Early on in the Night in the Woods E3 demo, your protagonist discovers she has the opportunity to relive an old pasttime: shoplifting useless junk at the mall.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” I tell lead programmer Alec Holowka, as I nudge the anthropomorphic cat’s paw closer to the decorative belt buckle she’s trying to liberate. “I’m a goodie little two-shoes and you’re making a criminal out of me.”
It turns out I’m not very good at shoplifting, even in a game, and it takes me three attempts to nab the belt buckle without getting spotted. My character’s not subtle once it’s in her pocket: she announces loudly to her talking alligator friend that she’s done browsing and the two of them rush outside, stopping after only a few feet to discuss their ill-gotten acquisition. She brags, she’s never going to wear or use the thing she just took. The point wasn’t to steal something valuable. The point was there’s fuck-all of value in the first place.
If you haven’t grown up in a place like Possum Springs, it can be hard to communicate just how perfectly Night in the Woods captures the yawning, nihilistic void of small-town life. It’s the kind of place Joan Didion once described as “where it is easy to Dial-A-Devotion, but hard to buy a book.” There are no jobs in these towns. Even the blue-collar, under-the-table ones dry up in months or weeks, leaving you with the same flatlining prospects as before. The buses barely run, and go nowhere useful when they do. The only entertainments are the movies and scribbling “graffiti” onto any available surface with a fat-tipped sharpie, and everyone you went to high school with — barring the few who got out — is falling steadily into alcoholism or meth addiction.
These are the pockets of humanity where someone you went to high school with died from falling off the back of a truck; where your estranged uncle makes a name for himself as a licensed pot grower. It’s the kind of place where the leading cause of youth crime is boredom way more than desperation. It’s an inert world; a depleted world. A Ghost World.
That’s the setting in which Night in the Woods finds itself, where feline protagonist Mae keeps a doctor-prescribed journal for her “anger issues,” and she shoplifts things she doesn’t even want because the thrill of doing it outweighs any possible reward. When I succeeded in stealing the belt buckle, I laughed — Holowka laughed; the guy watching over my shoulder at Sony’s E3 booth laughed — but an odd sense of shame began curdling in the bottom of my stomach as well. Not because I felt guilty, exactly… More like I had been asked to perform some stereotype for a tourist’s amusement, and done so, almost without prompting.
(I should pause to mention that, for as far as fulfilling stereotypes do, ‘whitebread backwater yokel’ isn’t an especially oppressive one. I don’t feel hurt having committed the most modest of digital larceny. And I don’t believe NITW’s lead writer Scott Benson is penning these scenarios at the expense of anyone. If anything, he’s writing a perspective he and wife/collaborator Bethany Hockenberry know all too intimately.)
There is much more to Night in the Woods than just its small-town malaise, though obviously Holowka and his small team have been cautious about not showing too much of their hand in that regard (a feat really, for a Kickstarted game going on three years in development). But the perfection of these town scenes still cuts deepest, and they remain the number one reason I’m looking forward to getting my mitts on the game for real, when it releases sometime next year. I want to spend time with Night in the Woods in the privacy of my own home, not on a show floor, not on call to offer my opinion or operate with some critical detachment. It’s a special game for me. And I very much look forward to seeing whether it’s special in that same way to many others as well.
(Disclosure: In 2013 I backed Night in the Woods on Kickstarter at the $15 tier, equal to a retail copy of the game.)