Adventure Gamers Awards
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.