A few hours in
Yup, I called it. Night in the Woods is primarily a story-driven game, and what’s more, it’s a story-driven game that slowly builds on established narrative, gradually adding piece by piece to a structure of lore and storytelling such that your understanding of the world keeps shifting by inches. It reminds me in that way of how Steven Universe uses the small cast of people in Beach City to excellent effect over time, by using everyone and the mailman — the literal mailman — as a focal point for storytelling in a world that’s large in character if not in size. Even if you considered yourself unhindered by spoilers, this is a method of storytelling uniquely vulnerable to sequence breaking: not because the ‘twists’ are necessarily shocking (though they can be), but because every new revelation builds on the old, gaining importance and gravitas only because of context — the puzzle piece that reveals the image isn’t nearly as valuable if you don’t have any of the other pieces.
Night in the Woods also reminds me of Steven Universe because it is very good. It’s gorgeous, immersive, and well-written. It’s by no means flawless: I’ve seen summaries of other reviews call it ‘a flawed masterpiece’ and ‘a mixed experience’, and I think I mostly agree with that. Still, the writing alone deserves to be experienced with as little preconception as possible. Which means there’s honestly not all that much to write about! Night in the Woods is very good, go play it, review over. Nice to be able to clock out early for once.
Okay, okay. I’ll use my actual words. Final caution on beforehand, though: if what I wrote on the last page made you in any way interested in Night in the Woods, you are genuinely better off just getting it and playing it. If right now you think you’ll like it, you’re probably not wrong. Trust your gut here.
Alright. If you’re still here, that means you’re either still on the fence about Night in the Woods, you already own it and you want to see how my opinion stacks up, or you appreciate my writing so much that you’re willing to permanently diminish your enjoyment of one of the best games I’ve played all year. Listen, I appreciate it super much if it’s the latter, but… No, no, there’s no going back now. We’re in too deep already.
So. Night in the Woods is a heavily story-driven adventure game with elements of exploration and platforming. You guide Mae, recent college dropout and 20-year-old cat person extraordinaire, as she — and I want to take a moment here to point out that I moved from last page’s ‘they’ to ‘she’, as Night in the Woods makes it explicit later on that that’s the correct pronoun — as she returns to and readjusts to life in her hometown, Possum Springs. You’ll mostly be walking around town, catching up with people, and engaging in shenanigans and hijinks with your friends, except for when… But no, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The story of Mae and Possum Springs is primarily a story about seeking. In the immediate, that reflects on Mae, who’s currently seeking a way to readjust to life ‘back home’ after two years at college. It’s clear from the outset that she hasn’t really dealt with her reason for leaving, and there are hints right out the gate of some event or series of circumstances that prompted her to leave in the first place — it’s a complicated situation. Mae is an outcast on Possum Springs, not so much because she’s not welcome but because she has no place, no rhythm. Most of her days are spent sleeping in until late noon, then walking around town directionless, chatting with strangers and bugging her friends are work.
Zooming out a little, Mae’s story also touches on her immediate social circle, her friends and family who — after two years of total silence — must now adjust to having Mae back in their lives. For Gregg, that might mean a confrontation with a childhood he thought he’d outgrown. For Bea, that might mean forgiving a former best friend for not living up to the ideals she secretly held her to. And Mae’s parents are mired in, I want to say the stuff that adults are always mired in: work, money, an uncertain future. Again, there is mention of a reason Mae left in the first place, and a reason why her parents aren’t doing so hot financially — and Mae suddenly returning brings a lot of tension to the fore.
But zooming out even further, Possum Springs itself is searching, too. Possum Springs is small town heartland America, and it’s basically dying.
Before we go on, I want to say that I basically have no frame of reference for this kind of story. I’m not from the United States, and I’m not even from a small town — I’ve lived in medium-sized cities all my life. And working as I do in the notoriously international field of academia (in a country with great public transportation, and inside the open borders of Europe), the idea of being trapped in a small town that’s slowly wasting away due to lack of jobs and resource influx is utterly alien to me. It’s almost literally a situation I can’t imagine myself in.
Everything I do know about the setting (for lack of a better word), I know from media portrayals. Like Night in the Woods. Through careful, light-handed and often environmental storytelling, Night in the Woods very clearly presents Possum Springs as a town that is — well, like I said, dying. To paraphrase a popular video, it’s a town where there used to be industry: Mae’s dad refers to having worked in coal mining and steel mills, but is currently… I think he’s either a diner cook or a bartender? I was never too clear on that. But it’s a story that repeats across town. There is less of Possum Springs now than there once was, and people are scrabbling over the remains. If you stop outside the call center on the right day, you’ll hear three people bemoan the grind and the lack of future in their jobs. One considers going somewhere else, but — where would you go? Waiting tables, retail, answering phones, and if you’re lucky clerical work or something that requires technical skill. That’s all you’re gonna find in Possum Springs. Nobody wants to stay here, very few people can afford to stay. But even fewer can afford to leave. And since it’s only the ‘best and brightest’ that get out…
This multi-layered story of seeking is the narrative backdrop of Night in the Woods. Mae is looking to fit her life into an old mold after her dreams fell through. Mae’s social circle is adjusting to her being back, suddenly, and giving that a place in their lives. And Possum Springs at large is searching for a reason to exist, a literal raison d’être. It can get gloomy at times, I probably don’t have to tell you.
