This hasn’t happened to me in a while: the night before I was about to finish Night in the Woods, a Kickstarted game by indie developer Infinite Fall, I was lying in bed, already sad because I was going to have to say goodbye to a bunch of characters I’d grown to love. Irascible punk crocodile Bea, manic fox Gregg, and his boyfriend Angus, the laconic bear that’s really the heart of the group. And, yes, Mae the cat, though she makes it oh so difficult to love her.
Night in the Woods tells a coming-of-age story whose premise is not dissimilar to Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World; having quit college for reasons that she can’t fully express (mental health issues are hinted at), Mae Borowski returns to Possum Springs, the little town she’d grown up in, to find that it’s impossible ever to go back. Recession has hit the place hard, and while her childhood friend Gregg welcomes her back with wide-open, wiggling arms (Gregg isn’t exactly the most sedate inhabitant of Possum Springs), others eye her with disdain and resentment, not least Bea, once Mae’s best friend who now can barely say anything without a sarcastic comment or outright criticism. Mae’s parents have also grown not just older but also more tired as even two jobs can barely make ends meet. (Mae’s mother and father rarely even see each other, their jobs keeping them out of the house at entirely different times.) The question Mae hears most often, besides “What happened at college?”, is: “When will you be getting a job?” Which, in this case, isn’t just shorthand for “When will you finally grow up?” but also for “We’re going to lose the house. You might at least help us postpone that moment for a couple of weeks.”
It may seem a strange match at first glance, but the cartoon animals and the decidedly not cutesy world of Night in the Woods are a good fit. Perhaps the game’s greatest achievement is how it marries elements that should be disparate, making them a whole that you couldn’t imagine anywhere else. Even the actual cats and raccoons that walk the autumnal streets of Possum Springs don’t seem odd in a town where people look like mice, rabbits and foxes and talk about the local football team, the upcoming harvest festivities and the days when you could actually look after a family on a single salary. For all its melancholy nostalgia and elements of the animal fable and spook story, Night in the Woods is very much about the here and now.
Mechanically, Night in the Woods is a game about routines. Even if Mae doesn’t have a job, her days all tend to look the same: wake up in the morning, head to the kitchen for a chat with Mom, walk to town (balancing on picket fences or jumping on cars and mailboxes, if Mae feels energetic enough), say hi to her friends and decide who to hang with in the evening before watching some late night TV with Dad: do you feel like an evening of late-juvenile delinquency with Gregg, will you drag Bea to the way-past-its-prime mall in the hope of reconnecting with her, or is it going to be band practice, with Mae realising just how bad she is at playing the bass? The choices the game gives you are small – usually it’s about how to say the worst thing imaginable or who of two characters to spend time with – but they’re also the most important thing to Mae. Will it be Gregg, whose love is unconditional and who makes you feel like the teen rebel you wish you still were? Will you pester Bea into spending time with you, because her approval is hardest to find, which makes it all the more precious?
Yet, for all the domestic, small-town aimlessness of Mae’s evenings, there is a darker undercurrent to Possum Springs, a heavy weight pressing down on Mae that gives the economic hardship and lack of perspective a more ominous edge. Is she psychologically unstable, which is hinted at by the stories others tell about Mae and the time she put a kid in hospital? Or is something even darker going on?
As Night in the Woods goes on, its spooky elements are foregrounded and its overarching plot becomes more prominent – and this is where some critics found fault with the game and a couple of twists that seem to come out of left field. Arguably the game finds its identity most in the early, more meandering, aimless days and weeks that seem to move towards winter all too fast, but the way the story develops brings its themes into sharp (and, yes, perhaps, somewhat over-explicit) focus. Yet these elements also add weight to the relationships between its characters. Like Possum Springs, Mae and her friends may literally be doomed, and no conversations on the way home after a party gone wrong, no searching for constellations in the early morning sky, no pizza that’s barely okay but still perfect, no band practice where you get the song almost right will change this – but neither can the end of the world that’s looming on the horizon, whether that is the literal world or just your world, your friends and the people you love, take anything away from those moments, those conversations and little victories.
I finished Night in the Woods the next day, even though I didn’t want it to end, and I am determined to replay it soon, so I could spend more time with the friends I had lost and then found again. I’d have to say goodbye again, though the fleetingness of those moments won’t make them any less precious. And, perhaps, even if the world will end before long, there’s always time for one last band practice.
P.S.: Infinite Fall did two supplementary episodes, Lost Constellation and Longest Night, that are both available on itch.io for however much you’re willing to pay. I’ve yet to play the former, but the latter is a beautiful, funny, atmospheric, creepy and sad winter’s tale that serves as a good introduction to the tone and themes of Night in the Woods.