|Release Date||February 21, 2017|
Night in the Woods is a 2D adventure game that casts players as Mae Borowski, a young woman who has just dropped out of college, returning to her hometown of Possum Springs. After failing at college she attempts to resume her aimless life and reconnect with her old friends, attempting to reconcile how the town she left behind has changed. As she tries to readjust to her old life it starts to become apparent that something is wrong in Possum Springs.
What that “something” is I won’t even hint at. I knew very little about Night in the Woods before diving in (and completing it in a single night), save for the positive buzz it was gathering. The less you know about what to expect from the game the better. Were it not for the fact that I have to justify my opinions of the game for review purposes, I’d just end here and strongly urge you to buy the game sight unseen.
Night in the Woods is an outstanding experience. It’s heavily driven by a gripping narrative crafted around a set of compelling characters and their evolving relationships with one another. Human relationships are something that video games seldom get right. But Night in the Woods presents a series of relationships that feel incredibly real (which is ironic, given the cast is entirely made up of anthropomorphised animals).
It’s a good thing too, because interacting with characters is basically all you’ll be doing for the first half of this game. Night in the Woods is an incredibly slow burner. For the first few hours you wouldn’t even know that this game was anything other than a coming of age drama. This isn’t a bad thing. Most of the memorable or most worthwhile moments in the game stem from interacting with other characters.
A trip to a shopping mall, watching TV, morning chats with Mom – these are all fantastic sequences that do a lot to connect you to the world and empathise with the characters. While this slow pace pays off big time as you begin to uncover the central mystery, it does give the game an almost meandering pace. While I was enjoying guiding Mae through her daily routine, I did find myself questioning whether the game was actually going anywhere at all for a bit back there.
It’s almost two different games. At first, Night in the Woods is a drama, perfectly capturing the anxieties of modern life for young adults. The game takes place in the backdrop of a rural America abandoned by the government in a town that is struggling for survival, starring a cast of characters that are just trying to get by while dealing with their own personal issues that will hit really close to home for anyone in a certain age group. Then it slowly becomes…the other thing (while still retaining its emotional core).
While the emotional heights achieved in the game’s latter half wouldn’t be possible without this focus on learning about these characters, with the characters themselves being brilliantly well realised, the main meat of Night in the Woods’ story takes a little longer to arrive than it perhaps should. The emotional journey the game takes you on is excellent throughout, it’s just a little sluggish out of the gate. Though when it does get going it goes from 0-100 in about 30 seconds flat.
It helps that the dialogue is incredibly well written. I could lose count trying to list the games that have attempted to recreate “typical” young adult conversations, only to have their characters sound like parodies, delivering ridiculously stilted dialogue. Conversely, Night in the Woods’ many conversations actually sound like real people having real conversations using words and sentences that you’d actually hear in the real world. It might be a small thing, but the amount of game’s that don’t get this right makes it worth shouting about.
Exploring the town and finding all of its secrets and various potential interactions is what you’ll be doing for most of the game. You’ll begin each morning (afternoon?) dragging Mae out of bed, heading downstairs for a conversation with Mom and then striking out into town. It’s a small town, one whose layout you’ll become intimately familiar with as time passes. Night in the Woods actively encourages you to poke around every nook and cranny to find all of the various conversations you can have with its characters.
There is some light platforming gameplay involved from time to time. It’s mostly confined to insane dream sequences made up of levels that run on demented dream logic. While the controls for these sequences aren’t the most precise, they don’t really need to be. You’ll only be spending a few minutes at a time trying to jump around levels that Escher would be proud of. Though these sections tend to be too dark to reliably see where you’re going, which can kill some of your progress and instil some frustration at their presentation.
There’s also a Guitar Hero style minigame that simulates band practice that I want to forcibly remove from the game’s DNA with a rusty spoon. It’s pretty bad, but used so infrequently that it’s barely even worth mentioning. There’s also no real penalty for messing it up, besides the everlasting shame that you suck at bass. These flaws almost don’t matter. By the time they’ve done enough to aggravate, the game has already moved onto the next scene.
Most of all, Night in the Woods is memorable for its smallest moments. While the game’s central narrative is certainly gripping, it’s the tiniest moments of Human interaction that will stick with me the most. I wish I could share them with you, but I’d be robbing you of a fantastic experience if I did so. There are a lot of beautifully captured moments of real Humanity in this game.
It’s also really funny.
Night in the Woods is an experience that draws on very real emotions that we’ve all felt at one time or another. It’s sad, heart-warming, bittersweet and occasionally chilling (sometimes within seconds of each other). It’s writing is impeccable, packing more heart into a single conversation than most other games can muster for their entire running times. The story of Mae Borowski is an effortless blend of growing up while confronting the strange going’s on in the woods. And while it’s an excellent story, it’s the characters and their struggles, triumphs, joy and sadness that I’ll always remember about Night in the Woods.
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