Night in the Woods: Economic Anxiety

Welcome to The Backlog! Because Time makes fools of us all, my goal for 2018 is to spend the year playing the games I’ve purchased but never played. Thank you very much Steam/PSN/Xbox Live holiday sales. 

There’s a Thomas Wolfe novel titled You Can Never Go Home Again that explores the life of George Webber, an author who is driven out of his hometown after the residents object to his naked and unblemished depiction of his friends and neighbors. As he wanders the Earth, Webber comes to the realization that defines the meaning of the book’s title:

You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.

Nostalgia is a powerful thing, an emotion that stops dead in our tracks at the slightest provocation. I remember walking into a room that had a very particular aroma that I first noticed back in kindergarten and instantly, all memories associated with that period of my life came flooding in. In Night of the Woods, we are introduced to Mae Borowski, a college dropout who has returned to her home of Possum Springs only to find that a lot has changed in her absence. Rekindling friendships defines Mae’s day to day existence as she, like Webber, comes to terms with her inability to return to her childhood as a means to escape Time and Memory. Night in the Woods is a side scrolling adventure game, though I wouldn’t hesitate to call it a visual novel, featuring a cast of anthropomorphized animals that struggle with real human emotions and psychological problems.

Possum Springs is modeled after Middle America. What was once a flourishing town has since stagnated after the closure of its mine (and sole financial means). Jobs are dwindling, the youth are moving to the city, businesses are shutting down, and the elders fear that their home will succumb to it’s slow, drawn out death. Enter Mae Borowski. As a resident of Possum Springs, she was the quintessential small town kid: she hung out with her friends, went to the mall, and got into trouble. She has returned after leaving college, an event fraught with its own drama she is hesitant to share. Upon her arrival, Mae suffers the tragedy of looking at things with adult eyes. Gone is the innocence of youth, replaced by nearly abandoned storefronts, boarded up businesses, and the makings of financial blight. Mae’s return is the source of wariness among certain members of the community, given an event, she was responsible for as a child, that extends to a couple of her childhood friends. Well, except for Greggy who, besides her parents, is the only one is Possum Springs happy to have her back. Her life back home is largely uneventful until she experiences a series of odd, recurring nightmares involving surreal landscapes and mysterious animal-like creatures, leading her towards Possum Springs’ dark secret.

A large part of the narrative in Night in the Woods involves Mae reintegrating herself back into her friend’s good graces. Through these interactions, Mae is constantly reminded that people have moved on (or haven’t) or find themselves caught up in the town’s stagnation. There is an order of things that begin with waking up, checking in with mom, choosing a friend to visit, participate in some sort of activity, and heading back home for bed. The time spent with a friend of your choosing will reveal more and more about themselves and what they did while Mae was away. These vignettes often involve the characters talking to each other about their thoughts and feelings and may, or may not, feature a bit of video game-like interactivity. Night in the Woods is far more concerned with developing its characters and telling a story so these sequences tend to lack substance. Who you spend your time with, however, does affect the end game which adds some tantalizing branching paths to a strictly linear story. Each character has their own storyline, experiences and events that shaped them into being the people they are now, present Mae with a vivid portrait of their lives. In my first playthrough, I decided to spend a lot of time with Bea, a young woman whose family life led to her missing out on college in order to support her family. Hers is a story I really got into because it’s an all too real situation. This is one area that the game does well: it does a great job tackling mature subject matter such as depression and mental health in a way that feels genuine and respectful.

I wish I could say that I liked Night in the Woods. It has all the right ingredients: great characters, a familiar, real world setting, a rich cultural folklore, and good writing. Unfortunately, I found the whole experience to be mostly dull and had to force myself to play through the end. My biggest gripe lies with the story’s pacing. The plot moves slower than molasses and for the longest time, there is very little to the game beyond catching up with people. A tedium sets in pretty quickly as you move across Possum Springs back and forth which made me wish for some sort of optional fast travel system. I get the reason for making Mae walk the entirety of the town as you’ll pick up conversations and interact with non-essential characters designed to build the world a bit further. Maybe if Mae ran faster I wouldn’t mind it so much–there are moments in the story where she can only walk which makes getting around even more annoying. I also took issue with the overall story. For a better part of the eight hour experience, nothing happens but when it does, I couldn’t muster enough interest to stay captivated no matter how Lovecraftian it tries to be. I found the ending to be particularly unsatisfying since it wraps things up without addressing any lingering questions.

I really wanted to enjoy Night in the Woods, a game I’ve heard such great things about since its release. Your mileage, of course, may vary. Rather than end on a sour note, I will say that I did enjoy it on an aesthetic level. I never got bored with the look of Possum Springs and its residents. It has a picture book style that really works well against the mature storytelling. The soundtrack, created by Alex Holowka, is really cool too along with the tracks created for the Guitar Hero-styled band practice minigames. Night in the Woods has a great look, a meditative and deep script, and fun characters but the snail-like pacing made it difficult to really sink my teeth into.

Title: Night in the Woods
Developer: Infinite Fall
Publisher: Finji
Genre: Adventure
Price: $19.99 (Digital)
Console: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One. PC
Purchased or Received for Review? Purchased
Where to Buy: PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Store, Steam

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