Publisher: Infinite Fall
Writers: Bethany Hockenberry, Scott Benson
Review of Night in the Woods by Io
Capitalism: just one more greasy tendril of the eldritch horror at the center of reality
“It’s the most peaceful societies which are also the most haunted, in their imaginative constructions of the cosmos, by the constant specters of perennial war.” – David Graeber
I kept an eye on Night in the Woods over the last 3 years because I liked the artists involved and it was sold to me as a platformer where a cat parkours around a haunted town and sometimes says ACAB, which sounded pretty fresh. And once I got it I became a bottomless well of feelings. I’m what professionals call a “casual” or “fake gamer girl”. I don’t often get to play video games. The ones in my house’s living room are all simple power fantasy simulators, overthrowing this or that authority, going on crime sprees, crashing helicopters into the racist players on the online chat. Not often does a game speak to my reality as a neurodivergent, lower-class radical who despite occasional delusions of grandeur does little more than take petty pot shots at the causes of my misery. Night in the Woods, though populated by anthropomorphic animals, puts you in a somewhat familiar world defined mainly by the crisis that propels it. It does a remarkably good job of gamifying an eerie atmosphere of dissatisfaction that should not be totally unrecognizable to anyone living in poverty, dealing with depression or who sometimes feels as if life’s only moments of rapturous joy in the face of this cartoonish amount of alienation come in the form of breaking things for no reason with your friends. You may think this sounds like a bummer of a game, and I wouldn’t argue against that, but I cannot recommend it enough. Night in the Woods is so fun, funny, immersive, and accessible. I have talked it up to so many of my friends who don’t play video games but who love comic books and good fiction because it plays like an interactive novel with absolutely gorgeous art & sound direction, and you don’t need a very fancy laptop to run it. It just makes it rain emotional investments and it is hypnotically cool to run around jumping up/on/off buildings/telephone wires/cars in this deeply fleshed out world of a formally prosperous mining town in Pennsylvania named Possum Springs.
Not often does a game speak to my reality as a neurodivergent, lower-class radical who despite occasional delusions of grandeur does little more than take petty pot shots at the causes of my misery.
Really, Possum Springs could be any number of real towns in the rust belt. Ignore any reference to the internet or cell phones and it could be any time after deindustrialization swept through this part of the country in the late 80s. The resources have all been devoured and the manufacturing jobs have all been sent overseas. Now that the trains only run through on their way from somewhere else to somewhere else and its main export is children, the town and its citizens are in a perpetual state of slow physical and psychic collapse. Something as simple as the economy sunk all these futures yet most of the older generation that knew a bit of the prosperity the companies provided long for little more than industry to return. Wasting precious time they could use preparing their county to abolish money or building a killdozer. The story follows some younger people who don’t look at these circumstances as some sort of challenge. It’s a story about capitalism but not doing battle with it. It’s a story about mental illness but not about the fallacy of “getting better.” And it’s a story about natural disaster, if we can understand natural disaster and its wake as things about our environment we cannot hope to control. Economic collapse, like the sinkholes and floods that plague Possum Springs, is just another natural disaster the town is both living with and trying to recover from.
This is of course a working class holler and to illustrate an underlying strain written into your friends and family you most often have to go visit them at work, since you are one of the only main characters who does not have a job. (Except Germ, a fucking weird bird kid who hangs out with the crusties who get off trains near the abandoned Food Donkey. I like Germ.) The town was built on the mentality of the nobility of work, and it has a rich, bloody labor history you can cut off from the main storyline to explore. One of my the game’s many urban legend type easter eggs follows a story about striking miners decades prior. As revenge for a friend who lost their last tooth under the thieving boss’s fist, they held down the boss and tore all of his teeth out to distribute among the union. Years later, they dug up his corpse and stole his skull to ritualistically place each tooth into its socket when they met as a secret worker’s defense cabal. Juxtaposing this this proud yet mostly forgotten history with a present where near everyone works retail and hates it you can get sense that something is drawing out its end, a feeling you will encounter more than once in the story. There is no focus on overcoming this hardship; these people have as much a choice about this life as many of us do. The battle for Possum Springs is lost and it was lost long before you got there but the past is still here holding us still.
