It took me a little while to get into Night in the Woods. I liked the art style; I liked that it was telling a relationship-based, community-grounded story; I liked that it was a little quirky. But I wasn’t entirely sure about the basic mechanics: I kept on hitting the A button when next to an NPC, expecting to talk to that person, and I’d jump instead! So the game felt to me a little confused about what its primary verb should be, and I wasn’t even convinced that it should have any platforming at all.

More fundamentally: even if it was a good game, I wasn’t sure it was a good game for me. Night in the Woods is a much more situated game than most: rather than being all about the mechanics, or about a heroic fantasy that seeks universality by not actually mapping to the lives of any of its players, it is instead a game about a young adult who’s just come home after abruptly leaving college. Which is great, because the world needs more games that directly interrogate actual lives; but it happened to be the case that the life that was interrogating didn’t map particularly well to my current life, or even to my life when I was Mae’s age.


After playing through a bit more of Night in the Woods, though, I realized that there actually were characters in the game that I mapped to: Mae’s parents. Because I may not be a young adult whose college experience has gotten interrupted, but I am a parent of a young adult whose college experience has hit an unexpected roadblock. So I could see aspects of myself and my recent experience in Mae’s parents, I could think about how their reactions and actions relate to mine. And I could think about this in a context which didn’t center my own experiences but rather centered the experiences of the person who is most affected by that situation; this is probably healthy for me!

Also, I’m in general perfectly happy to experience art works that aren’t about people like me: different experiences are rewarding, it would be boring if we were all the same. And, as I played through more and more of Night in the Woods, I got more and more impressed by the story the game was telling.


At the beginning of the game, you don’t really have a lot to go on in terms of appreciating Mae. (Or at least I didn’t find a lot.) She seems neat enough, but ultimately she’s left college for no clear reason, she’s spending time hanging out with Gregg, a friend of hers who has a job but doesn’t seem to be doing a lot in general, and the two of them seem to get the most out of “doing crimes”. (Nothing seriously bad there, mostly just going places they’re not supposed to go.) There’s nothing particularly wrong with any of that (and Gregg’s job is a pretty crappy one in a setting where there don’t seem to be a lot of good options, so it’s not at all surprising that he’s not very motivated by it), but it’s presented in a way that I found easy to map to stereotypes of kids that don’t want to grow up and take responsibilities for their lives.

As the game progresses, though, it interrogates all of that in a rather well-done way. You learn more about what Mae’s been going through, enough to realize that there’s a good reason why she left college, that rather than being a situation of not wanting to grow up, she’s in a situation that’s dark enough that you wouldn’t want adults to have to deal with it, let alone people on the border between childhood and adulthood. And you learn that Gregg is constantly struggling with exactly this question of being responsible versus being a fuck-up, and that the former is actually super important to him.

There are two other key characters as well: Gregg’s boyfriend Angus and another friend Bea. Angus helps provide the context that gives a deeper insight into what Gregg is going through, and what sort of person he wants to be, and together they let the game explore mutual care and dependence; Bea provides a bit more of an outside view, and also helps the game talk about economic issues. This is a theme throughout the game: the town it takes place in is going downhill economically, with good union jobs vanishing; Mae’s parents are hanging on but it looks difficult, and Bea is somebody whom I can easily imagine chewing right through college but who, unlike Mae, didn’t have the opportunity to try.


Right from the beginning, the game has a unique, lovely, and somewhat surrealist visual style. (If only because all the people in the game look like animals instead of humans!) And, as you play through more of the game, you run into some really lovely dream sequences, where Mae wanders through an abstracted version of a section of the town, gradually unlocking musical motifs that get layered on top of each other.

This slightly surrealist nature isn’t just a sideshow, though: it feeds into the strength of the game. Because Mae is presented as somebody with mental illness, who is certainly having strange dreams but who is also seeing some strange things in real life. And, rather than coming down explicitly on the “weird stuff really is happening” side or the “Mae’s hallucinating things” side of the question, the game makes a much more interesting choice: Mae’s friends don’t particularly believe that what Mae is seeing is real, but that’s not what’s important to them. Mae is their friend, they’re going to support her, they don’t really know that what Mae is seeing isn’t real, and they’re on her side. So they too are going to leave the question ambiguous: they’ll go along with Mae as she tries to figure out what’s going on, whether that leads to a situation where Mae falls apart mentally and needs their support, a situation where what Mae is seeing actually does turn out to be real, or whether things ultimately remain ambiguous.


In the end, Night in the Woods manages to talk successfully about all sorts of really important questions. What it means to be friends; what it means to be in love; what it means to mess up in either of those contexts; what it means for those contexts to be strong enough that messing up isn’t anything. What it means to be in a dark place mentally, whether that’s caused by serious mental health issues, by structural issues in your environment, by one-off unfortunate events, or just because you’re in a bad mood right then. What it means to try to navigate the economy, what it means to take responsibility or to be an adult, the range of places that the tension between structural forces and individual choices can leave. And yes, what it means to have hope: with the help of your parents, your friends, your community, your religion, your inner strength.

And it does all of that with some pretty neat art and some rather lovely musical bits.

Post Revisions:

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