Starting a game can sometimes be daunting — there are many that may not give the best first impressions, or may not jump out to you on the first read through of the blurb. Some games try to be vague on purpose for more flair or mystique, while some flat out give nothing for you to base your expectations off of. This long-winded intro does nothing to explain my confusion with Night in the Woods.
(For the record, I like to go into games blind, so I didn’t read any of the blurb.)
Night in the Woods is a 2D storytelling game, if I was to describe it earnestly. Published by Finji, it is the child of Infinite Fall, which according to Wikipedia is a studio from Alec Holowka and Scott Benson. Before this bundle, none of these names rang any bells, with only Night in the Woods getting some recognition from my memory solely due to its art style, of flat yet soft cartoon cut out animals. Honestly it reminds me more of a children’s book. The description barely gave me any ideas, with the ominous ‘At the end of everything, hold onto anything.’ just giving me the shivers but not really assisting in the absolute ride that was playing Night in the Woods.
I won’t lie, I’m not sure I completely enjoyed the experience, in the common form of the word. Playing as Mae, you’re just dropped off at a station and slowly piece together what exactly you’re doing in the game. You interact with the surroundings, talk with the janitor/repairman at the door, and try your best to learn about your new surrounding. It uses your curiosity for knowledge to drive you out and into the forest to keep exploring, and then you get a curious tutorial on how to platform. And that’s only the beginning.
Night in the Woods is a storytelling game before anything else, which is then told via a menagerie of game mechanics. The platforming you learn at the beginning is used to simply jump around the world and explore, and then suddenly there is a rhythm game section to play the bass where missed notes static the screen violently. There are player choices in dialogue, and a day/night-esque cycle reminding me somewhat of Persona, and an inexplicably bizarre dream mini-game of finding musicians in the dark. Does any of this make sense? Weirdly enough, I think it does.
I previously mentioned I don’t think I enjoyed the experience, but that doesn’t mean it was bad — far from it. Night in the Woods attempts to show the differences of how people grow up, and how some don’t have the choice to. It’s setting of a small stagnant town and Mae’s return from college to see how things have changed hit uncomfortably close to home for me, and how she learned of what had changed and the awkward silences just amplified this. All of those mini-games mentioned before? Oddly enough, I felt they just added to the dissonance of how Mae feels returning. Every ‘band practice’ comes with a new song and you have no idea of the melody beforehand — Mae even makes fun of this after every practice, mentioning that she’s never seen this song before. That static effect only gives negative feedback, yet after a few practices I started to get the feeling that there was no positive feedback, only that you can screw up and it doesn’t really matter. There are interactions with players that ultimately feel empty and hollow, or go nowhere. Easily the best example of small talk I’ve ever seen.
I’d like to take this time to add a small side note: Mae is not a desirable person, which becomes more evident the longer you witness her journey. Only through the conversations and exploration do you connect with pieces of her as she navigates her town and her dreams. She’s a well-crafted character in her own right, with her own flaws and desires, but I would hesitate to call her an upstanding person. Maybe that’s what makes her more interesting? I’ll leave that to you.
I would be doing this game a disservice if I didn’t mention the absolute masterpiece that is the sound design. Different areas of the town contain different melodies, and there are times when the music fades out to deafening silence during serious conversations. There were times I didn’t even notice the music was missing, it was so well timed. However, I’d like to bring attention to my favourite part, the dream sequences. Within them, you navigate a bizarre landscape to find 4 musicians playing 4 different instruments. Each one you find turns on their music, adding layers until you have a quartet that serenades you with their sweet yet eery tones. It’s honestly so satisfying to find the last one to add the final piece and have the whole tune come together, only for it to disappear once you leave via a bizarre dream-induced trip.
Night in the Woods is odd. It has you wander a town aimlessly, wondering where you should go next to learn more about the town and oddly enough, I feel like that’s the entire point. You’re watching the story of someone returning to a familiar place that has been rendered unfamiliar due to time, and helping her find out those changes in real time. I cannot say that I’ve finished Night in the Woods, and I’m not sure I will. But I can say that this game easily has given me existential dread. So thanks for that, Night in the Woods.
If that sounds like something you’d like to experience, try it out. I don’t think a summary really does it justice.
Link to the itch.io page below.