Yeah, let’s not even pretend to be surprised about this one. Last week’s social media timelines were positively abuzz with Infinite Fall’s Night in the Woods. Couldn’t go five posts without seeing big-eyed black cats or cyclopean foxes with cups on their ears. I… actually know very little about this game? As we’ve established, part of my crafty review strategy is to craftily remain almost entirely unaware of upcoming or anticipated games. Can’t buy into the hype if you don’t know about the hype, I always say. As a result, Night in the Woods is essentially a mystery to me. I’ve seen crisp animal graphics and I assume there will be woods, at night, but otherwise I’m living-under-a-rock levels of blind.
Which is the perfect mindset for reviewing a recent, popular-buzz game, if you ask me. Almost like I planned it that way.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, medium, but as low as I can get it. Mechanical, high-ish, but at least I don’t mention the yarn.)
(Game source: Bought it myself.)
Night in the Woods‘ title screen does not disappoint, in that it conveys both a sense of night, and a sense of being in the woods.
What really grabs my attention is the music, which packs a lot of twist in a short amount of time. The first few seconds start out sounding like the sort of music you’d expect at a happy carnival. Then it very quickly and briefly dips into haunted carnival music instead, before settling on more of a subtle haunted forest vibe. It trips me up every time I reboot the game, which right now is twice. Don’t ask.
Night in the Woods‘s options are written on a doctor’s pamphlet, which means Night in the Woods gets me as far as options go. I agree, doctor Hank, it is nice to have options! The actual set is fairly limited, but there’s a resolution setting and enough audio volume sliders to keep everyone happy. And a small set of mappable keys, which — suprisingly — include default keys to play sick bass strings.
Out of other options, I start. In slow white lines on black text, a backstory is told: I screenshot the story in progress per line, afraid that it’ll suddenly disappear on me, which means I end up with 21 discrete story beats. It’s a real up-and-down story, packing city development, inheritance, and haunted houses into limited narrative real estate.
Then a loading bus happens.
I take in the scene. I don’t know what kind of room I’m in, but it’s gorgeous; so far Night in the Woods‘ visual style has only been amazing, and I strongly hope this trend continues. It’s a lovely combination of soft lines and patches of bright pastel colours, with the occasional fuzzy transition thrown in for effect — like the glow effect on the vending machine, or Cat Person’s tuft of purple hair.
Speaking of! Center of the screen is taken up by Cat Person, a dark blue cat with bright red eyes and lazy T-shirt and pants. They’re talking (to themselves) about the situation, which sucks. ‘Welcome home, Mae’, they say, and I know to call them Mae. Mae just got home. Mae was apparently expecting someone to pick them up from wherever they are, but so far it seems to be just them and me.
Nothing happens after Mae’s striking chalkboard-style speech bubbles stop appearing, which I’ve been going through by pressing Spacebar. AD move Mae, breaking them out into a little jog. W and S don’t do anything on their own, but Spacebar jumps, causing Mae to land on top of one of the benches. I know you’re not supposed to jump on benches in a public place, but who’s here to stop me? Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Running around the room, I see eye icons — eyecons, yes — pop up in a few places. Hammering buttons for a bit teaches me that I can press E at these, at which point Mae launches into descriptive internal monologue. Or external monologue, I have no idea if they’re talking out loud. I know you’re not supposed to talk out loud in a public place, but…
Interestingly, Mae can interact with some things multiple times, but nothing repeats; instead, they offer new observations two, or three, or even four times in a row, before finally running out of things to say. At which point the interact prompt simply vanishes. So pay attention to what’s going on, I guess. I learn about historic Possum Springs, which is apparently being misrepresented here on account of it actually, secretly being garbage. There’s not even any cell reception in this place! Apparently, and conveniently. And the only available payphone has meticulously been destroyed. So no calling for help, huh?
There’s only so far I can go right into the building before it runs out, so I try left instead.
On the left I find an exit sign, and also a bird person with a goatee blocking it. They’re the janitor or something? The icon that pops up this time is a little speech bubble, so I intuit — correctly — that I can talk to them. It’s mostly a cutscene conversation, wherein Mae and Birdman exchange lines, but I do get my choice of two options at one point.
Janitor’s the only other person here, which is why the lights are still on at this… bus stop, that’s what it is. Yeah, in retrospect that makes sense. They’re fixing the door, which might take a while. In fact, it’ll take… almost exactly as long as it would take me to run back to the vending machine and get them a cola. Don’t worry about the whole ‘not having cash’ situation, they rig the machine whenever they’re here alone.
I run back to the machine, hammer the E button, and then play what looks like a crane game mini-game, but with an extended cat’s paw.
I run back to the janitor. They take the cola, drink it in a chug, then walk outside. The lights in the building go off immediately.
It’s not much better outside.
Why the hell is this bus station on the outskirts of town? I might be revealing my European heritage here, but I’m used to public transport terminating at city centers and train stations. Which both tend to be inside cities. But fine, whatever. Possum Springs is small-town America, I can tell that much right out the gate. Maybe this is how things go there. Mae was apparently expecting their parents to pick them up, but… no dice. No busses anymore today either. I’m pretty sure there’s a SpongeBob episode that goes like this. Except Mae decides to take the ‘smart’ approach of just walking to their parental house.
Alone, at night. Through a dark forest.
The woods are… atmospheric. In the night’s dark blue all I can make out are the vague shapes of trees, in various states of de-leafing and de-struction. Mae clampers down a ravine, bordered by trees and littered with bottles, plastic bags, and planks. Used to be a sawmill around, hence all the sawmill detritus.
