Night in the Woods review
A near-equal balance of good and bad that can make a game either fall disappointingly short of its evident potential or be mildly entertaining despite its many failings.
Ever been to an art museum? You know that awkward feeling when you pause to look at a painting—swipes of color on canvas with no obvious subject—and as you’re standing there twisting your head and squinting, trying to figure out why the heck this paint-spill is hanging on the wall, the person next to you gasps in breathless wonder: Wow. Amazing, isn’t it?
That’s how I feel about Night in the Woods.
This artsy narrative game from indie developer Infinite Fall got a lot of attention leading up to its release, and I’d been looking forward to it ever since playing a demo in 2015. Night in the Woods is a modern-day story about Mae, a college dropout who returns to her small mining town yearning for the familiar comforts of home. But Possum Springs has changed in her absence. Her friends have jobs and adult responsibilities. Her parents are struggling to keep their house after a poor financial decision. The mine has closed down, leaving many residents out of work. And although Mae has been away for a while, her reputation as a troublemaker with anger issues is still a source of gossip among the locals, some of whom aren’t happy to see her back.
As you’ve probably noticed from the screenshots, Mae is a cat. Her friends Bea, Gregg, Angus, and Germ are an emo crocodile, a fox in a leather jacket, a dapper bear, and a bird in a baseball cap. These anthropomorphized characters have a cool cynicism that keeps them from being too cute. They inhabit a sprawling, lively locale that you get to explore as Mae passes her first days back at home—jobless, aimless, and increasingly anxious over how much this once-familiar place has changed. The game’s most obvious strength is its illustrated art style with a 2D paper cutout effect that emphasizes the crisp shapes and black shadows making up this world. The town is bustling with details such as fallen leaves that kick up as you run through them, pigeons and squirrels on the power lines, jack-o-lanterns that appear on stoops on Halloween, and an array of Possum Springs residents hanging out on doorsteps and rooftops.
You can play with the keyboard or with a controller. Navigation mainly consists of running from left to right to explore horizontally and jumping up on platforms such as ledges, tree branches, power lines, and rooftops to explore vertically. But while it may have the look and feel of a side-scrolling platformer, this is primarily a story game. While dialogues are generally short and most areas have only a few interactive hotspots, exploration has a cumulative effect as you visit the same locations day after day to see who’s there and what’s changed. There are no real puzzles to solve but there are several required minigames and some light platforming—nothing that’s going to kill you, literally or figuratively, but if you usually gravitate to adventure games, Night in the Woods may be a little more twitchy than you’re used to.
The game takes place as a series of days and nights, from the time Mae wakes until she goes to bed, sometimes followed by a dream sequence before the next day starts. You generally have to go see Gregg or Bea at their jobs to trigger an end-of-day scene. Before this, you can explore the ten or so screens that make up the town as much or as little as you wish. Lots of optional things to do (or miss) personalize the experience and may motivate you to replay. In fact, if you do want to see what you missed the first time through, a second playthrough is your only option, since Night in the Woods only has one save slot that overwrites itself as you pass from scene to scene.
When I reviewed Life Is Strange, I ruminated on the problematic lack of urgency that comes with starting a scene with a character waking up in bed. In Night in the Woods, this happens eleven times. Every day Mae stretches with the same waking-up animation, checks her computer for instant messages, and goes downstairs to chat with her mom. Every day she walks down the same streets to see the same friends. There are small changes from day to day—discovering them is part of the point—but this repetitive structure makes for draggy pacing, especially in the beginning.
The payoff for making your way through town each day is the chance to hang out with Mae’s friends, a diverse group whose distinct personalities make you forget they’re animals wearing clothes. Mae engages with each friend somewhat differently, showing different facets of her personality. With Gregg she indulges her wild side, waving her arms in an imitation of his own manic greeting and reveling in vandalism and other mischief she probably should have outgrown by now. Their speech is rapid-fire and original—I especially liked their game of one-upping each other with “I hope you die a horrible death” insults. (On that note, it’s a shame the game has no voice acting, because the natural, frequently funny dialogue is a highlight. Instead of voiced speech, text appears in talk bubbles over the characters’ heads.) The more subdued Bea, whose friendship with Mae ended in junior high for reasons neither can articulate now, maintains a tough demeanor to hide how much she’s hurting inside—a shield Mae starts to bring down by confiding her own insecurities. Gregg’s partner Angus is more a friend-of-a-friend, and as he and Mae start to forge their own bond, they also have to contend with feelings of jealousy over their best friend / boyfriend in common.
