Night In The Woods Is A Damned Fine Game
Like an angst-ridden Hot Topic fever dream gone somehow right and genuine and beautiful, Night In The Woods is a refreshing take on adventure gaming and interactive storytelling that is well worth your time. It got to me.
NITW comes highly recommended, but it is not for everyone. It's a slow burn, and a strange duck. Or fox or cat or rat. Not unlike its endearingly damaged kitty cat main character, Mae, it exists in a murky state of in-between – neither story nor game, but artfully both. What emerges is a stylized anthropomorphic coming of age adventure that is long on narrative and a touch short on gameplay. All of which includes: branching storylines, deeply-realized characters, a mysterious main story, incidental mini-games, fun secrets and asides, and small bits of platforming. And the sum of those parts is something more than that, an emotionally resonant and special experience.
NITW's most noteworthy achievement is its characters, and the funny and poignant words that come out of their adorable mouths. The protagonist, Mae, is richly realized, as are the roguish pile of supporting characters surrounding her. The main tier of beastly acquaintances are her parents and her closest friends, all of whom have their own micro-stories, all of whom you'll come to appreciate, each in their own wonderfully flawed ways. Unlike too much fiction, both interactive and otherwise, many of these characters grow and change as they converse. And the conversations all sound authentic, oozing charm, self-deprecating wit, and depth. You'll feel like you're hanging out with the smartest damaged twenty-somethings in town, and you'll want to sneak out back with them to break some stuff. The cast is brimming with realized portraits, and even incidental and momentary characters (and creatures and places) feel as if they live and breathe, and I was left wanting to know them all.
The setting feels like a character in itself and plays an integral and gently expanding role in the fine storytelling. Visually stylized and well executed, it evokes the best of indie comics and modern cartoons, a kind of Chris Ware and Samurai Jack meets Richard Scarry's spookiest world, all bursting with detail, smart design, and well-chosen color palettes (all of which holds true for the excellent character design, as well). The look is edgy but clean, adorable but flawed, much like the collective psyche of the cast. Most importantly, the setting reflects Mae's struggle, and the moment I stepped into town I related to the paradox of comfort and discomfort inherent in returning home from your first journey into the wider world, finding beauty, despair, and new complications that stubbornly beget wisdom.
Like a skipped corner on the well-drawn map of Possum Springs, many character and story elements were so deftly handled that it's easy to miss them, too. Deep and resonant themes of abuse, psychological trauma, mental illness (anxiety and depression), class struggle, socio-economic decline, and queer identity are woven into the everyday experience of these characters, and all of it feels relatable and real, but never heavy-handed. Perhaps moreso because they are cats and bears? Either way, it works, and filled me with a powerful connection to this well-crafted world.
The varied and fun mini-games work, too, and go a ways to bring the experience back towards the well-worn-territory of actual game. They range from wonky-cute and wonky-poignant to downright enjoyable (the band practice rhythm game was a high point for me), and the nifty asides never crested on annoyance and mostly enhanced the experience and connection to the characters and moments. While unnecessary (but hey, what isn't, really?), they add a wonderful spice, like a dash of sassy gaming cayenne. I was particularly fond of Mae's roof platforming and triple-jumping, which yields some neat surprises, and feels like a part of her character as much as it is a gameplay element.
The game moves forward at a slow and deliberate pace, peppered with unrequired but rewarding diversions. I was reminded at times of my compulsive love of Animal Crossing, but instead of endless bug catching and furniture re-positioning, here we're collecting bits of narrative, scene, and character. I came to love Mae's daily routine as it gently and naturally expanded or got disrupted. I treasured its exploration, and I treasured unexpected divergences and side trips.
Therein lies a small gameplay/narrative complaint with the context of Night in the Woods. While I commend the experimental use of slightly branching and shifting stories, and I understand that most of this was intentional, there were moments where I wished I could experience all, or at least more of the story possibilities. Missing out on certain aspects of Angus or Bea or Gregg's tale in particular seems like getting short-changed, especially in light of how arbitrary some of those misses feel. I don't resent not finding small secrets or sidebars that were scattered about (those are great and up to me), I mean main-line story elements of what amount to all of the secondary character's deep(er) stories.
It could be argued that missing a few things is reason enough to play through again, and I very well might some day. But I'm a gamer and human with finite time, and NITW is by design slow-paced. I love this about it, but I'd rather not have to re-tread every little nook and day in order to see a few dialogues with Gregg at the Snack Falcon. This could be fixed pretty easily with a menu system for diving back in to story points and fun mini-games (said the guy with zero programming experience), and if the developer ever patches that up, consider the above stricken.
My biggest overall issue with the game comes in the final act, where the well-established pace of Mae's daily routine bucks itself in order to see the intriguing main plot elements and mysteries fold together. I'm grateful that they did so, and the conclusion doesn't feel like a disaster, it just feels a touch undercooked, like a handful of the environments (I'm looking at you, Church Lobby), when compared to everything else. So many of the characters, moments, and dialogues were rich with nuance and insight, and the conclusion didn't deliver on the same level. It's not terrible, just not as good as the rest of the journey. It's also possible that the final act suffered from having to juggle the double duty of tying things up while working with a myriad of slightly shifting choices to get there. It feels a bit rushed, confusing, and inconclusive.
But that's small potatoes compared to the rest of this wonderful adventure.
Night in The Woods is, like all of the best works of art, honest. It is clear from the get-go that this experience was made with an ingredient that is in short supply throughout our world: heart. Tons of it. Call me a softy, but I fell in love with this game, and I hope that you do, too.
I played NITW on the PS4. It's also available for PC and Mac.
MY INCREDIBLY DEFINITIVE CONCLUSION: Play it if you like stylized games, adventure games, good storytelling, high-level interactive storytelling. Evocative of great games like Gone Home, Animal Crossing, Super Bros: Sword and Sorcery. Don't play it if you don't want to have to take your time with very little actual traditional gameplay (though maybe play the embedded and super-fun little rogue-like on Mae's computer).
On my arbitrary scale of food I like, I give this a
“PERFECTLY TIMED ORDER OF CHEESE FRIES SHARED WITH A REALLY COOL FRIEND YOU DON'T GET TO HANG OUT WITH OFTEN ENOUGH IN THE BACK OF AN AMAZING PLACE YOU NEVER NOTICED BUT IS NOW YOUR FAVORITE EVER”
My name is Marty. This story originally appeared on my pop culture blog, Astronaut Island. You can follow me on Twitter via https://twitter.com/martystuff and on Facebooks via https://www.facebook.com/RealMartystuff/, and look at (or buy!) lots of the other stuff I make at http://martystuff.com. I've published four books (http://www.martystuff.com/writing/), recently made an internet cartoon about vampires and dinosaurs (http://vampireboywebsite.com), and often perform with a sock puppet/human.giant monster rock band (https://unclemonsterface.bandcamp.com). All for science! Which is real!