After languishing in my Steam library for months, I finally grabbed a copy of Night In The Woods for Switch, hoping that I would play it on a different system. Truth be told, it's the type of game (indie, narrative, simple controls) that I prefer to play on the iPad, but I got impatient waiting for the mobile port to show up. Fortunately, the Switch, with the benefits of full-sized console gaming combined with seamless portability lends itself to this type of game, as well. This is something that Nintendo and developers have picked up on, filling the eShop with tons of successful indie titles that have found a whole new audience with the Switch.
For an indie game, there's a lot of hype surrounding Night in the Woods. With its high Metacritic score, multiple gaming awards, and positive feedback, it had a lot to live up to and I was afraid that I might be disappointed. I was convinced that in a sea of promising indies to wade through that this was "the game" that I had to play. Fortunately, after a somewhat rough start, I wasn't disappointed.
"College dropout Mae Borowski returns home to the crumbling former mining town of Possum Springs seeking to resume her aimless former life and reconnect with the friends she left behind. But things aren't the same. Home seems different now and her friends have grown and changed. Leaves are falling and the wind is growing colder. Strange things are happening as the light fades.
And there's something in the woods.
NIGHT IN THE WOODS is an adventure game focused on exploration, story, and character, featuring dozens of characters to meet and lots to do across a lush, vibrant world. After a successful Kickstarter it's being made by Infinite Fall, a teamup of Alec Holowka (Aquaria), Scott Benson (Late Night Work Club), and Bethany Hockenberry."
First off, players searching for fast-paced action, exciting combat, challenging puzzles, masterful platforming, may find this game far from their expectations. While it's artistic, atmospheric, and impactful, it is a game of discovery, exploration, and deep soul-searching. There is a haunting mystery, some horror elements, a well-developed story, unique visuals, and deeply relatable emotions, but it's a particular type of game for a particular type of audience.
As I settled in to play, anticipating the brilliant experience I was promised, I was initially a little disappointed by the visuals. The 2D style is well-executed, the colors are muted, befitting the tone of the game, and the characters display little emotion. I had seen plenty of screenshots and videos of the game so I knew what it looked like, but I was still underwhelmed. At the very least, I wanted to see Mae's emotions in her expression. I just wanted something more.
A quick tutorial and story introduction illustrated the game's very basic mechanics. Interact with characters and something will happen or the story will progress and jump, jump, jump to take advantage of the simple platforming elements. My initial reaction was "it's a puzzle-platformer with a cool story" but that wasn't it, at all.
As I explored Possum Springs and met characters including old friends, town residents, Mae's parents, and more, I became annoyed with the animals characters. I have no idea why Mae is a cat and Angus is a bear. And why are they bipedal animals with thoughts and feelings while normal squirrels, birds, and housecats populate the town. Is it like the land of Fillory from 'The Magicians' where talking animals are a superior, yet subjugated race and non-talking animals are simply livestock or wild creatures? Those questions are never answered, except perhaps as an explanation for Mae's fascination with death and violence, because everyone knows that cats are violent creatures. Regardless, those unanswered questions faded into the background as Mae's story and that of Possum Springs began to unfold.
Before long, any disappointment or questions disappeared as I was drawn in by the atmosphere, narrative, and soundtrack. Mae is facing down a crossroad that many young people experience: returning home after a failed attempt at college (or any number of other circumstances) and finding their small town somehow unchanged yet different in so many ways, some glaring and some nearly unnoticeable. Friends from high school are growing up and changing, while Mae feels stuck in the past, though it's likely that many of her friends while they are moving forward, are struggling with many of the same feelings. Regardless of personal experiences, many players will recognize the difficult emotions that accompany this time of transition in a young person's life. As much as I see myself as an adult, simply playing this game unearthed an emotional landscape that I thought I had left behind, and it was wonderful and terrifying all at once.
Though it's easy to get caught up in adolescent angst, especially at Mae's age, Night in the Woods doesn't ignore the greater problems of the world. Mae is deep in her own experience as you interact with friends, go on adventures, get too drunk, explore the secrets of Possum Springs, and begin a journey of cautious self-acceptance, but the crumbling infrastructure, the financial woes of residents left out of work after the mines closed and retail businesses fled, and the overall deterioration of a struggling town aren't ignored, and neither are questions of sexuality and mental illness. There's no dwelling on it either, simply a presentation of facts of life, available for exploration and thoughtful contemplation.
At this point, you're probably asking "but what about the game?" Honestly, that's a lot of it. It's beautiful, thought-provoking, and as it ebbs and flows, both charmingly mundane and stunningly emotional. Mae's experiences from day to day vary greatly as you use the basic platforming mechanics to explore the town in completely unexpected ways, communicate with friends and secondary characters to form relationships, and unlock hidden areas and events are somehow unimportant and absolutely crucial all at once. Depending on my mood, I found myself sometimes working to progress the story or at other times, just hanging out with friends or playing engaging mini-games. I developed a daily routine from Mae and made an effort to at least play one day in Mae's world for every one of my own days, though it was rare to stop at just one. For a relatively simple design, there is a lot to explore, from secret passages to haunting nightmares, all while accompanied by one of the most impactful soundtracks I've experienced in a long time. It's a beautiful and haunting game with an exceptional story that deserves to be played.
Night in the Woods is available on PC, all major consoles, and a mobile version is due out sometime this year.