Any game that opens with an experimental poem about the death of the protagonist’s Grandad is worthy of attention. Through each hour of gameplay, Night in the Woods keeps springing surprises. Created by Infinite Fall and the latest release from Finji Games, Night in the Woods is an exploration RPG with a heavy heart at its centre. This melancholy tale follows the days of Mae, a humanoid cat who has dropped out of college and moved back to her deteriorating home town, Possum Springs. With the economy wavering and jobs scarce, Possum Springs has become heavy with unhappy souls. Mae is only adding to the mix, when she discovers something frightening lingering in the woods.
Possum Springs is full of distinctive animal characters, all of whom have their own routines and stories of hardship. The game is structured around each of Mae’s days, as she gets up, explores, and then goes back to sleep. It takes a bit of time to get used to the linear structure, and there are big chunks of gameplay that can feel directionless, but it is soon easy to get into Mae’s own aimless routine. We see the town from power lines, building ledges, and rooftops. Never one to take the easy route, Mae explores her home town as a teenager would, perceiving neither limits nor danger in jumping from ledge to ledge. It is up to the player to explore as much as they want, but rewards for each new rooftop reached are plentiful.
The game’s explorative function takes us to six different locations, all of which contain minor characters and her main friendship group (Gregg, his boyfriend Angus and Bae). The game encourages the player to return to the same locations and same people each day to expand dialogue options and to learn more about each character. Some days have set activities, such as band practice, but most days the player has free reign to choose what Mae does and who she hangs out with. The more you interact with the group, the easier it is to invest in these idiosyncratic young adults. At the beginning and the end of each day, Mae can check her messages on her laptop to find how and where everyone is. This is just one of the many functions that make the game immersive and the progression of the plot feeling natural.
Each interaction with her friends, particularly the troubled croc Bae, solidifies that Mae exists in a very different world to them, despite their shared teen years. In the beginning, Night in the Woods is about Mae’s attempt to return to a teenage life that she no longer fits into. While she is very relatable, she is not always a pleasant character, perhaps because of this. She messes up frequently, seeming to approach life with a baseball bat - not always metaphorically.
Night in the Woods’ great strength is its storytelling. Despite Mae’s childishness, there is a real drive to find out why she is the way she is, and why she dropped out of college. The dialogue is engaging, penetratingly perceptive and often very funny. There is no character that isn’t flawed in some way. The more Mae interacts with her peers the closer you get to finding out what is motivating each one, and every reason feels believable and honest. This is true even of the characters you meet around town, down to the guy fishing in the underground tunnels who doesn’t like you listening to him reciting poetry. The game’s charm comes from how familiar these people feel, as if you may have met them at a party once, or if they too exist within your town.
The artwork does an excellent job of grounding us in this new world. Mae moves from a suburban haven to deteriorating shop fronts and each is cast in the romantic hues of autumn, a season of change. Posters, shop fronts and the murals that are dotted around the town are all small details that help to make Possum Springs very tangible. There is always a joke hidden somewhere for the player to discover. The creators’ good humour is obvious in the few stray cats that Mae walks past, leaving us wondering why the town is full of domesticated animals, when all the protagonists are animals?
This sense of fun runs throughout the game’s narrative. The majority of the game is dialogue- and exploration-based, but often the developers throw in an activity that requires a different skill. At band practice with her friends, we play as Mae on bass, having to tap the game controller to time just like Guitar Hero. There is also an amusing knife fight scene where you have to jab the other character before they jab you. The game doesn’t heavily penalise the player if they’re bad at these activities, which emphasises that the story is the most important feature, but there are achievements for doing certain things in each one.
Exploration can get repetitive, but Night in the Woods’ breaks from it via these activities and Mae’s dark and cosmic dream sequences. It’s in these scenes that we really start to get the sense that Mae’s aimlessness, masochistic humour and self-obsession is hiding more troubling mental health issues. Mae runs along broken and disjointed landscapes, in search of all the players in a four piece classical band. As we find each piece of the band their instrument fills the soundtrack. Once all are found, huge creatures come and find Mae, and then she wakes up.
Amongst all its fun, the game grapples with difficult topics, such as abuse, religion, failure and mental health. Mae’s confusion over her direction in life, and what the point of it all is, leads her to confront whether or not she is religious like her parents, and what it is to be an adult with real responsibilities. These themes mixed in with frequent star gazing activities create some really profound discussions on what it is that keeps people going in life.
After what seems like a long time of playing at Mae’s procrastination, in the last quarter the plot begins to suddenly unravel at a surprising pace. All of Mae’s premonitions and feelings of doom begin to make startling and very emotionally provocative sense. While the story progression is not entirely unwelcome, it may have benefitted from slightly more even pacing. Yet, when so much of the game is true to life’s random absurdity, it seems fitting that its conclusion would come out of nowhere.
In order to get the most out of Night in the Woods the player has to invest in the world, its characters and Mae herself. The developers have done almost everything to ensure that this happens easily. However, if you are a gamer that looks for more challenging gameplay or RPGs with lots of choice, this might not be the one for you.
Having said that, Night in the Woods is an incredibly rewarding, mature and imaginative exploration of what it is to be lost in the world. That it is also incredible insightful, funny and full of little bonuses, like the retro game Demontower on Mae’s computer, makes it well worth a purchase. This is a game you have to experience first-hand.