Then Mae and I try to climb back up. Well, I say ‘try’, but Mae has like a three foot vertical jump, so it’s not as much of a challenge as I’m making it sound like. We jump up and ‘through’ planks of various degrees of opacity. Just for kicks, I try to see if holding S and pressing jump drops me down again, and it does! That’s a victory for understanding the control scheme, though not as much for actually getting home.
One of the planks creaks as I jump on it. Out of a combination of curiosity and spite, I jump on it again. Creak. And again. Creeaaaak. And agai- The whole pile of of branches and planks comes loose and tumbles down, depositing Mae in the river and stopping just short of crushing them under an avalanche of garbage wood.
On the plus side, there’s a more obvious path upwards now. Was this always supposed to be the way things go? I’m going to say: probably.
Back out of the ravine, on the edge of town proper, Mae runs into a broken playground of sorts, half of a ship and a three numbered logs. We use this as an excuse to practice the vaunted triple-jump, partially because it’s a childhood memory and partially because the playground is fenced off and we’re not getting out of here on ground level. It’s simple: just jump three times in a row, hop-hop-hop, and the third hop sends Mae soaring, about double the height of the normal jumps. Gotta do it in quick succession, though.
On top of the tower, Mae reminisces a bit. They’ve been out of Possum Springs for only two years, away at college. This is their first time coming back… From the sound of it, it’s not just a one-off visit. But I don’t know. Mae’s definitely not in a great mood thinking about the whole thing, as evidenced by the journal they keep.
Then Mae walks across a phone line, jumps down outside the playground, and is apprehended by a cop.
Ah, but this isn’t just some cop, it’s Aunt Mall Cop! Or Aunt Molly, whichever you prefer. I sense some less-than-perfect blood between the two, here, but Molly is willing to give me a ride home. Which should save on the ravine-climbing death adventures quite a bit.
And so, ten seconds later…
So, that’s dad. Pretty much what I expected Dad Cat to look like, I won’t lie. Dad is currently being contrite, claiming that — no, honestly — he thought that Mae was coming home tomorrow. A likely story. For their part, Mae is too tired and too worked up to argue — counterintuitively — and just goes straight to bed. Which is to say, their room in the attic, which despite having been vacant for two years still pretty much looks like a teenager’s bedroom.
Shoes off, bed made, lights off, right to sleep. Can’t blame them, what a day. And what a day for me, too! Despite it only taking fifteen minutes of actual playtime, I feel like I’ve seen and documented quite some stuff already. Given that I’m over 2000 words in this might even be a good place to stop this half of the review…
…But then we haven’t actually seen anything, have we? Where’s your sense of adventure?
Daylight brings changes to Possum Springs. For one, dad’s left the house, but mom is now at the breakfast table. She’s as contrite as dad was: they were really, genuinely expecting Mae tomorrow, honest. She and I discuss city changes for a bit — this store’s out of business now, that store is now, there’s roadworks on that side of town. The more things change, the more they stay the same, but also change.
For their first day home, Mae decides to take in the sights, catch up with old friends. In the sunlight of late fall, Possum Springs is a much more bright and inviting place than the dead bus stop by a ravine near the highway. I walk around the street a bit, talk to old neighbours, then jump on their cars and mailboxes to get up to the power lines.
Possum Springs isn’t a big town, all in all: straight shot, it would take me about… ten minutes, to get from my house to the point where Mae doesn’t want to keep walking anymore. But it’s full of people, some of whom I can actually talk to. And, more importantly, it’s full of phone lines and high rises and windowsills to jump on. I spend a good half hour jumping around the roofs of the block right next to mine, kicking acorns off of roofs and making the squirrels happy. I’ve been given to understand that what I’m doing is probably illegal, but again, eff the police. The town is built in a valley and on a hillside, which plays havoc with my Dutch sense of flatness. But it’s definitely cool to run around in.
I meet an old maths teacher, who invites me to catch up over stargazing later. I say high to Selmers, a close neighbour slash amateur poet. In the underground canal that may or may not be a subway, I get recognized by a pretzel vendor as ‘that thief from two years ago’, which I honestly think is unfair (if probably not entirely inaccurate). And at the Snack Falcon at the edge of town — all the store chains in this place have animal names, I’ve noticed — I finally find my friend Gregg. You might know Gregg as that fox character that everyone screenshots all the time.
Anyway, one thing leads to another and now I’m in a practice room, getting ready to play music with the rest of ‘the band’.
Now I’m playing a rhythm game, hitting number keys in sequence to add the sickest of base lines.
Now I’m poking a dismembered arm with a stick!
Now I’m getting a ride home from the alligator woman who was also in th band earlier, despite having walked to the diner we were just at earlier in the day. Good thing, too, because now she’s kicking me out of her car a few blocks from the house, for no apparent reason, after I asked how her parents were doing.)
The reason I’m being hastily vague about all this is that I’m getting the sneaking feeling I probably shouldn’t be saying too much? Despite still ‘only’ being 45 minutes in, I’m already learning tons of little details about these characters and their relations, about Possum Springs, and about Mae and their history. And if Night in the Woods is as much of an adventure game as I currently think it is, learning these things the natural way (during play, in the right context) is a big part of what makes the intended experience what it is. In other words, if I keep talking in detail, then no matter if Night in the Woods is great or terrible, it’s (at least initially) not going to be very interesting for you.
And given what I’ve seen so far, I don’t think I want to bet on ‘this game is so bad that it won’t matter that I spoil the opening’ just yet.