Night in the Woods invites players in with adorably stylish anthropomorphic animal characters, engaging yet simple design, an absolutely killer soundtrack, and the promise of something spooky lurking just beyond the treeline. It doesn’t, however, advertise the emotional rollercoaster you are strapping into as soon as you boot up a new game. Night in the Woods packs an emotional punch, one that is not easily side-stepped or ignored. It is at times darkly hilarious, endearingly sweet, and achingly too real. This is one of those games that leave you utterly destroyed in the best way possible, rifling through problems both small and so staggeringly huge with ease and precision. Humor and melancholy weave together seamlessly to form the backbone of this story’s tone, building steadily in a way that refuses to slip mindlessly by. It’s less of a game to just play and more an experience that demands your full attention.
Meet Mae Borowski, a 20-year-old sophomore who has just returned to her small town home of Possum Springs after dropping out of college. She doesn’t want to talk about it.
She doesn’t want to do much of anything actually, save maybe skulk around her old haunting grounds and bounce along power lines. Maaaybe do some crimes with Gregg. Or go to a party with Bea. Things that don’t involve thinking about her direction in life or anything too overwhelming like that.
It’s why she’s back in Possum Springs, after all. Possum Springs is the familiar.
Mae’s back home, back to a place that’s easy and warm and comforting–it’s the place you want to be when the world starts getting too big and you’re not really down to handle it. And we see Mae patently not down to handle it, both directly and in ways so subtle they ache with every pause.
Possum Springs becomes our playground, the ideal sleepy setting for NitW’s melancholic brand of horror. We join Mae on this journey, which starts as simply her reacquainting herself with her hometown, engaging in mundane activities and interacting with her family and friends. Mae explores a town that’s very much the same while being dramatically different, and still changing before her eyes. It’s a world we can easily fall into–for many, it’s merely daily life.
The action of the game is often mundane in this way, since Mae really doesn’t have much going for her. Sleep until late afternoon, snark about the family bird on your way downstairs, and run around town until it’s time for bed. The consistency of day by day by day–the arduous process of waking and dragging yourself out of bed and talking to others and moving and maybe just finding that one thing to judge a day’s success by–doesn’t make any huge ripples in Mae’s world, but it’s what she’s got, and it sets the tone for players explore the more intricate facets of Mae’s emotions. Mae’s life is weird, yet she still manages an almost incessantly cheery persona, wielding the morbid sense of humor unique to her generation and a biting joke for every familiar face with which she comes in contact like a well-loved security blanket. Mae cracks jokes, sasses her neighbors, offers a helping hand or a patient ear.
Mae desperately tries to assert her new status as “Adult” on the town while simultaneously sliding back into her old life. She falls back on her old support system: her partner in crime Gregg (Gregg rulz ok), his boyfriend Angus, and the ‘it’s complicated’ friend Bea.
She has gone away to college and stayed the same, while they have stayed in the same place and changed dramatically. Nonetheless, the friends relate and gravitate around one another on many points, sometimes in comfort and other times with difficulty. The tension in her relationships makes for the more poignant narratives of the game.
Players will be faced with choices throughout the game, allowing them to spend time with these friends and explore their problems and aspirations in depth. Her friends all have jobs and are living in a far more grown up sphere than Mae is managing, but they’re thrilled to slip back into their old ways and get together for band practice every now and then, even if Mae’s bass skills are extremely rusty. Mae might go on epic (and slightly illegal) adventure with Gregg on one night and accompany Bea to the grocery store to make dinner on another. Depending on these choices, the story will reveal more about Gregg and Bea’s lives.
While Mae interacts primarily with Gregg, Angus, and Bea, Mae’s relationships with her parents and several people through her town are available to explore in depth. This allows players to use each day in Mae’s life to nurture new relationships and maintain a witty rapport with many more.
