It appears to be a simple two-dimensional platformer with linear gameplay, but the aesthetics merely shield a complex, deep, and at times painfully sorrowful narrative. Released in late February, Night in the Woods walks into uncomfortable yet familiar territory few games dare to tread.
But you see, that’s just the thing about Night in the Woods. It cloaks itself in the appearance of simplicity and normalcy. Its characters, its setting, its narrative, even its gameplay are in many ways unremarkable. This isn’t a game that tries to seduce you with extraordinary adventures, breathtaking locales and a cast of quirky, out-there characters. This down to earth sense of regularity makes Night in the Woods painfully relatable.
A tale as old as time
Night in the Woods stars Mae, a 20-something college dropout who returns to her home town of Possum Springs. Feeling directionless and lost, Mae has nowhere else to go. In Possum Springs, she finds things almost exactly as they were before she left for college.
It’s not just the things that she left behind, either; it’s the people. Friends she grew up with in this small town are still here, doing the things they were always doing. It’s a dead end town full of characters who have themselves reached a kind of dead end; they are victims of their circumstances, as we all are.
The medium suits the too familiar story, though it is one rarely explored in video games. As you run about town, you choose who you spend time with, hear their story, and see how they live out their days in Possum Springs: an anytown whose glory days are long past.
Perhaps this is why the game hits very close to home for me.
I grew up in Possum Springs
Having lived in the Fraser Valley for most of my life, it’s easy to connect the dots between Possum Springs and a place like Maple Ridge, which had a thriving forest industry. Like Possum Springs, it’s safe to say Maple Ridge has seen better times.
Mae’s father is a victim of such circumstance. Before the mining industry in Possum Springs collapsed, he was able to support his family on his income as a miner. He now sells meat in the local deli as his family struggles to get by, even with two incomes.
These stories hit familiar chords. My grandfather was able to support a large family on a single income which he earned through a union-secured job with Hammond Mill — the kind of job that is largely unheard of anymore. Most people I know from my high school days in Maple Ridge have, like Mae, left at the first opportunity to seek their futures in far more metropolitan areas.
Everyone has a story
Unlike other games that attempt to deal with similar subject matter, the politics inherent in the game’s narrative aren’t just shoehorned in or mentioned in passing. They are baked into the game’s very core.
All of the citizens of Possum Springs have their own tales to tell, and their circumstances are impossible to truly understand without delving into the politics and ideologies that have shaped their lives.
Selmers is a local poet, who speaks in short but amusing rhymes that Mae finds endearing. Later in the game, you find Selmers at a sparsely attended Possum Springs Poetry Jam at the local library. Throughout the game, characters frequently remark that the library is the only nice thing left in the city, since it was funded by a wealthy philanthropist “way back when.” It’s at this reading where the gloves really come off as Selmers launches into an incredible poem that stabs at the heart of the “techno-capitalists” of Silicon Valley, who Selmers sees as responsible for the plight of many in the economically forgotten Possum Springs.
Bee, another resident of Possum Springs and perhaps Mae’s oldest friend, epitomizes the archetype of the cynical, jaded, dead-on-the-inside millennial. Forced to take over running her family shop, Bee lives a subsistence existence where work dominates her every waking moment. Unable to save for college, she realizes she may never be able to leave Possum Springs, and watches her dreams of a better future disintegrate before her eyes.
The characters in Night in the Woods are flawed. Many suffer from issues beyond their control: mental illness, impoverishment, alienation, isolation, and a sense of nihilistic hopelessness. These are not just individualized issues, but failings of the society that does not support its citizens, and that allows our most vulnerable to slip through the cracks.
Not just “Anytown”: our towns
Of course, there are differences between places like Possum Springs and say, Maple Ridge. Possum Springs, as Mae points out, is hours from just about anywhere. Most of the Fraser Valley is decently connected to the rest of the Lower Mainland.
Where Possum Springs seems devoid of any social intervention, places like Maple Ridge do see progressive social initiatives, like housing for the homeless, or the Greg Moore Youth Centre — an organization that specifically seeks to assist youth in gaining the team-building skills and experience they need to land them that first job.
Yet, just as the political is inseparable from the stories that tell these characters lives, it is impossible to tell the story of life in the Fraser Valley without understanding its history, politics, and culture. There are clear parallels in terms of the working conditions of its residents, the decline of unionized jobs, and how cut off the rest of the world can seem in places like these.
Cloaked in familiarity and simplicity, Night in the Woods is a remarkable gaming experience. These characters can be anyone — this place anywhere — the stories told in Night in the Woods are our own.