Mae’s parents are also well-developed. Mom bonds with her daughter over strange books and tries to shield Mae from the financial realities of adulthood. Dad invites Mae to join him for goofy late-night TV and hides how unhappy he is at work for the family’s greater good. Both are worried about Mae’s decision to drop out of college, as shown by their gentle but persistent requests that she talk about it. They banter and share jokes, they get frustrated with each other, they make tacos for dinner—like families do. These parent-child relationships feel authentic, and something I did look forward to in the game’s daily structure was checking in with Mae’s mom each morning and her dad before going to bed.
As a recent college dropout who acts like she’s still in high school, Mae is definitely a “young” 20, and she’s not always likeable. An early scene at a party can only be played out by getting her falling-down drunk. When she and her friends stumble upon a severed arm on the sidewalk—you heard that right, a person’s severed arm—her hyper reaction is to poke it with a stick. She and Gregg enthusiastically smash lightbulbs with a baseball bat and destroy an abandoned car, acts they gleefully refer to as “crimes” as in, “Let’s do some crimes tonight!” Mae doesn’t know how to pronounce “microfiche,” let alone use it, and mixes up words like “endorphins” and “dolphins” in a play-dumb way that’s passed off as endearing. A trip to the mall ends in shoplifting. It all adds up to behavior believable for a 15-year-old, but hard to swallow at 20, especially when we’re also meant to believe that she got into college and made it through 2½ semesters before making the choice to leave.
Entering the second act (of four), Mae’s brash façade starts to crumble and it becomes clear there’s more behind this decision than she’s letting on. This is also when her nightmares start. Just as the repeated trips through town have a “same thing, different day” vibe, each dream presents essentially the same gameplay in different landscapes as you explore shadowy, platform-dense areas to light up streetlights and locate four musicians. These areas are surreal and dreamlike: in one, a boxy town sits on top of a moving train; in another, a starry sky is swimming with giant fish.
Because the dreams are dark and abstract, it’s very easy to fall off ledges, which are also dark and don’t stand out against the backgrounds. This makes for a lot of backtracking to find the four musicians, an issue exacerbated by the fact that it’s not always clear what’s a platform and what isn’t. For example, in the waking world Mae can jump on light posts, but in dreams you can’t. That’s a bummer to realize as Mae’s sailing past the light post and over a ledge you spent five minutes trying to reach. Mae’s nightly visits to these dreamscapes supposedly result in trouble sleeping and unease the following day, but I wouldn’t have known that if not for other characters commenting that she looks tired. The dreams themselves are more eerie than scary and don’t get noticeably worse or more traumatic. Seeming like filler content without a serving a story point, these sequences were a negative in my Night in the Woods experience.
Once all of the musicians are playing their instruments (achieved simply by finding and running up to them), you need to return to where the scene started so a large, symbolic figure can overwhelm Mae and she wakes up. I recognized the first of these, a giant statue pointing its finger down at Mae, as a landmark she mentioned from her college campus. The other creatures she encounters at the end of these dreams meant nothing to me, and I have no idea what the four musicians are supposed to represent. Of course dreams don’t always make sense in real life, but they really should in fiction, especially when they’re so prominent, occurring every night for the middle portion of the game. When an interactive story doesn’t connect all the dots but leaves enough clues for the player to do so, the ensuing revelation can be a powerful payoff. Unfortunately, Night in the Woods either doesn’t leave enough dots or I just wasn’t invested enough to care about connecting them.
The developers seem to be making a point about adulthood by having Mae go through the same activities day after day and night after night, but fitting thematically isn’t enough to make the repetitive gameplay compelling. The story doesn’t really start moving until Halloween night, a good five hours into the game (out of about eight to nine hours total), when Mae alone sees something sinister that makes her question whether it really happened or her mind’s playing tricks. After this the stakes seem higher and Mae has a clearer goal, but the repetition continues. All told the game spans eleven days of Mae walking the same town streets and five or six similar dream sequences, with no obvious progression in her abilities or the narrative arc.
Several minigames involve using Mae’s hand (paw) to grab something in a close-up view. These sequences are comically simple both in mechanics and aesthetic: a huge, disembodied cat arm sliding across the screen so you can open a window or grab a slice of pizza. It was funny the first few times, almost like the developers were making a snide statement against minigames, but the more these sequences cropped up in the game, the more they felt like padding. There’s also a Guitar Hero-style rhythm game that involves pressing keys / buttons at precisely the right time to make Mae pull the correct strings on her bass. This minigame comes up three times, and I really sucked at it. I wanted to practice, to try to get better, but with only a single save slot and no retry button, there’s no way to do so. After six agonizing band practices across two playthroughs, my bass playing was as miserable in the last session as it was in the first.
