Warning: this post may contain spoilers.
Imagine you’re a 20-year-old coming home after dropping out of college. You live in the small town of Possum Springs: a town so small you can’t get cellphone signal. Your friends are all adults now. Your parents somewhere between supportive and disappointed in you. Sounds like a realistic experience? Well, if you are Mae Borowski in Infinite Fall’s Night in the Woods. You’re also a cat, but that’s not relevant to the story.
In Possum Springs, strange things are afoot. Things in the woods. Strange happenings around town. That, however, is not the main drive of the game. This is what, to me, sets this experience apart from other adventure games that may look similar.
Night in the Woods is all about the characters.
Mae Borowski is a twenty-year old cat coming home from college. She goes back to live with her parents, who, she learns, are struggling. You, as Mae, explore her hometown and learn of its issues. Reacquaint yourself with childhood friends. Hang out together. Practice in a band. Commit “crimes”. Try to solve a mystery plaguing the small town you’ve abandoned, only to come back later.
One day, in the woods, Mae and her friends find a severed arm. An investigation around town follows. It uncovers a mystery that will tie the story of Possum Springs together — past, present and future.
As far as gameplay go, it’s pretty straightforward. Night in the Woods is not a fast-paced game or a challenging one. Most of the time, you will explore the town and talk to people. You get to know them and the town through Mae’s eyes and perceptions.
And that is the charm of the game. Night in the Woods is not intended as a game where you act so much as a game where you experience. This is, in large parts, what makes it unique: the narrative.
That is what we will explore in this review.
Possum Springs is a mining town far removed from civilisation and so insignificant it doesn’t merit its own cellphone tower. It’s dying, or close to dying. But more than that, it is full of people: you meet some of them on your journeys. Once it was a great, bustling town; with the deactivation of the mines, it became less.
Throughout the game, we explore the town and learn more about Mae’s world. Possum Springs comes with its own celebrations, mythology and even constellations. These things give a fine detail to world-building, and make the town come alive in its own, unique way.
World-building is fundamental to any narrative, even in a real world setting. In a fantastic world, it becomes everything, as it sets the characters in context.
This context appears in small and not so small things. Mae noticing a beloved pizzeria has gone out of business. Her reminiscences and commentaries as she wanders about town. The woods themselves. Details like the game she plays on her laptop and messaging her friends give an air of believability and realism to the story.
These things help the characters settle. and become more real, because their setting although fictional feels real. The environment shapes them as they shape their environment.
The people (or, well, animals)
It’s in its characters that the game shines. Most of the gameplay is dialogue based: the player reads as the story unfolds around her. The choices taken will affect the outcome in subtle ways. More important than that, is the connection felt between player and the characters.
Mae is a girl with a tormented past. As the game progresses, we learn she went through psychiatric evaluation. We learn of her issues, both in college and in life, and her family’s struggles to put her through college. Active gameplay comes from her nightmares, which tie together to the overarching plot.
We meet her friends: Greggory, a fox, who used to hang out and “commit crimes” with Mae. Angus, a bear, who himself has a dark past of abuse and abandonment. Bea, an alligator, whose mother died of cancer — unbeknownst to Mae.
It’s in these characters, and others such as the resident poet and the teenaged kids, that the game sets itself apart. Night in the Woods has no voice acting, but the characters’ personalities and emotions show through type and wording. This way, they gain life and personality as much through their own (dialogue) voices as through their looks.
Night in the Woods, through the voice of its characters, taps into important issues. Things such as mental illness, faith and small-town life are the themes of the game itself. These subjects show through dialogue and conversations among the characters.
The greater part of gameplay is dialogue. It’s good (perhaps even great)dialogue. Story-wise, it’s a coming-of-age tale, combined with aspects of a day in the life of Mae Borowski.
What we can learn from Night in the Woods
The main lessons taken from a game such as Night in the Woods is how to make characters believable. Mae and her friends feel real, even in their somewhat bizarre circumstances. They have real people struggles, hopes and dreams. All laid out through realistic dialogue and a setting that feels real.
While the plot itself edges on fantastic or even the surreal, the issues therein are neither. The characters are not. They are people who we’ve met, people we know exist and who you will miss when the game is over. At least, I did. I still do, in a sense. It stays with you, and that is something we aim for when writing anything. Whether games, novels or films, that is what we must look for: a story that is memorable.
This game is a great example of storytelling done right. Many games don’t bother with such a thing, at least not to this level, and are still enjoyable. But to Night in the Woods, storytelling is everything.
I especially enjoyed Lost Constellation: its own storytelling and setting merit attention. In this game, we follow a character we’d seen through the main game’s eyes. She is in search of something, which we only learn about as the game progresses. Lost Constellation itself is a great example of show, not tell. As we go, we learn more about the mythology and history mentioned in Night in the Woods.
Aspiring authors (and game designers) can learn much from exploring this game. No single character with a speaking role is a stereotype or a cliché. Every one of them feels real.
There’s a lot more waiting for you than the mystery of Possum Springs.