When I was… never mind how old… I packed up my life into a single car and returned to the little town where I went to college. I enrolled in one of their graduate programs, and spent an entire semester musing over what a mistake I’d made. Not that furthering your education is a bad thing, but I certainly wasn’t doing it for the right reasons. Like so many people of this generation, institutions like graduate school become a hiding ground. An expensive cellar that you can hide in until the proverbial sharknado of the world at large stops spitting Makos into your above ground pool.
Of course, life doesn’t really work that way. As Thomas Wolfe pointed out, you can’t go home again. Which would explain my parents increasingly negative opinions of my idea that I move back in and become a gentleman of leisure in my thirties. Developers of the indie game Night In The Woods truly understand that desire: to return to a simpler time. They also understand that nothing is ever quite that simple. And that’s what makes Night In The Woods so heartwrenching and effective.
Night In The Woods is an narrative-driven adventure game from developer Infinite Fall. You play as Mae Borowski, a troubled young woman who returns to her hometown after dropping out of college. Mae is also a cat, figured I should point that out. The art style is important to point out. It has such a beautiful children’s storybook quality to it that it clashes with the serious topics you encounter in wonderfully contradictory way. Everything about the visuals impressed me, largely because it didn’t need to be this gorgeous. The animations are crisp, the characters are expressive, the light and color is full and rich. And with a game that’s as focused on narrative as Night In The Woods is, they could have gotten away with far less focus on that visual aspect. But they didn’t, and it’s that level of extra that makes this game stand out.
Mae’s hometown of Possum Springs is alive. A former mining town that has fallen on hard times, the working class ennui is palpable. The people within it are altogether too real: their problems too relatable. It’s this setting that gets Mae going on something of a coming of age story: as her days progress, Mae learns more about herself, and the player learns more about Mae and the friends she’s returned to. The realities of work, death, and regret are heavy in the hearts of many characters: some who would have done anything to have Mae’s opportunities, and now resent her for turning her back on them. The problems are definitely real, maybe even a little too real. Moments of clarity and confusion really resonated with me. I could truly relate with what many of these characters are going through, and I may have uttered “goddammit, cat girl: get out of my head” on more than one occasion.
Eventually, the small town atmosphere morphs into a David Lynch style mystery. There are rumblings of people going missing, and Mae begins to believe that she’s seeing ghosts. She has bizarre dream sequences that make her question reality and her place in it. And if there was any place that I felt the story was a little weak, it was as this mystery unwinds. Without giving anything away, Mae delves deeper and deeper into a creepy, cultish underbelly of her small town, better understanding her own broken mindset in the process. And I just wasn’t completely sold on the supernatural aspect of it all.