A Kickstarter smash hit, Night in the Woods is the product of a small team made up of co-writers Bethany Hockenberry and Scott Benson (who also designed and animated the characters) and developer Alec Holowka (who also composed its soundtrack). It tells the story of an anthropomorphic cat named Mae who drops out of school and returns home under circumstances that remain undisclosed to her friends and her parents. She sleeps into the afternoon, fights with her parents, bums around with her friends and makes a half-hearted attempt to solve a rash of mysterious disappearances.
Mae’s hometown of Possum Springs is slowly dying, the victim of a mine closure that dropped the bottom out of the town’s entire economy. As a recent transplant to Pennsylvania’s coal country, I can speak to the accuracy of the setting. Abandoned grocery stories, crumbling brick buildings, and a preponderance of war memorial statues set the tone of a town on the decline. Co-writers Benson and Hockenberry likewise grew up in the rust-belt of Pennsylvania and their intimate knowledge of small, struggling towns is evident in how real Possum Springs feels, despite being populated by cartoon animals. The game has a cartoonish style reminiscent of Anthony Clark’s webcomic Nedroid, awash in the browns and oranges of an east-coast fall. Holowka’s original soundtrack is an indie-rock dream, all quiet contemplation and wistfulness.
For the most part, Night in the Woods is structured as a run-of-the-mill, story-driven, 2D, side-scrolling adventure game. Mae bounces around town interacting with objects using an action button. Occasionally the game shifts to a crude first-person perspective where you manipulate Mae’s paw to move objects or pet mice. There are some rudimentary platforming sections as Mae can bound around on powerlines and off of rooftops. A few times, Mae joins her friends at band practice for a frustrating Guitar Hero-style rhythm game with no opportunity to replay a poor performance. For those craving a more “gamey” game, NitW features a ten level rogue-like built into Mae’s laptop. I played three levels before getting bored; if there’s a story impact for completing the game-within-a-game I wouldn’t know.
The game’s dialogue crackles with authentic banter.
However, it’s clear that the characters and setting are the main focus of the game, not the meager puzzles. The game’s dialogue crackles with authentic banter. The characters each feel unique and fully realized. Hockenberry and Benson’s script is its greatest strength. Night in the Woods emphasizes its story and characters to a deliberate de-emphasis of its mechanics. It masterfully captures the exact feeling of living at home after leaving college, trying to find where one fits in the world. This is also the game’s greatest weakness: it pushes the accuracy of these feelings well past the point where fun ends. Mae has the same encounters every day: wake up, check her computer, talk to her mom, listen to her neighbor’s poetry, chat with the pastor at her mom’s church, talk to her mom at work, talk to a man experiencing homelessness, talk to her three friends, decide which friend to hang out with that night, have some sort of evening adventure, talk to her dad, check her computer a second time, go to sleep and play through a dream sequence. Repeat until the game’s fourth act.
It’s a pitch perfect representation of the monotony of life without any real responsibilities. But the monotony is too real: by the fifth go-round, the game felt tedious. I wished to just skip all the wandering around and cut to the evening’s fun, even if that meant missing out on the scraps of character development the game parcels out from Mae’s daily interactions. Slice-of-life stories can absolutely be handled well in gaming — just look how Life is Strange makes things like watering plants or taking pictures for a class project compelling — but the drudgery of Mae’s life comes too close to the drudgery of playing a game about Mae’s life.
Another thing that is simulated all too accurately is the feeling of missing out, because you can only hang out with one of Mae’s friends each night. Spending the evening with Bea, Mae’s estranged childhood alligator friend means missing a chance to hang out with Gregg, Mae’s leather jacket-clad fox buddy. However, by my third hour of the game I had no interest in replaying the game to see how my other choices would play out. Mae and Bea rekindled their friendship, who knows what hijinks Gregg had in store.
It’s easy to feel trapped in Mae’s self-destructive patterns in a way that’s hard to enjoy.
The most frustrating aspect of this too-real glimpse into the life of an aimless millennial is the feeling that you can’t do anything to change Mae’s situation. You can’t wake up at 8 AM and go find a job. You can’t tell your mom about why you dropped out of school, or go see a doctor about your increasingly severe headaches or terrifyingly vivid dreams about Lovecraftian bugs. In other narrative games, you’re sometimes given the choice of the sort of character you want to be: sweet or cruel or a mix between both. Mae’s dialog choices often give you the option of two equally crummy things to say to your friends and loved ones. That’s fine for the story that NitW clearly wants to tell, but it’s easy to feel trapped in Mae’s self-destructive patterns in a way that’s hard to enjoy.
For those of you who love choice-based, puzzle-light story games but rail against the short playtime of critical darlings like Firewatch or Gone Home, Night in the Woods is a cautionary tale. Patient players looking to explore the decrepit mining town Possum Springs can squeeze as much as ten hours out of the game. Impatient players can probably blitz through the game in as few as five hours. There are, at most, two hours of content in this game, doled out in crumbs. The rest of the playtime is clumsily extended through awkward jumping puzzles and meandering conversations where you have little control over the outcome. By the time the fourth chapter starts, it’s as though the game suddenly realizes that it needs to make good on the narrative hooks it’s been slowly doling out. The final act is largely Mae wandering in a straight line while characters tell you what’s going on in the plot and dangling, then quickly retracting, complicated moral dilemmas. The unsatisfying conclusion is a disappointing payoff to the drudgery of the mid-game.
There is a great game in Night in the Woods, but tragically, it’s overshadowed by all the filler. I started the game with so much enthusiasm, loving the sounds and the setting and the characters. I cared about Mae’s missing friend and the severed arm she found on the first day. I cared about the man living in the woods near the church. I cared about why Mae moved home and why she savagely attacked a boy when she was in high school. By the fifth day of Mae’s repetitive life, however, I could barely bring myself to click out of bed. I’m sure that’s how Mae felt as well, but depression and listlessness make for a poor gaming experience.