I finished my playthrough of Night in the Woods yesterday and cannot stop thinking about it since. It’s not often that a game, or any piece of craftsmanship, leaves me with such a strong impression.
Night in the Woods is a game created by Alec Holowka (of Aquaria fame) and Scott Benson, among other people. It tells a story of a humanoid cat dropping out of university and going back to live with her parents in a small american town. Mechanically, it is a strange mix of visual novel and a platformer, with some other influences sprinkled here and there. When trying to describe what am I playing to my roommates, I spontaneously said “this is not a game, this is a book”.
In the past, when somebody asked what I thought of The Last of Us, I’ve similarly said “it was a good movie”. I realize that might have come off sounding negative, like I wanted a game and was forced to see a movie instead. There’s nothing negative about that. It’s amazing that games can trigger same neural pathways as movies, books, ballet, poetry and driving a car on an empty highway late at night. Playing Night in the Woods makes me realize this more clearly than ever before.
There was a homeless person in the town of Possum Springs, where the games takes place. We talked a few times and I started getting to know him. During our last conversation he told me that he’s going home to see his family and asked to give his thanks to church pastor who was taking care of him. I was sure that he is about to kill himself. Now there was this dilemma in my head - should I try to prevent it? Even though not real, it felt significant and not at all obvious. Respecting man’s decision seems just as important, if not more, than trying to save him against his wish. Ultimately, there was no choice to be made in the game, the pastor was gone and the homeless man was nowhere to be found the next day. But in my head this was a powerful, weighty choice worth thinking about. I don’t think the game could have handled it any better by letting me influence this situation. This is a big overarching theme of Night in the Woods, existential pointlessness of oneself.
When I was about 20 years old, same age as game’s protagonist Mae, I was very into existential philosophy. I’m not anymore, much more mundane things are occupying my headspace instead, but ideas of Camus and Sartre stayed with me and heavily influenced who I am today. Perhaps that’s why Night in the Woods feels so personal. It is actually an easy game to relate to - there’s this whole situation of going back in time to your old town and parents, your friends staying the same but relationships with them becoming different, teenage rebellion and sudden adulthood. Topics relevant to many of us, I’m sure. One could even say that’s a bit pretentious to put all of this in a game. Yet, I don’t think that authors were trying to cram in emotional hooks and psychological tricks to make people invest. Night in the Woods feels genuinely honest and personal - people who made it are not that different from us after all and those were relevant topics for them too.
And just to be fair, it is absolutely a flawed game. I could never shake the feeling that every character was written by the same person. They have their own personalities, but everyone’s dialogues are full of the same kind of wittyness. That’s ok, it made the town of Possum Springs somewhat creepy. Most of the jokes were still quite good. I also felt like the game was “overcooked” a bit - it has these details which I didn’t care about, like all the minigames. There’s a dungeon crawler, guitar hero ripoff and even a pizza eating game! It’s all cute, but might as well not be there at all. Band practice sessions were especially frustrating - I was way more interested in reading the lyrics of songs than playing. And I couldn’t, I had to concentrate on pushing the right buttons to play the bass.
Going back to what I said about this game being a book, it reminds me of Catcher in the Rye a lot. Another flawed, easy to like, piece of art which stayed in my head over the years. Night in the Woods is the same thing made more suitable to us living in 21st century. Especially the Lovecraftian horror bits.
“I believe in universe which doesn’t care and people who do.” - Angus