While My First Impressions Were Tepid, I’m Warming Up to Night in the Woods

When I first opened Night in the Woods, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew it had animals, I knew there was some element of commentary on living in the Rust Belt, and I knew a lot of people really liked the game. In my first impressions I shared that I wasn’t particularly impressed with the game’s early hours, and that only one element of the story was keeping me engaged. While I could have set the game aside, I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt and let that one crumb of curiosity drive me to play more of the game. And while that didn’t necessarily go the way I anticipated (at least not yet), what I did discover were the aspects of Night in the Woods that really work for me.

At the point I stopped before I was right before the party scene in the woods, the first major social event that the protagonist Mae attends after returning home from college. I anticipated that the party was going to make up a significant portion of the game. After all, it’s called Night in the Woods, right? A party in the woods seemed like a good time for the action to really ramp up. I was wrong about that. Instead, the party serves as a conclusion to part one of the game and then leads into part two, a “chapter” called Weird Autumn. Today’s thoughts are based on the full experience of Weird Autumn; I’ll be discussing the structure, the character building, and the story twists that brought me to be more positive about the game.

Compared to part one of the game, Weird Autumn is a more structured chapter. Each morning (or afternoon, as is often the case), Mae wakes up and then can freely explore town. There are NPCs you can interact with at your option to learn more about the town and about Mae’s history there. You can visit her friends at their jobs and speak with them. These visits are how you move the game forward, as at the end of each day you make a decision about who to spend your evening with. These lead to titled short sequences within the chapter where you learn a lot more about a specific character, and engage in a minigame depending on what activities you are doing together. Once that’s done, Mae goes to bed and has a strange dream where you navigate some simple platforming challenges in order to wake up. This sequence ends with a Halloween party, after which Mae is witness to a shocking event that ends the chapter.

When I played through the first part of the game, I didn’t necessarily go out of my way to spend a lot of time with the NPCs. This was a mistake on my part. I figured the only “important” characters to talk to were Mae’s friends and family, but that’s really just what is necessary for the game’s critical path. The other NPCs teach you so much more about the world of the game, and they have some unique interactions in their own right. Take for example Mae’s high school astronomy teacher, who you can find waiting on the roof of one of the neighborhood houses with his telescope. Speaking to him on certain days gives you the opportunity to look for what are called “dusk stars.” These stars unlock constellations that then earn you a story from the teacher. Through these, you learn more about his and Mae’s perspective on the world. A particular one that jumped out to me told the story of a seer whose discoveries were disproven by modern science. When Mae says that’s fine, her teacher counters: “so you believe that people should be homeless and starve because their work is no longer useful to those in power?” It’s an interesting moment that suggests the worldview of the creators and gives Mae something important to ponder. In a game set in a town in decline because the factories there have closed down, the issues of labor and what happens to people whose labor is seen as no longer necessary is an important part of the text. After all, Mae herself could be said not to be doing any labor that contributes to those in power, and faces judgment for that from her parents and other figures of authority.

There are other interesting characters to interact with too. Smellers writes a different poem every day that you can listen to, and he has a neat interaction with Mae about their shared psychologist, Dr. Hank. An old woman who sits at the perogi stand in the old train tunnel will tell Mae stories about the exploits of her grandfather, a character who we understand as being important to Mae based on the way she reflects about him when interacting with certain artifacts in the home. A group of adults who seem to be elders in the town and are perhaps influential to the local government can often be found complaining about something or other, and it gives you a clear vision of what folks in the town are worried about as it continues to decline. None of these interactions are “essential” to finishing the game, but failing to engage with them initially caused me to miss a lot of what the game is trying to accomplish.

Then there are the vignettes with Mae’s friends. Each evening you have a choice of who you can spend time with, and generally each one will give you a rough idea of what activity they’ll be doing. On the first evening, for example, I had a choice between going to the mall with Bea or doing “crimes” with Gregg. Naturally I wanted to do some crimes, so I accompanied Gregg and got a fun scene about meeting up with an old high school rival to steal some merchandise from an abandoned store. The next night, instead of going to the mall, Bea had to work but offered to bring me along on her job. This seems like it would add some replayability to the game if you choose different events on a subsequent playthrough, but I found that I enjoyed the ones I picked and felt they gave me a good vision of what was going on with Mae as well as her various friends.

In addition to different story beats, each vignette offers a different minigame to play in order to complete the scenario. In the crimes example, I had to play a game where I pressed the arrow keys based on instructions from Gregg in order to carry a heavy box up multiple flights of stairs. In another scene with Gregg, we went out into the woods and I got to have a knife fight with him and shoot crossbow bolts at a makeshift hunting practice dummy. Had I gone with Bea on those evenings, I would have gotten very different games to play. There’s a decent variety in the activities so they feel fresh each time they come up, and none lasts so long or is so significant that not liking a particular minigame is going to make or break your experience with the game. Well, unless you really don’t like platforming, I suppose.

