I’ve been wanting to write about Night in the Woods for quite sometime now, but I’ve been really struggling with how I wanted to approach this game. I don’t really want to do an opinion piece, but I think that’s what this is going to turn into… What’s striking me about Night in the Woods is just how mature the game feels, in a world that’s simplistic and “cartoonie.” I already wrote about “Emotional Investment,” and how simplified visuals can sometimes carry more emotional impact. Yet Night in the Woods goes a step further in it’s writing, character development, and world building that makes the game’s story feel more relevant and impactful. In today’s post I’ll be talking about the narrative within Night in the Woods, although I don’t think I’ll get too spoilery as I’ve yet to finish the game myself, and compare it to other games that I feel have a similar vibe.
In Night in the Woods, you play as the character Mae who's returning home from College. Home is a town called Possum Springs, a town made up of anthropomorphic animals that largely represents middle to lower class, small town America. Upon returning home Mae realizes that both the town and her friends have grown since she’s left. What comes next is her struggle to cope with this change, existential crisis about her life, and uncertainty about her future. There’s a lot more to the story in Night in the Woods, but really Mae’s internal crisis is so familiar… that it’s hard to ignore. While exploring Possum Springs you discover that there’s a deeper history to this town and to your own character, even references to past events that aren’t always spelled out for the player. This lack of exposition facilitated dialogue that felt much more natural and really helps the player fall deeper into the character of Mae. It’s also worth noting that Mae is also a flawed character… something I think we’ve become quite addicted to in gaming. Mae is selfish, she can be quite cruel, and come across as very entitled. As a Millennial myself I think I can get a free pass by calling her a Millennial stereotype. Bea is a character that resents Mae for her opportunity to go to college, and even more so that Mae dropped out because “it wasn’t working out.” There’s also the implication that Mae did something “bad” at some point in high school, which has labeled her a “bad apple” among the community. I think if you allow it, this story is more poignant because we’ve all felt that transition into adulthood… the awkwardness of change and uncertainty of the future.
I was trying to think of another game that I felt had a similar tone, character depth, and quality of dialogue and I couldn’t help but think of Oxenfree. In many ways Oxenfree shares a lot of similarities with Night in the Woods. In both games you play as a witty young adult, you have your overly enthusiastic best friend from high school, antagonistic female friend who you inevitably become closer with, there’s quirky local history, and always a dark mystery to solve. Although Oxenfree’s dialogue system is more immersive than Night in the Woods, by dynamically allowing players to interrupt conversation with their own dialogue choices… and even not responding is at times a response. In any case these story tropes are probably replicated elsewhere, I’m not completely familiar with Life is Strange… I suspect we might see some of these similar tropes represented in that game as well. From the perspective of immersion I nearly mentioned Firewatch or Virginia, but these really don’t represent the familiarity of being a young adult dealing with the growing pains of life.
One final aspect that I really wanted to talk about was the relationship between two character with Night in the Woods. Mae’s best friend Greg is dating a guy named Angus. What I really appreciated about this aspect of the game was just how casually they treated a same sex relationship. Gay relationships in gaming is certainly not a new concept, but often it’s represented by stereotypes or mistreated in general. For example I started doing research on other gay relationships and gaming and completely forgot about the notes you could find in Firewatch. Within Firewatch you can discover the story of a character named Dave who is gay and has a crush on a very clueless Ron. It’s a story of unrequited love with the heavy implication that Dave either commits suicide in the park or is otherwise dead… I believe this trope is often referred to as “Bury your Gays,” where typically gay characters are not allowed happy endings and must die. Some games have been a bit more mature about their gay characters but tend to really hide their sexuality until pressed to reveal by the public. In Mortal Kombat X, though subtle dialogue is hinted that a character named Kung Jin might be gay… It wasn’t until later that the cinematic director confirmed theories about Kung Jin’s orientation on twitter by posting “I see people are picking up on the subtle exposition contained in Kung Jin's flashback. Glad we have observant fans!” The point I’m trying to make in all of this is that I appreciate how lack of fanfare about the relationship between Angus and Greg. There isn’t additional dialogue options questioning their relationship, when Mae talks about Greg’s boyfriend to her Mom it isn’t highlighted or weird, and these characters are merely represented as two dudes… rather than some gay stereotype. To be fair I’m not finished with the game… so there’s still room to ruin this but I’m hopeful!
Night in the Woods is a familiar romp through our young adult expectations, and fear of the future. It’s a very casual experience where it’s mechanics aren’t necessarily it’s strong suit, but it’s experience is what will bring you in. While it’s all colorful and cutesy animated, I find it to be an extremely mature game at it’s core. It’s a refreshing respite from other media that, in comparison, is written in an extremely clumsy way. If you haven’t already, definitely pick it up! Try not to get too addicted to the “roguelike” game on Mae’s laptop… and try not to rush through it. Also if you haven’t played Oxenfree… that’s another winner ;)
I make games, I play games... and sometimes I have some thoughts about that.