Mechanically, what all of this translates to is that Night in the Woods is a game about making Mae talk to other people. The game is broadly structured in ‘days’, which start with Mae waking up (late) and end with her going to bed. Most days follow a certain structure: In the first half, you can walk around town, talking to whoever you want to talk to and exploring the places that may or may not have opened up. In the second half, you hang out with your friends. Sometimes you have a choice between two or three friends to hang out with, sometimes it’s set — if everyone else is going to a party in the woods, you better believe you’re coming too.
This mechanical aspect of Night in the Woods is both a big strength and its single biggest weakness. In this game about storytelling, all character beats are started when you walk up and talk to people. Which is nice! Walking through town provides a good sense of context and place: you’ll learn the layout of Possum Springs pretty quickly, and where everyone is most likely to hang out. Night in the Woods is an absolutely beautiful game, too; I haven’t mentioned this much, but you better believe that it’s gorgeous. The screenshots alone convey the rich colour palettes and scenic looks, but it looks even better in smooth, crisp motion. And the musical support is absolutely top-notch as well. Downtown Possum Springs has a sleepy theme tune that I can still hear and hum in my mind’s ear, noticeable both because it’s pleasant to listen to even on the tenth day, and because its absence makes the replacement music pop out all that more. Finally, there’s a nice sense of progression: The town starts out a little smaller, hemmed in by construction and barriers, but those clear out over the days. After a few days, the hill up to the church where mom lives is accessible. Few days after that, the construction to the right of the house is cleared. Maybe later on even, the boxes on top of the Snack Falcon disappear, which means you can now jump on the roof, and from there, scale another set of phone lines and windowsills.
So maybe in one day, you’ll start by talking to mom. You’ll run into town and chat with Selmers, who writes poems, and that old bird man on his porch who pretends he doesn’t enjoy when you visit. You’ll visit Angus, Bea, and Gregg at work, and say hi to mom in the church. Maybe you’ll run past the church and meet Pastor K and drifter Bruce out by the cliff. You can check the tunnel to see if the teens are hanging out, then walk all the way back — the tunnel does skip a large section of town, and there might be someone there. And only when you’re done chatting with everyone do you select which pal you want to hang out with this night, to engage the day’s final hijinks.
And then if you care about any of the characters you met, you better be ready to do all that again the next day.
And the next day.
And the next day.
Fundamentally, because so much of the story is encapsulated in characters that lead very rhythmic lives, Night in the Woods can start feeling very repetitive. Hell, I can tell you what the final few days looked like with my eyes closed. Wake up, walk down, talk to mom. Go outside, walk to the right, to see if there’s anything new on the bridge. Walk left, talk to Selmers and the professor if he’s there. Left again, climb up to the church to chat with mom, Pastor K, and Bruce. Visit Gregg, Bea, and Angus at work, walk past the Snack Donkey to see if Germ’s around, climb up the tall buildings to say hi to Lori, the two mystery musicians, and the miracle rats that live inside an abandoned wooden duck. Check the tunnel and the cliff for teens.
You might think it’d be easier to skip a few of these steps, but — in a game like this, if you’re not talking to every character you like, which in my case was every character, what’s even the point? And you might think all the exploration is unnecessary, but characters aren’t totally static; I’d have missed out on one of the coolest running subplots if I hadn’t checked the cliff where Bruce normally sits at exactly the right day. So if you want to see as much as you can, you’re going to have to check every place, all the time. And while Possum Springs isn’t super large, it’s large enough that — with Mae’s limited running speed — it can start feeling like a chore.
Oh, and the town is chock full of secrets too. That does alleviate the ‘sting’ of repeated exploration a little. Not all of them will pay off immediately, or even at all, but it’s still nice.
And for a significant part of the game, that pretty much sums up the experience! Night in the Woods is a game about going home, about seeking a place in a town that’s seeking a place, about life changing around you and coping with that, or failing to. It’s got lovely character writing, slightly repetitive mechanics, gorgeous art and sound, and a mostly vignette-based story that’s about growing up and taking life as it comes or grabbing it by the horns…
…that is, until you hit the halfway point.
I know I’ve already done spoiler warnings upfront, but in a rare moment of extra caution I’m going to double down here. There’s an unexpected element to Night in the Woods, in the sense that if (like me) you haven’t paid a lot of attention to marketing and reviews it’s something that comes out of the left field a few hours in. And it shakes up the whole game. Just me saying that is already big, but it gets worse, because I’m going to talk about it. So if you haven’t actually played Night in the Woods yet, but what you’ve read so far has made you in any way interested to, I’m really really going to suggest that you don’t read the next section. Just… I’m gonna put up that screenshot of Gregg and the cups that everyone always posts, okay? That’s the delineation line. If you want to keep free of second-half spoilers, and you should, just keep scrolling until you see that exact screenshot again. Okay? You’re good after that. Feel free to keep reading, but I strongly suggest that you take my advice on this.
