20-year-old college dropout Mae Borowski and her childhood friend Bea are reconnecting over a trip to a mall they frequented in their youth. Their relationship has become tense, and this might rekindle a closeness they once shared. But the mall isn’t the hotspot they remember it being, back when it was an embodiment of modernity and a place full of possibilities for the pair. Instead they find nothing but an eerie disquiet adorned by shuttered shops, quiet dollar stores and the old fountain that no one even bothers to turn on anymore. Bea stares up at the food court dining area and the glass ceiling above, and confesses to Mae that she used to believe that was where God lived: “I used to stare up there, eating a burger, trying to see if I could see God.” They laugh together, and head off for milkshakes.
It’d feel disingenuous to categorise Infinite Fall’s 2017 2D adventure game Night In The Woods as understated, given how the story ends with a town-wide conspiracy involving a murderous cult (a la Hot Fuzz), but the game is unique in the way that it’s at its strongest when it’s at its most intimate and least dramatic. The titular threat of something spooky lurking in the woods is delivered on, but the game’s not really about that, nor is it the reason you keep playing. Just as Kentucky Route Zero is ostensibly about making a delivery, Night In The Woods is ostensibly about a ghostly mystery, but that’s not really the point of it all. In fact, this ending is merely one of many thematic flourishes found throughout the game’s story.
The game captures a time in its protagonist’s life in a way that feels almost dangerously relatable. It’s not a coming-of-age story of a character finding themselves at school or college before setting off into the world, but one in which that momentous time has been and gone, leaving only the underwhelming aftermath – that liminal state between a lost childhood and “proper” adulthood, during which everything just feels dormant. It’s a feeling that everyone likely encounters at some stage, but one that seems especially fitting now, when stagnant wages, decaying towns and rising housing costs are leaving more and more young folks to either stay at home or be stuck renting small apartments whilst wallowing in unfulfilling low-paid jobs as their dreams slowly fade away. Bea is a perfect embodiment of this. If the player chooses to bond with her they can discover that she resents Mae for so frivolously leaving college, an opportunity she could never afford despite being more than clever enough, and even drives hours away to attend parties in college towns just to garner a fleeting sense of freedom from a dead-end job managing her dad’s hardware store. The eventual riverside conversation between Mae and Bea that this section ends with, touching on the inaccessibility of upward class mobility, is one of the game’s most moving moments.
The game’s story centres around Mae, though, who has returned to her hometown of Possum Springs after inexplicably dropping out of college. She returns to Possum Springs to find that nothing and everything has changed all at once. Beloved restaurants that she considered institutions are boarded up, there’s new building work happening all over, but the streets are the same and the war memorials and mining murals are still there, the town clinging to a past that’s slowly being forgotten. Possum Springs is much the same as any crumbling Rust Belt town, with a history only remembered by some of the older townsfolk. The game’s main story begins to explore this as Mae becomes obsessed with a ghostly mystery, which leads you to historic tales of labour strikes, coal-mining tragedies and government-sanctioned massacres that happened long enough ago to remain unspoken but recent enough that they still pervade the town’s collective conscious. In the wake of this, Night In The Woods’ high stakes ending is simply delivering on some of the game’s most prevalent themes: the death of small town America, and the stagnancy of the middle and lower classes.
It’s fitting then that, for Mae, being in Possum Springs represents stagnation. She is stepping back into her old life instead of moving forward, and this is reinforced by the way that the game frequently has you moving right to left instead of the more conventional left to right seen in every platformer from Mario Bros. to Celeste. The only time that we move right in Possum Springs is to venture to the edge of town, where there is nothing to do but sit on the bridge and stare at the horizon. Are there brighter futures out there for Mae? Maybe. But perhaps leaving isn’t that simple, not just because change is always hard but because Mae has struggled with acute derealisation at times of heightened anxiety. The player doesn’t know the full extent of this until late in the story, and it colours our opinion of many of the game’s earlier interactions – in many ways it is the real mystery of the game’s story. As much as Mae has an almost endearing reputation as a delinquent, she also has cruel nicknames and whispered rumours that follow her on account of the time one of these episodes turned violent.
