Night in the Woods
Platform: Windows PC (reviewed), PlayStation 4
Developer: Infinite Fall
Release Date: February 23, 2017
Whoever decided to make all of the characters in Infinite Fall’s side-scrolling narrative adventure Night in the Woods a bunch of anthropomorphized cartoon animals was shrewd. These simple animated figures set us up to be completely blindsided by their unexpected authenticity, by the depth of their emotions, the complexity of their problems, the familiarity of their lives. We’re then left to fall, dreamlike, into the game’s delicately crafted story, teeming with mysteries big and small.
Mae Borowski (a cat) is a college sophomore dropout who’s just returned to her home town of Possum Springs, a slowly fading mining town filled with shuttered stores, empty houses, and a sense of mild, resigned depression among most of its townspeople. She hopes to reconnect with family and friends, and does, but in doing so discovers that everyone has moved on with their lives in the years she’s been gone. Her parents seem to be under some sort of stress she can’t quite figure out, though they’re doing their best to cover it. And her pals – unable to go to college – have taken up jobs around town. They’re happy to see her – they even get the old band back together – but they also see in Mae an immaturity that they’ve long since been forced to abandon for the struggles of the real world.
All of this Mae records dutifully via scribbles and drawings in a notebook she was given by a therapist to record her thoughts. The reason for the therapy is unclear at first, save for Possum Springs’ residents’ occasional mentioning of something she did in high school that made people start to look at her differently.
And this is just one of many mysteries – some more obvious than others – that arise as the game progresses. Who’s the mysterious janitor who occasionally pops up in Mae’s times of need? What’s with all the sinkholes? What’s up with the homeless man outside the church?
The biggest mystery, though, is somewhat darker. It involves a severed arm found on a street. People going missing. Strange figures seen in the woods. Mae’s haunting, labyrinthine dreams. There is something spooky going on in Possum Springs that many don’t even seem to be aware of, and which no one can quite explain. And the increasingly erratic Mae begins giving voice to a theory with which her friends aren’t entirely comfortable.
But while these enigmas are gradually unravelled, they aren’t really the focus of the game. Instead, they serve as catalysts that force Mae and her friends – an alligator forced to take over her mom’s hardware store after she died of cancer, a bear with a sad past, and his boyfriend – Mae’s best friend – a fox filled with self-doubt who simultaneously wants to escape Possum Springs but also relive the childhood mischief that the two of them used to get into before she went off to college.
The writing is as bang-on as I’ve seen in a game, creating three-dimensional characters who are a match for those seen in some of the best late-teens/early-twenties coming-of-age films of the past few years. Shed their animal exteriors and Mae and her friends would become fast friends with the protagonists of movies like Juno, The Spectacular Now, The Edge of Seventeen, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Even their bad ideas – like stabbing each other’s hands with knives, stealing from a Hot Topic-esque mall shop, or trespassing in a graveyard – seem somehow legitimate within the context of their characters and this precise moment in their lives.
On the subject of activities, Night in the Woods manages to avoid one of the primary pitfalls of narrative-driven games by actually giving us some pretty fun stuff to do amid all of its clever, compelling dialogue. It makes brief little games out of shoplifting, connecting stars in the night sky to form constellations, and playing bass in the group’s band. Even Mae’s dark dreams/nightmares become clever little platforming labyrinths that she must navigate in order to wake up.
You can’t lose any of these activities – well, except for what can only be referred to as the game within the game, a surprisingly fun and challenging retro dungeon crawler on Mae’s laptop that grows more difficult with each level you finish – but they give us something to do between and often during the game’s lengthy conversations.
Unfortunately, Infinite Fall doesn’t quite manage to get around the problem inherent in the game’s side-scrolling exploration, which involves retreading the same city streets and buildings day after day. There were times when I just wanted to teleport back to where I needed to go rather than run there. But at least Possum Springs is pretty and dynamic and filled with new things to see – falling leaves as it gets colder, squirrels running around carrying nuts – and a few persistent side activities, such as pilfering pretzels to feed a family of rats.
But what will stick with me long after everything else about Night in the Woods fades away is its main protagonist, Mae. She is such a fully realized character that I felt like I knew her – or, at least, that I’ve known people like her. Her confusion about who she is and what she wants to do. Her unspoken fear for her state of mind – reinforced by those around her always asking if she’s alright. Her determination to remain upbeat and recapture the fun and freedom of her youth, even when she knows it’s not in her own best interests. Her semi-self-destructive impulses that make those around her constantly worry about her. She’s so real and believable that I was hardly 30 minutes into the game’s seven-hour length when I stopped seeing Mae as a cartoon cat and began seeing her as a 20-year-old young woman trying to cope with an impending nervous breakdown.
The story eventually provides closure for most of its key mysteries, but it leaves a few parts of Mae’s experience open to interpretation. And what the player chooses to believe will likely have a lot to do with their own personal views of the world – which reflects, beautifully, the ways in which her friends and family choose to support her.
If only the photorealistic human characters we see in games that cost 100 times more to make were capable of plumbing the human experience as capably and deeply as the cartoon animal cast of Night in the Woods.