By the time a supernatural element is steeped into the story (oh yeah, it’s also a ghost story) you already have a sense that the working model of the American dream fleeing this town left a vacuum and it now pulses and swirls as it is being refilled by a sort of transmundane natural disaster. So those who don’t or cant leave Possum Springs are haunted by…something. As if this history of exploitation and blight is connected to some darker, deeper current of the universe. But if you were to ask anyone in town they would probably say they only feel uneasy because none of them can remember a time when it made sense to feel optimistic about the future. Either way haunted is the word I would use. If this current running like a coal vein through our world is real it would have no reason to interact with humans, but for whatever reason our protagonist, Mae Borowski, is a conduit to this vague something. You are dropped into the story after Mae suddenly drops out of college and returns to her hometown because that is where her coping mechanisms of friends and familiarity are.
One of the small details of storytelling that I think makes this game unique is a realistic and in-depth way of writing mental illness in its bewildering and familiar day to day. It often feels as though you naturally get yourself into situations where you can’t help but disappoint yourself and Mae both, and you as a player have the luxury to be more observant and sure of the situation than Mae. But I appreciate that it does not portray mental illness as a bridge to some sort of magic world as it unfolds in tandem to the paranormal story arc. You’re not the only one with a traitor for a brain among your friends, though yours is kind of famous for it, so once the stage is set and you get to go do some ghost hunting your friends don’t condescend to you by pretending as though they believe a ghost is following you or that you spoke to god. They help you because A: they love you and B: something is happening and its important to find out what. After all, they feel something too. The whole town may feel it on subconscious level, but there are thousands of more plausible explanations that don’t involve the paranormal. In the face of this overwhelming dread and cosmic nihilism that would turn less badass cartoon animals to bitter egotism, these kids keep an unwavering care & solidarity with each other’s well being. Which just went ahead and kept breaking me in half emotionally.
Stories about kids who hate cops/the world/themselves and who feel powerless with any outlet besides smashing light bulbs behind convenience stores and trying to be good to each other really gets to me. The game progresses differently depending on which friendships you cultivate, and I got embarrassingly attached to the parts of my own friends I saw in them. For example: Bae who does the work of three employees at her dad’s hardware store. Despite her dad not respecting the work she does because he owns the store making him the technical breadwinner. Bae loves but is frustrated with Mae for being oblivious to what a privileged position choosing to “not buy into” the having jobs/paying rent/chasing security trap can be. (As a former traveler kid now trying to acclimate to homebum life this gave me a couple wiggly feelings.) Or Gregg, your ride or die best friend. Like Mae, Gregg has trouble expressing himself & loves petty crime because he is bored and hates laws more than he values safety. If he and Mae get too freaked out doing something illegal they ground each other by reminding the other that they are doing crimes, and crimes are the coolest thing you could do with yourself. It has been hailed as the friendship story of the century by me, io
I love the sad gay jumping animal game.
If you are, or have ever spent time as a witchy ass folk punk who really likes the World/Inferno Friendship Society you will probably be real into the astral projection levels. I got legit spooked many times as the ghost story unfolded, but I also got scared by an electric kettle I forgot I turned on as I was writing this so what do I know about scary? Oh, also there is a game within a game on Mae’s laptop called Demontower. It’s a fun lil old school dungeon crawly roguelike I would pay real life American dollars for on its own. I definitly got $20 worth of entertainment out of this but if you are on the fence there are 2 pay-what-you-can prequel games you can download on their website as well. Longest Night which is just talking and stargazing with the main cast of NITW and Lost Constellation which is a pretty amazing folklore game about an astronomer lost in the woods.