It will take you a moment to understand what Night in the Woods wants you to understand. Your first hour will be spent asking questions. What is this game? Why do all these pleasant interactions make me feel so morose? And, most importantly: Hey, if this is a world with cat-people, then why do they own housecats? That’s kinda fucked up, right?
I think the second question is the most relevant (though that third one is, yes, very important), but to explain why, I’d have to give away many of the details that make this game such a resonant experience.
I don’t want to do that.
Almost all of Night in the Woods is letting its story surprise you, so, instead, I’m going to ask you to indulge me for a moment – as I rapid-fire personal anecdotes that, hopefully, communicate why this game strikes such a chord. As with playing Night in the Woods, you will raise your eyebrow and question the relevance of this information, but – by the end – you will understand why it was all significant.
I spent four years living in rural Ohio. I’m talking rural Ohio. Farms, towns of mere dozens, and a lot of corn. I remember it as a picturebook, in that it was very pretty, but I can only recall a series of images – not the motion that connected them.
I remember a girlfriend’s mom. She worked hard to support her two kids – born to different marriages, both now ended (not amicably, either). She was tired, all the time. She was a talented guitar player, and tried her best to love her kids as much as she could. She and I were close – we’d text about music, whatever guy she was seeing, and our insecurities.
I also remember having a screaming argument with her, because she drove her daughter to tears by insulting her father’s family. I remember watching her beat the shit out of the dog – an earnest little dachshund, named “Chickpea” – for having her period on the rug. I remember how she held an affair with a man who was married with children.
I remember the moonshine distillery this man worked at. I was a regular. I’d go there every week or so to pick up my bottle (this is the biggest culprit for my pock-marked memory), and he would hide while myself and the frontman, Jeff, shared laughs. We’d talk liquor, and the town, and life. He was a good person.
He was always drunk. One time, I walked in, and he was so tanked he couldn’t even read the text on my ID. I remember how his eyes rolled in different directions. I’ve never seen anything like it. We shared a laugh about that – the kind of laugh only alcoholics entrenched in an acceptance of their addiction can have.
That same girlfriend’s best friend never drank. She wasn’t a fan. She is also a mother – now to two children. She is – as of the time of this writing – twenty-two years of age. I think of her often; I worry about her husband – who has trouble finding work – her mother-in-law – who lives with them, despite having an obvious drug problem (likely meth) – and her children – who I hope to God have a good life.
It wasn’t all complicated self-destruction. There was also some, frankly, bananas shit that went down in my area. One time, a man killed a mother and her child with a chainsaw, carved them up, and stuffed them in a tree (no, really). There were also plenty of dangerous bigots – one farmer erected an 80-foot sign to spew violent epithets and backwards political scree. And don’t even get me started on the rampant meth trade that went unchecked by the corrupt local police.
But more important than any violence was how we were all very sad, all the time, and we all knew it. Our reasons may have differed, but we could all look each other in the eye and understand that, deep down, we were struggling against an immense weight. This is because, in rural Ohio, we were naked by proximity. We all knew who snapped at their kids because they couldn’t deal with their life; we all knew who was having an affair because they had been pathologically destroyed by abusive relationships; we all knew who was drinking themselves to death because they were clinically depressed.
We didn’t like it, but we all stuck by each other, nonetheless. The scale of our lives meant we were all acutely aware that our personal deficiencies mirrored one another’s, at least somewhat. We would all look at each other, and see ourselves. There’s a particular type of bond fostered by that phenomenon – one that I haven’t encountered in my return to city life, and doubt I ever will. It’s why the countryside can be so hard and so special, all at once.
This is the emotional thesis of Night in the Woods. It dips its toe – sometimes a bit too deep – into the seemingly-unreal violence of these places, but the focus remains on the small – the intimate. On the complicated relationships that are born and forged in these environments. On how we’re all so shitty and sad and damaged, and the way that shared instability cultivates a type of empathy known only to those in empty gas stations, distilleries, and cornfields.
I think I could have stayed in Ohio for the rest of my life. I really do. Sometimes, I want to go back. That same feeling is what pulls Night in the Woods’ protagonist, Mae, home to her birthplace, Possum Springs – because no one else will take her. By the end of your time with Night in the Woods, it will have the same hold over you. There will be obstacles on your journey to achieve this feeling – sloppily crafted games-within-the-game; dream sequences that engage in grandiose-yet-hollow thematic posturing; and redundant game-y elements that further no part of Night in the Woods (I couldn’t – for the life of me – justify to you why this game has a triple jump) – but you will forget each and every one once this game is done with you. It will render any reductive power they hold moot. And you will start the game up again, to live it once more, anew.
You will return home to Possum Springs, where the people are sad, and broken, and flawed, but also talented, strong-willed, and kind. And despite your own shortcomings, they will accept you into their fold.
Night in the Woods is a game by Finji, available on Steam and the Playstation 4 for $19.99