A sad and serious tale of generational anxieties wrapped up in a deceptively cute, funny exterior.
Night in the Woods is all about the little things. Late-night diner adventures with friends; spontaneous rooftop stargazing; chatting about ghosts with the crust punks who hang out on the outskirts of town. Moments like these come and go faster than you can swing a bat at a batch of discarded light bulbs out behind the local snack mart, but thanks to earnest, heartfelt writing and a good helping of dry humor, they also lingered in my mind long after they’d passed.
While some pacing issues hamper the excitement of this side-scrolling, story-driven adventure’s latter half, I never stopped feeling invested in the personal stories of its adorable anthropomorphic animal cast, whose individual struggles and flaws make them surprisingly human and often painfully relatable.
Little mini-games add fun variety to your interactions.
Night in the Woods’ story revolves around Mae, an unruly cartoon cat girl who drops out of college and moves back to her hometown of Possum Springs after a few years of being away. The setup serves the themes of the story well, but is also convenient for letting you establish your own routine in the relatively open, 10-hour adventure. Every morning I’d hop out of bed, check my laptop for instant messages, and chat with my mom in the kitchen before hitting town. There I was free to do any number of things: climb up the powerlines and explore the rooftops, hit up my friends while they work boring service jobs, say hello to the locals, and more as the story unfolds. Most of this is optional and some of the more significant decisions you make (like which friendships you want to focus on developing) significantly influence later scenes in a way that’s encouraged me to start a second playthrough already.
Little mini-games add fun variety to your interactions: shoplifting, beating up old cars, and playing in a band are just a few of the things Mae gets up to in her time back home. Sometimes I even found myself getting sucked into Demon Tower, a pixelated dungeon crawler on Mae’s laptop, before jumping into bed and triggering the next day in her adventure.
Platforming is playfully in line with Mae’s reputation as a delinquent
Its 2D platforming (which feels good on either a keyboard or a gamepad) is rarely challenge-based, and instead serves mostly as a way to explore hidden areas in the context of Mae’s constant mischief-seeking. Leaping up on power lines (against the local police’s warning) and roof hopping over to an old teacher’s building to learn about constellations was a particularly rewarding diversion I tried to never miss. The only time it does introduce very minor platforming challenges is during Mae’s dream sequences, in which you have to explore a wide-open space and locate a series of ghostly musicians before moving on.
These platforming-heavy dream levels were occasionally frustrating because it was easy to lose track of where I’d been and end up going in circles trying to hunt down my objectives, but lanterns that light up to mark your path do help. When you’re just on the town, though, platforming is fun and offers a certain amount of freedom that’s also playfully in line with Mae’s reputation as a delinquent.
The youthful frivolity of its characters come to life with sharp but natural dialogue.
Mae is as troubled as she is a troublemaker, and seeing the way her sometimes embarrassing history surfaces as she reacquaints herself with the town is both entertaining and endearing. Frequent dialogue options let you affect the general tone or direction of some interactions, but the most rewarding examples of this are the conversations that let you build out your own backstories. Questions like, “remember that time when…” or “isn’t that the guy who…” will let you cycle through choices that paint colorful, often hilarious pictures of a bygone time. Having a small part in filling in the blanks of Mae’s life made me feel like I had a larger part in its telling, as if I were the one reminiscing. Night in the Woods is largely character-driven, and the way it brings its cast to life through these mundane little details makes it all the more relatable.
Most major interactions also prompt Mae to draw a sketch in her notebook, which serves as a nice collection of memories for your time in Possum Springs and adds an extra bit of charm or context to your everyday routine. Its soundtrack brings even more vibrancy and emotion into every scene: catchy tunes brimming with the spirit of childlike wonder, but underpinned with the inescapable nostalgia and sadness that makes the mood of Mae’s adventure so distinct.
Night in the Woods embraces a youthful frivolity with its sharp, and sometimes slang-filled dialogue reflective of the 20- and 30-somethings of the social media era, but each character still has their own distinct personality: Mae’s pesky wit, her childhood best friend Bea’s biting cynicism, her old pal Gregg’s hyperactive silliness, and Gregg’s boyfriend Angus’ gentlemanly deadpan. The crew’s friendly bickering and antics are all the better for their avoidance of topical jokes and memes, which keeps their dialogue fresh and natural even when it might veer into a vernacular unfamiliar to an older audience.
But for all its comedy and cartoonish light-heartedness, Night in the Woods is capable of startling sadness, which adds an unexpected depth that made my time with its characters so much more meaningful. Mae’s bad attitude and immaturity is sometimes a charming part of her personality and sometimes an annoying trait, but that’s always on purpose — the humor and sarcasm that made me laugh in one scene could devastate me in the next, as Mae’s behavior begins to unintentionally alienate the ones she loves. Night in the Woods’ realistic exploration of human insecurity, particularly the inevitable dread of adulthood, is a surprising element that its cute and cartoony (but still lovely) artwork doesn’t let on at first glance.
Rarely have I seen the struggle of the working-class represented so thoughtfully in a game.
There is a central mystery to grapple with between all the exploration and small-town shenanigans, but its development feels less interesting than that of the characters involved. That’s not to say the story is bad — the characters are just so, so good. Fortunately, Possum Springs has as much of a personality as its somber inhabitants, which doesn’t only make it an interesting setting, but vital in the grander story Night in the Woods does tell. Each day wandering its leaf-filled streets and eerie backwoods is a new opportunity to learn something about this small, Midwestern-inspired town and the events that shaped it. Mae’s obsession with a potential ghost sighting leads her down a rabbit hole of bizarre old-timey mythology, from the stories a former teacher tells her about the constellations to local legends that exist only in whispers.
But Possum Springs is haunted by more than just small-town superstitions. The memory of coal-mining disasters, labor strikes, and government-sanctioned massacres still linger in the older townsfolks’ collective consciousness. As I sat in the library with Mae’s friend Bea, scrolling through microfilm newspaper clippings of the town’s tragic history, the significance of even the most minor encounters began to weigh down — an ex-construction worker lamenting his unemployment; the startled disappointment of a favorite eatery closing for good; a crowd of older residents debating how to bring business back to their slowly stagnating town.
Rarely (maybe never) have I seen the struggle and desperation of working-class middle America represented so thoughtfully in a game, and the way Night in the Woods weaves this unique disillusionment into an eerie mystery involving silly teens is both insightfully critical and defiantly empathetic. While the core events leading up to its unexpected climax are a little unevenly spread out in its relatively slow middle acts, the tone, character development, and refreshingly adult subject matter were enough to keep me engaged the whole way through.