The auto-save and lack of extra save slots can also get in the way of experiencing some story content. On my second playthrough I accidentally triggered a few scenes I’d already seen, because I couldn’t remember which friend I’d hung out with on a specific night. (The repetitive structure makes this an easy trap!) Each time I recognized my mistake almost immediately, but not before the game had auto-saved, preventing me from quitting and reloading to redo my choice. A contextual “Are you sure?” prompt right before the scene shifted would have made all the difference, rather than the game saving automatically and me yelling “Nooooo!” and fruitlessly stabbing the menu button as the same scene I’ve seen before repeats itself a second time. Dialogues offer minimal branching and no weighty, Telltale-style choices, so once you’ve experienced how a scene plays out, there’s little benefit to replaying it.
Possum Springs’ economic straits are obvious from the get-go: buildings are boarded up, people keep talking about how bad everything is, and many of Mae’s observations around town have to do with how rundown it’s become. While this is an intriguing backdrop and it’s interesting to see from the perspective of an immature 20-year-old just starting to grasp the conditions of the “real world,” Night in the Woods really hammers home its tale of economic woe in conversations with NPCs. It seems like everyone you engage in conversation has just lost their job or worries they’re about to. I felt this is part of the story could have been told much more sparingly, considering the game already does an excellent job of showing what’s happening to the town through the look of its locations and the personal situations of its main characters.
My second time through I sought out people who didn’t dwell as much on these topics—particularly Selma, an aspiring poet eager to amuse Mae with her pithy rhymes; Mr. Chazokov, who uses a telescope to look for constellations; and horror-movie-obsessed Lori, who can often be found sitting on a high rooftop and occasionally invites Mae to walk with her near the train tracks. I’m not sure if the game encouraged this or if it was all in my head, but cultivating friendships with these characters made Mae seem less like a social reject, leaving me more hopeful by the story’s end that she’d find a place for herself in Possum Springs thanks to her efforts to connect.
Mae’s “I’m young and carefree, nothing matters, wheeee!” attitude is hardest to reconcile when the story takes a serious turn around the climax. Parts of the final act are heavily philosophical, leaving Mae to grapple with issues like the meaning of life and existence of God. Consider the game’s tagline: “At the end of everything, hold onto anything”—that’s really a dire declaration of Mae’s emotional state, the young adult mindset that one’s personal struggles are monumentally important and the constructs of reality could come crashing down any time. Much of Mae’s journey involves admitting her own mental fragility, and I liked how the narrative came around to topics of depression, anxiety, and mental illness without telegraphing that it would go in that direction. I didn’t understand all of the philosophy and spirituality attached to the climactic scenes (or feel compelled to try), but to the extent that Night in the Woods explores the workings of the human brain, I appreciated its recognition of issues rarely addressed in games—or out in public, for that matter.
In the midst of Mae’s existential breakdown, the plot wraps up with a rather unbelievable explanation for the severed arm and what she thought she saw on Halloween. This comes out through several long scenes involving Mae’s friends, a lot of exposition (bad guys explaining their diabolical plan), and a disconcerting sense of unreality that left me unsure how much I was meant to take at face value. I replayed hoping I’d get more out of the ending the second time, to no avail. I’ve seen comments online that Night in the Woods starts out slow but you should keep playing because the ending totally is worth it. Unfortunately I can’t agree.
So that brings me back to the art gallery and feeling like I’m the only person in the room who doesn’t get it. To date, Night in the Woods has had overwhelmingly positive reviews and player feedback, so clearly the very things that frustrated and confused me are resonating with others. I don’t know why that is. I’m a big fan of young adult, “What should I do with my life?” stories and I like games with a narrative focus, but this one didn’t click. The aspects I enjoyed, like the distinctive art style and well-developed characters, weren’t enough to outweigh the repetitive gameplay and sluggish story.
I think my biggest problem with Night in the Woods lies with its structure. This is a deceptively big world with lots of surprises to discover, and the game deserves credit for that, but for me the tedious structure didn’t present this content in an exciting enough way. A necessary part of storytelling is paring down everything that could happen to the most essential elements and arranging them so the story takes off running. The very idea of momentum seems at odds with the monotony and listlessness baked into Night in the Woods’ nihilistic premise, but maybe if that premise really resonates for you personally—if you’re living Mae’s life right now, or fiercely remember what that was like—then your connection to the subject matter might create that momentum for you. Too bad for me, I spent most of the game just looking for something, anything, to hold on to.
Complimentary review copy provided by GOG.com.