Written by Drew Beyer // Uploaded and Edited by Andrew Busch
Night in the Woods resonates with me in ways I’m not entirely sure I’m comfortable yelling into the void that is the internet. Through the story of a feline ne’er-do-well and her loser friends, the trio at Infinite Fall synthesizes humor and horror into something that I find more human than most entertainment featuring human beings. The game perfectly captures the pervading spirit of our moment in time— caught somewhere between hopeless and hopeful, trying to navigate the liminal space between laughing and crying at the absurdity of our own existence. While the actual gameplay might falter every now and again, I think the narrative and world-build on display is more than strong enough to compensate.
One of the biggest questions when it comes to game stories (or any story really) is whether the medium you’re choosing to tell the story is the right one. This becomes incredibly important when interactivity is thrown into the mix. Why does Night in the Woods need to be a game? Is the story so amazing to cover for somewhat lackluster gameplay? Couldn’t it just be a book? No, hypothetical strawman naysayer. Night in the Woods must be a game because Night in the Woods is an experiment in immersion and atmosphere. I realize the game grips me so strongly because I invest in the characters out of my own will— nothing forced me to talk to Selmers every day and hear her new, frequently terrible poem.
This freedom of choice is where Night in the Woods really shines, despite its aggressive linearity. Like careful sonneteers, Infinite Fall provides the player with a framework to fill— you always know how to end the day, but not how to fill it. You could blaze through the story, going straight to whichever character promises to move the plot forward— but you won’t. You’ll stick around. You’ll talk to people just to hear what new, silly thing they have to say. Because more than the world of any other game, Night in the Woods’s Possum Springs feels like a living, breathing, dying town. The game feels real—frequently too real—despite featuring a cast of cute anthropomorphic animals.
One of the major ways the game achieves this impressive feat of verisimilitude is by breaking one of the cardinal video game conventions— you can almost never repeat dialogue. Accidentally skip a piece of text? Chances are you’ll have to reload a save to see it. The mundane observations of the townsfolk change day-to-day, and they never repeat themselves, which is basically unheard of in a game. None of the NPCs act and sound like NPCs. Nobody has just one or two trite lines. Anyone you can talk to has a story to tell, and you’ll feel like you’re just getting the tip of the iceberg most of the time.
There are also no conventional quests, despite the myriad of side activities presented to you. Nobody tells you what to do, or how or why, but I still found myself connecting the dots and trying to make Possum Springs better in whatever small ways I could based on dialogue clues. Sure, you have a journal which serves as a record of things you’ve seen and accomplished, but at the same time you never know which nuggets of information can be followed up on. Design-wise, it can be a little confusing, but it works wonders for the narrative structure of the game and weirdly makes me feel very altruistic. There’s something inherently Machiavellian about your standard issue gaming quest log.You get a task and you follow the instructions in hope of reward, paying attention to the next waypoint rather than to the story being told. In this game, all you have is the story, which means when you make a connection between two people or stumble upon a surprise hangout session with a side character, you feel like you’ve accomplished something on your own. It’s a great feeling, though I admit there were times when I longed for waypoints or hints. I guess that’s what the internet is for, but looking this stuff up feels like robbing yourself of something fundamental, like reading the spark notes instead of that book you’re really interested in.
Well, I guess seven hundred words in is as good a time as any to start talking more specifically about makes the story so great. Night in the Woods casts the player as Mae Borowski, a twenty-year-old cat who drops out of college for reasons she doesn’t entirely understand and comes home to Possum Springs to try to pick up the pieces of her life and put them back together—which assumes they even go together in the first place. If any part of that sentence resonates with you, you’ll find something about Mae to reminds you of yourself. If none of it did, check your pulse because I think you might be medically dead.
The character of Mae is another critical break from conventional industry, as she’s everything a normal game protagonist isn’t. Most games feature protagonists who are smarter than the player, stronger than the player, sexier than the player— and Mae isn’t. She sucks at being a human being— or should I say feline being— just like all of us. Mae frustrates me because she frequently can’t do exactly what I want when I want, which sounds bad but actually makes all of her relationships with her family and friends that much more relatable. Often both dialogue choices are the wrong answer phrased in two different ways. I first thought this was railroading, and to be fair it kind of is, but now I realize it’s realism. Kudos to Infinite Fall for making a game starring a protagonist that reminds us of how our best sometimes isn’t enough. And if there’s a message to be gleaned from Night in the Woods, it’s that that’s okay. Failure is inevitable, and totally acceptable, but defeatism and apathy are not.
