Back in May or June of 2020 I purchased a game bundle on itch.io that was donating the proceeds to racial justice efforts taking place at the time. The bundle contained something like 1000 games, but given that in summer 2020 my only option for PC gaming was a tablet from 2014, I wasn’t going to be playing most of the video games in the bundle anytime soon. Instead I focused on the tabletop roleplaying games and found some real gems like Troika and Visigoths vs Mall Goths. Fast forward to 2022, and now I have a computer that can, in fact, run video games. And I think to myself “self, you might have some games worth playing in one of those game bundles that you never even thought to look at back when you first bought them.” And after a bit of exploration one of the first things I found was Night in the Woods, a game I’d heard is good but otherwise knew absolutely nothing about. Since I already owned it, I decided it was time to dive in.
Night in the Woods opens on a black screen with text. Your character is reflecting on the death of her grandfather. As the text fills in you get the opportunity to change some of the statements, establishing little details about the situation. It sets a somber tone and brings grief to mind, establishing the mood in which this game takes place. Your character, Mae, is a college drop-out, and she’s returning home to the town of Possum Springs. But Possum Springs is a dying town. No one mans the bus station after dark, the glass factory at the edge of town sits abandoned, and unlike Mae, most of the folks who are leaving do not come back. As someone from the rural south it’s a situation that is bleakly familiar for me in many ways.
Not that Night in the Woods is all dark. In fact, like many things which bleakly acknowledge the harsh reality in which we live it does so with a sort of humorous resignation. Mae is snarky, putting on an air of overconfidence even as she struggles with her decision and with what it could mean for her future. Her friend group consists of the town’s queer goofballs, a quirky assortment of dorks and goths who in Mae’s absence have found their own ways to make a life in Possum Springs. Reconnecting with them, playing music and video games with them, brings some levity to what could otherwise be a game focused only on heavy material.
As far as what you do in Night in the Woods, I would describe it as an adventure game with mild platforming. Mae can move left and right through the environment and jump onto objects in order to climb them. There is, at least during the opening, no danger to missing jumps. You just get up and try again until you get it. The jumps are not difficult and do not appear to be designed to push your skills at platforming. As you move through the environment, you can interact with certain objects or people by pressing a button to examine or speak to them. These dialogue segments can lead to choices that get you different information or give you some room to define a little bit about Mae’s personality. At the point in the game I have reached, there’s not much going on outside of progressing the story in a linear fashion.
There are some minigames to break up the action if you so choose. The main one is playing your bass, an activity performed with a Guitar Hero -eqsue rhythm game where you press specific inputs in time with the music as indicated by the button prompts sliding down your bass strings. I played twice, once on my own in the bedroom and once with the band as part of a story event. How well you play doesn’t seem to have a big impact at least at the beginning, but the bass in your room lets you practice indefinitely if you really want to master your instrument. The other minigame is a laptop game called Demon Tower, where you play a little cat warrior in a retro dungeon crawler. In a top-down environment you move, slash, and dash your way to find the key on each floor to the boss room and then defeat the boss in combat. There’s a lot more to Demon Tower than I anticipated for those who really want to dive in, but personally once I realized there was gonna be more to it than like two floors I was ready to focus on the main game again.
I honestly found myself wondering whether or not Night in the Woods was a game I might stick with. Hopping through the woods after leaving the bus station and meeting Mae’s family wasn’t bad but it wasn’t blowing my mind either. Encountering the friend group and playing with the band was cute but the lack of mechanics for me to latch on to meant that I felt like I was progressing text in a visual novel that didn’t have a compelling premise. While Mae’s character is #relatable and the bleak setting feels familiar to my own experience of declining rural communities, there didn’t really seem to be enough to hook me and keep me invested.
And then I found an arm.
The scene is surreal in the sense of how unseriously the characters seem to take it. On the way home from their escapades together, Mae and her friends find what they believe to be a severed arm just lying in the middle of the street. This moment is not met with panic or distress. Instead, curiosity takes over. “Touch it,” they say, and Mae takes it upon herself to grab a stick off the ground and you as the player get a little minigame about poking the severed arm on the ground. Only when the local cop – Mae’s aunt, by the way – shows up does anyone seem to treat the situation seriously. She rushes the kids home and for a little bit nobody talks about what just happened or how friggin weird it was.
This aspect of the game – this sort of ominous sense that something weird and creepy could be around the corner – is the main thing that has me curious enough about Night in the Woods not to stop at this point. Where I am right now, the characters are getting ready to attend a party in the forest. Before the party, Mae’s aunt warns her that the severed arm was a darkness that someone Mae’s age is not meant to find. Her comments come across as ominous and threatening, and even Mae writes in her journal that her aunt might just be saying she’ll kill her. A weird cop aunt, a severed arm in the middle of town, a bunch of teenagers going out into the forest at dark – I mean the game is called Night in the Woods. I’m not necessarily anticipating a slasher flick here but I imagine if this game has a real hook that is going to serve as the core premise for the player to buy in to, the party is probably it.
For now, Night in the Woods has been good for a few chuckles and some knowing nods as I see the familiar relics of neighborhoods in decline. As to whether it will amount to more than that, I’ll check out this spooky party and report back at a later date.