The platforming comes in after your hangouts are over, during Mae’s dream sequences. Mae has vivid and unusual dreams and they tend to center around the same game mechanic: explore an area to find four spirits who are playing instruments and get them active. Once all four are playing, you return to a specific area and that activates a small clip that shocks Mae out of the dream – usually getting attacked or scooped up by some sort of giant animal spirit. The music in these sections is excellent (actually the music in the game broadly is great but I want to shout out the dream sequences specifically). It often begins eerie and unsettling, and as you add more instruments to the tune there’s an energy to it that is a bit more upbeat while still keeping the spooky vibe. The actual platforming is fairly standard, and the real “challenge” of these sequences comes from figuring out the correct path to move through the space to the next objective. Luckily, where you need to try to find the next spirit is always indicated by a sort of offscreen firelight, a red-orange glow at the edge of your vision that may not tell you the exact path to a spirit, but at least gives you an idea of what direction to move.

Where Night in the Woods truly shines is in the character writing, the subtle jokes and the philosophical musings that tell you more about who these people are and what experiences are defining their current situation. Possum Springs is the kind of town that people want to get out of, especially a group of kids like Mae and her friends who are considered to be the local misfits. It’s compelling to see how each of them processes all of that. Gregg, for example, has a way out – he and his boyfriend Angus are planning to move. But Gregg is concerned that their situation is precarious. He’s bored and wants to blow off steam but is worried that getting into any real trouble will ruin his chance to get away with Angus. Then there’s Bea, whose family used to be doing better but has had to downgrade as hard times have befallen them. Bea is trying to make the best of a bad situation and be the responsible one in her family, but she hates her job and is living a life where fulfillment seems like an impossible goal. These are relatable situations for me, and I found myself empathizing with these characters more and more as I spent more time with each of them.

Then there is Mae herself, a college dropout who doesn’t seem to know what she wants from life. She’s awkward and feels angry towards the world, an anger she tamps down at the instruction of her psychologist Dr. Hank. Her outlets are her journal, where she doodles the events of her life, and a great deal of snark that she uses as a defense mechanism to prevent herself from being vulnerable with other people. But under the surface, Mae isn’t sure she made the right choice about college, and the pressure and judgment she feels from the outside certainly isn’t helping the situation along. On top of all of that, Mae seems to have a dark history with Possum Springs that many of the NPCs reference off hand but the player isn’t told about directly (at least not by the end of part two).

Mae’s unknown past and her strange, unsettling dreams all contribute to a creepy vibe for the game. This vibe is what I described in my first impressions as the final bit keeping me going as my interest waned in the game. It’s still a part of the game I am compelled by, and Night in the Woods does a very good job of sprinkling bits of strangeness into the narrative while still saving the biggest developments for key moments. Some of them are deployed humorously – when I went out to a work site with Bea, for example, the client is an elderly woman who describes how her husband used to handle jobs like these. “Wait for it,” Bea would say, “almost there,” until finally the big reveal happened: the woman had been keeping her husband’s corpse inside the house A Rose for Emily style until the police found out and took the body away. It’s a horrifying revelation given in such an unassuming and darkly humorous light that it gives a surreal feeling to the world of the game, a surrealness that carries through into Mae’s dreams and the cryptic, foreboding text of specific characters like her aunt or the bus station janitor. When these creepy vibes finally pay off in the form of actual shocking events, it’s a satisfying experience that gets you pumped for the next chapter.

I’m excited to move into part three of Night in the Woods and see what else the game has in store. Having experienced more of the game and learned the best ways to engage with it, I’m looking forward to the next time I can boot it up and dive into the world of Possum Springs. I have no idea what sort of conclusion that the game could be leading towards or if any of the characters I have come to care about will find their own form of happiness in this broken world. But whatever happens, I’m engaged in the experience and excited about where the conclusion will take me. While my opening hours with Night in the Woods were a bit lukewarm, now I’m eager to see what the rest of the game will bring.

2 thoughts on “While My First Impressions Were Tepid, I’m Warming Up to Night in the Woods

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  1. It’s interesting to hear that you were a little cold on this game at first. I got in during a Steam sale a while back, and after playing a couple of hours, I set it aside. I think Mae was getting under my skin, but to be fair, part of that might have been that she reminded me somewhat of my snotty college-aged self (though I never dropped out — my parents would not have been nearly as lenient about that. The phrase “skinned alive” comes to mind.) So I should probably give it another shot sometime.

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