"Night in the Woods is the cold wave mixtape of video games. And it's absolutely fantastic."
During the mid-80s, there was a music genre dubbed cold wave. Spun off from the then-burgeoning post-punk scene, cold wave shared a lot of technical similarities with its mother genre; but thematically, it was one or two steps drearier. Monotone singers delivered lyrics of catastrophically broken romance, exaggerated personal failings, and the mundanity of an endless cycle of ennui, but not without a wink of comic irony. If someone were to pave purgatory and put up a parking lot, cold wave would be the muzak softly bleating from the speaker system. It's a good soundtrack to suburban angst.
Night in the Woods is the cold wave mixtape of video games. And it's absolutely fantastic.
Set in Possum Springs, a Rust Belt town populated by anthropomorphic animals, Night in the Woods follows slacker kitty, Mae Borowski. Mae finds herself back at home after dropping out of college. She doesn't really have much of a plan other than to while away time with her old high school friends, just like the "good old days". However, time waits for no one. Internet shopping has killed the mall, the best pizza parlor has been shuttered, and even the iconic Food Donkey grocery store closed down when forced to compete with the super-chain Ham Panther. And that's nothing to say of how Mae's friends may have changed…
The first thing you're likely to notice about Night in the Woods is just how gorgeous it looks. Designed by illustrator and animator Scott Benson, Possum Springs and its inhabitants boast an eye-catching style that brings to mind zinester subculture. The world resembles layered papercraft, making use of sharp colors and geometric shapes. The cast of animal characters are each drawn in a simplistic manner that is as clear and recognizable as it is adorable. The core cast of Mae and Co. looks great; each character's design clearly reflects his/her own brand of counter-culture. Alec Holowka's (Towerfall Ascension, Aquaria) soundtrack is killer, too: It wears its shoegaze influence on its sleeve, combining drum machine and washed out bass to make a lovely slush of music, with synthetic woodwind, harpsichord and organ making appearances on certain tracks. It's the perfect accompaniment to the game's visuals.
Night in the Woods is essentially a character-driven adventure game in the form of a side-scrolling platformer. Mae navigates Possum Springs in a manner reflective of her carefree nature: running and jumping off mailboxes and window ledges; balancing across telephone wires to reach distant rooftops; and doing three-point high jumps for some extra verticality. Ultimately, you're free to explore as much or as little as you'd like, but exploration is often rewarded with cool sequences. The whole thing feels something akin to a slice of life Metroidvania, although Mae doesn't gain any traversal abilities, as optional locations tend to open up automatically as the story progresses. However, passage can be granted in unusual ways; perhaps spending some quality time with Dad could convince him to shift some boxes that bar access to the basement.
No matter how you get around, traversal just feels great thanks to the game's expert level of animation. Mae is brought to life with a high number of precise frames, and she moves smoothly through the world with nice little flourishes. She puffs her chest out and smiles excitedly when she jumps; twigs and rocks kick up in her wake when she runs on grass; and her ears twitch in true feline fashion from time to time.
Being a character-driven adventure, Mae's circle of friends are the crux of the plot. There's hyperactive punk fox, Gregg; his gentle and dapper bear boyfriend, Angus; and Mae's frosty former-BFF, Bea, a chain-smoking goth alligator. A bevy of smaller roles fill in the gaps, including the local parish's Pastor K; creepy bird boy, Germ; and Mae's parents, among others. Each character, even the smaller ones, is loaded with personality and a unique voice. Much of the dialogue feels like a very natural portrait of millennial youth, with a bit of "weird Twitter" humor thrown in for good measure.
The main plot is divided into a handful of chapters, which are further divided into a handful of days. The first half of the story, in keeping with Mae's premature homecoming, tends to be meandering and laid back: you wake up in the middle of the day and head out into town to see which of your friends wants to hang out. Often, Mae has a choice between hanging out with Gregg or Bea on any given night, each of whom has unique scenarios and plotlines to follow. Gregg and Bea are essentially opposite ends of a see-saw: Gregg pivots towards ADHD-tinged acts of destruction, while the pragmatic, yet bitingly sardonic Bea prefers lower octane diversions. As different as they are, both Gregg and Bea are pretty deep and well fleshed out, and there are equal doses of humor and pathos to be found in both of their arcs.
Hanging out with your buddy of choice isn't just
dialogue scenes, though. Each activity boasts its own unique mini-game, many of which are vastly different in style. These activities include playing bass in a band, smashing fluorescent tubes with a bat, squirting mall-walkers with a fountain, building a robot, knife fighting, and many more. Despite the high number of activities, the controls manage to hold up admirably, with each mini-game feeling like a natural extension of the core gameplay. These sequences are always a treat, and I'll definitely be replaying the game to see which ones I missed. That said, it's a shame that Night in the Woods only offers a single save slot per playthrough, which must be deleted before starting fresh. It's a small hindrance to players who might just want to see what the other side of a day has to offer.
Aside from activities with friends, there's a whole host of little side quests to discover as you traipse around Possum Springs. Mae can look for constellations with her former teacher, catch up with her parents, or steal food to feed a litter of baby rats. And then there's Demontower, a Hyper Light Drifter-inspired dungeon crawler that Angus installs onto Mae's laptop. It's surprisingly lengthy and challenging, with a delicious FM synth soundtrack for you to hack and slash to.
The back half of the game is where the plot becomes more focused; here, Mae discovers that the woods outside Possum Springs may be host to an otherworldly stalker. This encourages Mae and Co. to put their heads together and do some investigating. Personally, I was more interested in learning about Mae and her friends than I was in solving the mystery, so I was pleased that the rich characterisation continues into the second half, resulting in some very poignant scenes. No matter which plotline you prefer, everything comes together in a deeply satisfying culmination at the end.
Despite its animal cast and supernatural elements, Night in the Woods is extremely human and relatable. There's a sequence early on where Mae ends up stuck at a party, drinking bad beer and trying to avoid an ex-boyfriend, all while at the mercy of Bea, who holds the car keys. Things take a bit of a turn when Mae gets sloppy drunk, and the evening is capped off with an awkward ride home from long-suffering Bea. Your dialogue choices are eloquent, humble apologies, but they all come out as embarrassing nonsense. I'd been there before. Others may find resonance in scenes where Mae and her mother argue over the choices she's made. These scenes can be hilarious, hard to watch, or both, and there's at least one plot beat in Night in the Woods that will feel intimately familiar to players of a certain age.
I'd been looking forward to Night in the Woods since its announcement and crowdfunding campaign way back in 2013, and I still ended up being surprised at just how much it affected me. It's a bittersweet tribute to slackerdom: a tale of existential crisis and failure, and the odd sense of comfort that failure may result in. Even when your world is crumbling, there's solace in family taco night or the predictable evening talk show hosts, who spout the same catchphrases night after night. We've all had our own personal nights in the woods, but in the words of Possum Springs' welcome sign, "You're not lost, you're here."