Possum Springs might come with that baggage but it’s also, in many ways, comforting and familiar for Mae – one of the first things she does after arriving in Possum Springs is mention having missed the sound of the train rattling through the town, and later she is excited at the opportunity to go to the lame local halloween celebration like she used to. But the town’s slow decline is apparent to her, as is emphasised by a moment when she finds the old float from the spring parade that the town no longer holds. Naturally, she starts to steal food for the rats who have taken up residence inside.
All this happens at a time when adolescence already seems long gone despite not happening that long ago, and anyone who has moved away and then subsequently spent some time in their hometown in their early 20s, revisiting old stomping grounds you thought you’d never see again or walking past people you vaguely recognise and who you’d completely forgotten exist, will relate to that strange feeling of being somewhere you know so intimately and yet still feeling like it is you that needs to acclimatise to it.
The gameplay loop reflects Mae’s sense of stagnation, and it becomes familiar quite quickly. Each day Mae wakes up, checks her laptop for messages, chats with her mum in the kitchen and then heads out into the town. From there the player is free to walk the streets, climb the rooftops and talk to the residents. You’ll quickly learn the hotspots, whether it’s learning about Mae’s grandpa from an old timer by the pretzel place, visiting the homeless guy who’s just moved into the woods near the church or jumping up on power lines to speak to the socially awkward, horror movie-loving teenager who hangs out on the roof of an apartment block. The game quickly subsumes the player into the tale and thus into Mae’s nostalgia, acquainting you with the town as Mae reacquaints with it and at times allowing you to fill in the blanks of Mae’s life through dialogue options in conversations about the past, as if you’re the one reminiscing.
Night In The Woods is refreshingly content to amble. The meat of the central mystery is reserved for the game’s back end, and whilst some will begin to tire of the repetitiveness of simply wandering Possum Springs and talking to its denizens, the game does eventually broach some heavy topics. The mystery Mae begins to explore involves kidnapped citizens and secret murders, the sort of outer threats that are unquestionably terrifying – in an earlier scene, Mae and her friends find a detached arm on the pavement in broad daylight. But the game is just as interested, if not more so, in the existential fears that we all bear but which often go unexamined and unspoken. Some of these are the sort of philosophical ponderings that bother us all from time to time – the nature of God and the meaning of it all – but the game also wrestles with more abstract concepts relating to the burden of being human: What am I even doing here?
In the face of such questions, going backwards just seems easier. It would appear to be the path of least resistance, but it’s also just a natural reaction when what we’re currently going through seems tough and what we used to have exists only in a rose-tinted version of the past. Mae embodies this concept profoundly but Possum Springs reflects it on a wider scale, and the murderous cult attempting to influence the town are ultimately only trying, desperately, to bring back a past that is already beyond reach – there’s a reason Trump’s false promise of “making America great again” struck a chord with so many. The town has an overwhelming sense of having become insignificant since losing its mining industry, and similarly Mae loses her own sense of meaning, both in terms of having left her studies behind and more vividly through encountering derealisation. As she describes it, “reality broke”.
Mae explains that during these times, she perceives everything as just shapes. Interestingly, one of the game’s most understated explorations of this topic comes through optional interactions with an old teacher of Mae’s, Mr. Chazokov, who we can join on a roof for some stargazing. He will help Mae find constellations and explain the meaning behind them, asking us to quite literally draw shapes in the sky and then give meaning to those shapes. Later on, we do the same thing with the deadpan but always gentlemanly Angus, and he quite eloquently delivers perhaps the key philosophy underpinning the game and its focus on the smaller moments, the notion that the meaninglessness of the universe doesn’t have to beget cynicism and apathy: “I don’t believe there’s a whale out there, but I believe that stars exist, and people put the whale there. We’re pattern-finders, and we’ll find patterns, and we really like to put our hearts and minds into it. So I believe in a universe that doesn’t care, and people who do.”
This quote comes near the game’s climax, and it’s a timely reminder that even during the game’s most dramatic moments, it still wants to highlight the little things. Night In The Woods is all about those smaller moments that add up to make an entire life. The game’s tagline, shown in trailers and other promotional material, is “at the end of everything, hold on to anything”. That reference to holding on harks back to the notion of clinging onto the past but this line also purposefully gives credence to the “anything” over the “everything”. Just as Night In The Woods’ most powerful moments are the quieter moments, those trips to the mall and intimate conversations with family and friends, our lives are given meaning by ourselves and those around us, not the universe and whether it cares or not.
Words: George Parr