In three, two, one…
The ‘twist’ is, and you may already know this, that in addition to everything I wrote about Night in the Woods is also a really strong horror game. And I’m talking actual horror: not funny ghosts and cheap jump scares, but real Chthonic, deep-bones-of-the-Earth horror. I’m talking aberrant mysteries, nameless and faceless cults, impossible geometries, blood sacrifices to underground gods, gnawing mindless voids at the heart of everything that slowly chew their way closer and closer and closer. Horror, with a capital nightlight that you leave on in the hallway.
Listen: long-time readers may know that I am a grown man who is afraid of a lot of things. I’m afraid of death, I’m afraid of illness, I’m afraid of darkness and insects and loneliness and the wide open sky. But for all that fear it takes a lot to actually unnerve me. It’s one thing to be jump-scared, but it’s quite another to very carefully bend down to drink from the tap, knowing that — there’s a mirror above — if I bend back up too casually, I just know something terrible will be looking back. You know what I mean? That’s the level of unnerved I’m talking about, where I’m not just scared of a particular scary thing, but actively filling in the dark places of the world with my own hyperactive imagination. It takes a certain stimulus to get me in that mood; actual Lovecraft never managed, for all the spooky Elder Gods he wrote about. I think the last book that had that effect on me was John Dies At The End.
And now, Night in the Woods. After, let’s say a thematically appropriate holiday celebration, the dying-small-town story is seamlessly hitched to an unsettling mystery story of disappearances, disbelief, and disassociation. It ramps up slowly, so slowly that at first I wasn’t even sure if I was supposed to be scared or not — but near the end, I’ve had some of the bone-deepest chills a video game has ever given me. I’m trying not to oversell this, but… When you get a chance to hang out with either of the three friends for ‘ghost hunting’, go with Angus, okay. For multiple reasons, including that Angus is an exceptional character, but also… Just do it, okay. Trust me on this.
What’s particularly incredible is that this horror story isn’t just layered onto the existing game, but that it actually interweaves seamlessly with several existing plot threads. Including a big thread about Mae, which… Gods, I want to talk about this so much, but I can’t, here, I just can’t. If you have actually completed the game, and you did pick up on what was happening with Mae, you might already notice that I can’t quite keep the appropriate words out of my vocabulary. It’s all bleeding through. I have to stop talking about this before I spill the whole thing, it’s just that interesting.
Here’s what I’ll end on, though: When I did finally beat the whole game, the end and the credits and the whole nine yards, I was happy to find out that Night in the Woods hadn’t broken the capital rule of good horror writing: Don’t explain everything. For everything that was explained, vaguely or confusingly as it was, I was left with two new questions, that were just… left open, at the end. Topics for discussion, or potential sequel hooks that I hope will never be fulfilled — not because I don’t want to see more Night in the Woods, but because this is just how horror should end. That incredible sense of, I want to say tainted victory — of having achieved something, somehow, that feels like progress, even when it confronts you with knowing how little you know and how much is still out there that could thoughtlessly run rampant over everything you value. Call it the void, call it capitalism. Night in the Woods ends on that sense, and it couldn’t have ended better.
Whew! If you did skip all the way here, good job! You’re safe from the forbidden knowledge contained between the cups. Unfortunately, it transpires that I don’t have a whole lot more to talk about, so taking this shortcut deposits you right into…
There are so many things about Night in the Woods that I haven’t even brought up yet. On the negative side, for instance, it’s a fair point to say that the loading times can be long; it certainly discourages some exploration when a state transition can take up to twenty seconds. And there’s some focus on replay, with achievements that reward ‘seeing everything’, which is impossible in a single playthrough, but I don’t know if a game like this should focus on replaying? On the positive side, there is so much I could say about individual characters or plot beats. Like Gregg and Angus’ queer representation, which is simultaneously the most normal thing in the world, and brought up when it matters. And Germ, The Best Guy, who — I think at least several people that frequent these reviews will be able to recognize something of themselves in. Or the colour use in dream sequences. Or Drunk Mae. Or, or, or…
I could keep talking forever, but really, I think you get the gist. Night in the Woods is really exceptionally good. If you care about character-driven storytelling, or beautiful art, or nice music, or chills, I highly recommend you play it. It’s somewhat pricey at twenty bucks, so I won’t begrudge you if you shelve it on your wishlist for now; it’s an exceptional month for games all around. But just… don’t forget about this one, alright? Don’t forget about Mae Borowski. And Bea, and Angus. And Gregg, who rulz.
Jarenth wants to spend more time in Possum Springs, but it wouldn’t be the same, would it? Share melancholy for virtual spaces with him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?