Each character in Mae’s life is intricately complete. Mama and Papa Borowski are easily some of my favorite, most personally relatable, parents in media. They have their downs, and are certainly not above arguing, but despite Mae’s hang-ups, she maintains a loving and lively relationship with both of them. And they’re pretty funny, if you take the time to chat with them.
The 2D world of Possum Springs is richly detailed and highly interactive. From the very first screen, I was hooked by the unbelievably beautiful art. The desolate settings are simple but achingly gorgeous, and the beauty builds with each new scene. Color is used masterfully to set the mood, blending with the incredible soundtrack to fully define this virtual world. There’s a certain sense of wonder as you test the limitations and find yet another new way to engage with the settings. It starts with “Hmm….so can I jump on it?” and ends with “Alright alright alright I’m going over there one way or another!”
Many of Mae’s interactive spots, which are indicated by an eye symbol as you stand next to/in front of the spot, remain consistent throughout the game, but that doesn’t mean players can be complacent. Certain spots will trigger only some days, or only be available during certain parts of the story, opening up as the town changes. And trust me, it’s absolutely worth it to take your time hitting all the stops on each day of this journey. I spent every in-game day eagerly traveling through every route open to me, observing everything I could and learning any detail the townspeople would share. Many of the observable conversations have no effect on the overall story, but they really do bring you closer to the town and thoroughly enrich the game experience. By the third day, I was wholly invested in the lives of the Possum Springs inhabitants and how Mae interacted with them. Every character in this game, from the best friends Mae spends much of her time with to the near strangers she shares random comments with, is well written. You care about these characters. You care a lot.
There’s Germ, the slightly strange kid who hangs on the fringes of Mae’s friend group, not quite part of the crowd but always fascinating to talk to, or Lori M., the horror-maestro hopeful whose youth leaves Mae reflective and a little nostalgic. Explore the phenomenal (and very weird) duskstars with Mr. Chakov up on the roof or listen to good ole Selmers recite poetry. Get to know the homeless man who has just arrived in town, or eavesdrop on the sports aficionados hanging by the Snack Falcon.
The game’s writing is beautiful, introducing players to exchanges that are witty, insightful, funny, meaningful, or utterly ridiculous. The dialogue throughout the game is some of the loveliest I’ve encountered, even when it’s biting or seemingly unimportant. It makes you feel things. Things that are sometimes hard to put into words. But things.
Mae’s life is pretty run-of-the-mill right now, but that doesn’t mean everything’s A-OK. She did drop out of college and return home for reasons unvoiced, and early conversations with neighbors reveal something dark lurking in Mae’s past. While unspoken, these things are clearly swimming somewhere within Mae’s consciousness. Her daily life may be a little weird, but it’s nothing compared to the haunting dreams she begins having not long after her return.
Some of the most beautifully executed levels are those in Mae’s head, during which abstract shapes and music dictate mood and progress. These beautiful dream worlds are both captivating and shattering in turn. On good nights, the peaceful dreamlike quality of her nightly quest through the shadow world flows with beautiful music, reassuring, idyllic, and uplifting. On the bad, every new chord trembles with anxiety. Hurry, hurry, the music screams (or poignantly does not), dread and sorrow thick in the air as Mae clambers over abstract shapes and crosses flashing lights in her search.
Night in the Woods dances on a power line, swaying between the utterly mundane and the breathlessly terrifying often and with ease.
And sometimes, it winds you up and winds you up and leaves you tottering on the head of a pin before a gentle breeze wafts by and sends you falling, falling.
When the world shatters, so do you, scrambling and weak, breathless–like you’ve just run a marathon. It’s a sigh of relief without the relief.
Mae’s got a weird life. Possum Springs is a quiet little mining town on the edge of obscurity. Sometimes horror lurks beneath the sleepy exterior. Ghosts certainly exist in this sleepy, forgotten town in the middle of the woods. Sometimes they’re real. And sometimes they’re in your head.
Night in the Woods is on Steam, or downloadable from the Playstation Store for $19.99.