Through Mae, players meet the eccentric characters of Possum Springs, most notably Mae’s three close friends Gregg, Angus, and Bea. The dynamics between this drab four are really something else. Gregg’s high octane love of crimes and flailing arms clashes with Angus’s stoic nerdisms which also clash with Bea’s frustrated goth girl. It’s a weird mixture of personalities that’ll make you wonder how they ever became friends, but you’ll never actually question their friendship. It’s a testament to the strength of the writing, as they’re probably the most realistic friend group I’ve seen in a game. They bicker, they fight, they struggle, but at the end of the day they have each other’s backs.
Along with this Scooby gang, Mae spends a lot of time talking to her mom and dad, which is another shining example of the game’s relationship writing. Even the conversations in the morning with mom, which serve the mechanical purpose of reorienting a player who’s put the game down for a while, always sound truthful. If there’s one word to describe the game’s writing, it’s truthful. It might not be consistently amazing, but it does consistently ring true.
It also helps that the game is outrageously funny. By the time you read this, I have faith that every single line has made its way onto tumblr in some shape or another. Despite the bleakness of the game’s circumstances, the characters spend much of their time cracking jokes with one another in a very real way. It’s a little weird, but Possum Springs is a pretty binary world. Characters can either laugh at everything going wrong in their lives, or they can cry—and when those are your only choices, why cry?
Another aspect that the narrative absolutely nails is sweet-spicy cosmic horror. I personally find it hilarious that a game about furry millennials manages to out-Lovecraft Lovecraft, but that’s exactly what happens. And it’s because the writers completely understand what makes cosmic horror viscerally effective. Spoiler alert, it’s not tentacle faced monsters screaming “cthulhu fhtagn,” or things man was not meant to know. The fear doesn’t come from the possibility of malevolent forces beyond the stars— in fact, malevolent forces pulling the strings would explain so much. No, the fear comes from utter isolation and the anxiety that comes from realizing that whatever power is out there doesn’t care about you at all. The horror of Night in the Woods is the primal horror of being truly, utterly, irreversibly alone. It’s staring into the abyss and having the abyss not even register your presence, much less look at you.
On the less positive side of things, I have mixed feelings about the lack of voice acting. I realize it’s a weird critique, considering how wordy the game is, but I think there might be something to be gained by the addition of voices for the characters. The writing is good enough that I don’t think the game needs it, but it would be nice to have. It helps that Alec Holowka’s music is consistently amazing, hitting the right notes to really get you into the mindset of the particular moment. I’m sure people are doing amateur voice-over playthroughs on youtube, but I think you lose something watching someone else play this game. Sure, the choices you have might be minor, but a lot of the experience derives from making even the most inconsequential choices. This is the sort of game where you’ll spend three minutes of your life agonizing over how to say no to a jerk at a party, despite it’s irrelevance to the overall story. It matters in the moment, though, and that’s how you know the writing is amazing.
While I’ve been singing the story’s praises for over sixteen hundred words now, I feel like I can’t in good conscious say the game is perfect, because that would be lying. It’s not a perfect game—the gameplay can be frustratingly slow at times, and you’ll consistently wish you could run faster. Also, while the lack of a quest and being able to repeat dialogue might sell the reality of the world, it can be incredibly annoying. The puzzle platforming gameplay is definitely passable, but it’s probably not what’ll draw you back into the game after you finish your initial playthrough. The gameplay is never outright bad, but it’s not exactly amazing either. These are flaws but they’re minor flaws I think you ought to forgive. Give the game a chance despite these hiccups, because I really think it could be the next Undertale.
I’m actually kind of glad Night in the Woods is a flawed game, because I feel like that makes it somehow more real. It’s not perfect, no, but there’s nothing interesting about perfection. Achieve perfection, and everything becomes boring because there’s nothing driving you. As this game stands, it’s an unforgettable experience and a wonderful example of interactive storytelling done right, flaws and all. If you’re interested in that sort of thing at all, you owe it to yourself to play it.
One last completely joking point. This totally should’ve been released in October, because it’s got one of the most Halloween-y vibes I’ve encountered. It’s a very autumnal game, melancholy without being sad, a memento mori that reminds us of how precious life is because we are impermanent. Still, it gives me an excuse to embrace the spooky spirit in the throes of winter, so I guess I can’t complain too much about that.