populate the in-between spaces of the main procedures. There are of course the aforementioned dream sequences, which are primarily contemplative sequences symbolically representing the human tendency to piece together psychological puzzles in introspective efforts; then there are Guitar Hero-esque band practice scenes (which may feel a bit hackneyed for a game detailing a young adult’s struggle with maturity), the simple-yet-refined triple-jump function, plus the wonderfully-simple access to walking across power lines and rooftops across town. NitW presents many instances of traditional gameplay tropes without them ever feeling unnecessarily tacked-on, ably providing further interaction from the player while maintaining the humility of an engaging narrative.
The writing, while consistently engrossing, can however become a mixed bag of effective storytelling. While the dry humor appropriately fits the tone of the presentation, clashing with the bright color palette and various animal characters; issues with personality arise within the numerous town residents. Everyone talks the same, and their sarcastic wit can become exhaustively monotonous. This takes away from the personal crises affecting the multiple protagonists, including Mae of course.
At the same time, it also establishes a deep-rooted connection between the entire community which I find compelling on its own. People seem trapped in Possum Springs, and their wry attitude towards each other expresses how determined they are to push past it — which, humorously enough, reminds me quite a bit of Dark Souls in how the NPCs all seem to have reached full cheery acceptance of their despicable eternal plight.
Really the biggest issue with the storytelling is when the game deceives the player into thinking their choices do have merit. While it is always intriguing a concept of allowing players to actively ignore certain conversations, when they are forced into linear storytelling directions as dictated by the artist’s clear intention while also utilizing instances of making dialogue decisions, it disrupts the flow and causes a disconnect between the player and protagonist. In other words, it ceases to be a game, and more of a cinematic tale pretending to be a game.
Fortunately these instances rarely surface, and when they do their presentation is still quite absorbing to experience. Night in the Woods is a rare title in which despite its ambition and creativity, the more innovative ideas offered wonderfully succeed. Its political ramifications matched with the brilliantly personal story of intermediate position forge one of the most fully-formed narratives in recent gaming history. Mae is a fascinating character, trapped both physically and mentally, and the game’s method of storytelling brilliantly echoes her liminal condition.
Too often, developers strive to push the boundaries of the medium and lose track of what makes a game a game. Cinematic reproduction and obsessive narration can impede player impact, and thus fail to incorporate the defining elements of a video game venture. Night in the Woods establishes a distinct balance between traditional storytelling and gameplay standards, subtly innovating upon both in unique methods, rarely taking complete control away from the player, and only in instances of moving the focused plot forward.
It is a beautiful experience to be had. Whether engaging in conversation with the new local pastor about faith, or spending a night with old friends at the local shitty diner, lamenting over the loss of a beloved foreclosed pizza shop, or just staring off into the sunset amidst a field of tall grass, alongside your mother as you reminisce on the youthful days of yore; Night in the Woods never fails to elicit a genuine sense of nostalgia turned rotten. It is a game which understands the narrative intricacies of writing a good novel, hell a great one at that. Bridging these two mediums so seemingly-effortlessly is something I cannot applaud enough.
In a world where a community and its people are constantly racing to catch up with the present, loss and an inability to proceed impede a necessary process of evolution. For Mae, for her struggling parents, for her overworked companions, for all of Possum Springs; the most they can do is take it one day at a time. Sometimes, all one needs is to sleep it off and try again tomorrow; and Night in the Woods offers an abundance of opportunities to do so across its appropriately prolonged account.