Night in the Woods was a completely unexpected and delightful surprise. I learned about it during E3 2016 thanks to a fellow RPGFan editor who shall not be named…okay, it was Robert Fenner (whose review of the game you should totally read). I remember falling in love with the art style and the concept of the story, about college dropout Mae Borowski (who is an anthropomorphic cat) returning to her rural hometown that has seen better days and finding out that her friends have all moved on with their lives while she was away. When I finally played it earlier this year, I fell in love with everything else about the game, from the smart dialogue to the endearing characters, and especially the music. Indeed, perhaps the biggest surprise for me with Night in the Woods was how much I enjoyed practically every piece of music I heard throughout the game.
And boy is there a lot of it. This volume alone contains 62 tracks and has a runtime of just over three hours, and that’s just the first half of the game’s soundtrack! Most tracks are looped twice, which is a huge plus in my book, and just about every little melody you hear in the game is present, including vending machine ditties and the stingers that introduce the various hangouts with Gregg and Beatrice. There’s a delightfully retro style to every track that perfectly matches the game’s art design and overall aesthetic. Alec Holowka, the game’s composer and one of its designers, has said he was influenced by the shoegazing group DIIV, and it definitely shows in the game’s soundtrack. While certain riffs are identifiable — a piano here, a sax there — you aren’t so much meant to hear them as distinct instruments as part of a blended soundscape. This is great, because it lets you focus on the melodies, which run the gamut from catchy town and store tunes to rock songs to jazzy interludes to psychedelic dream themes.
Take the theme of Mae’s hometown, “Possum Springs,” for example. You can clearly hear a distorted electric keyboard throughout the piece, and in some places it’s more pronounced than others. But amidst the layering from accompanying synths — both melodic and percussive — the melody’s identity as a particular instrument kind of fades away, and you end up just admiring the energetic movement of the main theme. Then there are tracks like “Durkillesburg” and “Crimes” that completely eschew recognizable instruments in favor of flat out synthesized melodies — to great effect, I might add.
One thing I enjoyed immensely about this soundtrack that I would like to point out is its use of theme. There are reoccurring motifs throughout the album, and hearing a recognizable riff in a new track is a delight. In particular, each of Mae’s friends has a unique theme that is used in various different areas associated with them. Not only is it fun to pick out motifs and relate them back to previous tracks — well, it’s fun for me — but tying the different pieces together thematically does in music what cutscenes and dialogue do for the story. And it’s not just character themes either. There are a few motifs that, over time, establish themselves as main theme-esque melodies. Every time you hear them, it’s like an “Aha!” moment, and that recognition helps this sprawling album feel more cohesive despite the variety of melodies found within.
Even absent a discussion of style and theme, the music here is just plain fun to listen to. The title screen music marries a spooky start to a kind of jazzy noir tune that carries a grunge edge to it. “Die Anywhere Else” is a rock song that I would love to hear performed by a live band, even if the lyrics attached to it are a little…dark. “Batter Up” is one of my favorite pieces on the album because of how catchy it is, with multiple sections that add additional layers to make the fun little tune even cooler. And “Mallard’s Tomb” is a laid-back electric keyboard piece that you may actually never hear in game if you don’t fully explore Possum Springs, but its mellow melody is worth the hunt.
And that’s just a handful of the tracks on this album. The rest are all worth listening to as well, and if you like what you hear, Volume 2 is pretty meaty and carries the same great, fun quality. So spend a night in the woods; it may be a little spooky at times, but it’ll be an unforgettable experience.