We’re going to do something a little special here, this time. I try to keep my writings on games honest, and also useful. For most of you, the useful information is does this game do anything really offensive and is this game an interesting or fun experience to play? With that in mind I’m going to provide that information all in one tight little block – and then, after a fold, I’ll go onto the unfortunate category of a complex but extremely negative and unpleasant issue.
It’s not negative or unpleasant in the ‘beware’ way! This is – it’s – it’s disagreement with a message or a value. It’s not the kind of thing I normally do, because it’s as much a study of a character as much as anything else.
The Game, As Purely As Possible
Night in the Woods is an active-movement platform adventure which is built around exploratory setpieces. Set in a slowly dying mountain mining town, full of people who grew up there and don’t know how to do anything else, it’s wrought about with rural town menace as writ by the people who live there, not by the people who think anything outside of the New York Suburbs is a grim forest filled with the Wildlings.
What you get when you play it is this wonderfully sad place, the sort of bubbling form of human civilisation you get in the spaces that an older, crueler but also more wealthy world carved out of the wilderness, as it slowly bleeds to death over the course of days. There are murals to history, symbols and monuments to the town’s own specific culture that live in cupboards where nobody needs them, because nobody cares. It is a grim and sad place full of people defiantly struggling onwards because there is nothing else to do, nowhere else to be, and a person’s way of life is not a thing that changes easily.
It is a place full of people who did not have choices.
Populating this town is a cast of young people living in systems created by other people and doing the best they can care to do. There are your friends, the ever-loving Gregg, his boyfriend Angus, there’s Bea, there’s… other characters… as well… with names… like Mom! And Dad! And yeah anyway.
You play Mae, who has returned home from college at a point that is noteworthy and people remark upon it, and the structure of the game is somewhat akin to a point-and-click adventure game. Rather than carrying around an inventory of things to locations to see what reacts differently, you’re just dragging around Mae and looking at what she reacts to differently, where she guides you onwards next. This is all through a beautifully realised, pretty little town of dilapidated yesterdays.
The game does do sideways things – little mini-games where you play bass guitar or try to find someone missing or shoot crossbow bolts or fight with knives. This breaks things up, which is an interesting need in a game that, for lack of any better term, is mostly about frittering away time doing not much special.
As a pure game, it’s a bit like a really low-budget version of a Naughty Dog Uncharted game. You mostly get to control a character moving around a space with responsive controls trying to work out if any bits of your environment are things you can stand on, will react if you check them out. There are setpieces, sudden shifts where the game says okay, now pay attention to doing things this way, with slightly awkward controls that you quietly hope won’t be used as central to other scenes.
There really isn’t that much like this game out there. It’s an adventure game where your challenges are frittering away an afternoon with a friend, a dating sim but the dates are with friends, and a horror story where you never see the monster. It is an excellent indie game made by people who, by all accounts are Not Awful.
Get it if:
- You like adventure games but don’t like feeling like you’re waiting for characters
- You like exploring very normal, very mundane spaces
- You enjoy a feeling of creepy wrongness
Avoid it if:
- You’re big on achievements
- You want every part of a game you buy to be good
What’s the right way to approach a work you can recognise as being well done and also, bad? Not badly done, but bad. Not a bad game, either. No, it isn’t that Night in the Woods is a bad game, not at all, but at the same time I… kind of think I hate it.
Hate is personal, hate is intimate. This isn’t the dismissive sneer of a designer looking at a game with broken values or foolish expression and saying I hate that thing. I think I hate this game because this game is an artistic piece that creates a person, and then that person’s circumstances, and it asks me to reach out, to take her hand, to empathise with her.
And I think I hate her.
It’s a complicated feeling I’ve been struggling with lately. I don’t want to tell people ‘ah, I hate Mae’ like it’s a really dismissive thing. It’s not that Mae is a bad character at all – and even more frustrating is I know people who identify with Mae, who think of themselves and her as being people akin to one another, and that may leave people convinced I hate them and that’s simply not true. It shouldn’t even be worth mentioning that my dislike of a character should reflect nothing on anyone who likes them, but I feel like the work of Night in the Woods has done such an excellent job of crafting her as a person, and making empathy with her an important element of engaging with her.
She’s a real enough, whole enough, realised character that I feel I can look at her, and think of her actions as choices, think of her circumstances as things that were made in the world for her, and that means that hating her is like hating a friend’s friend. I don’t hate her the way I hate, say, Sunset, or the way I hate Death Note. Not even the way I hate Undertale.
I hate Mae because she’s a bad person. She hurts people, she doesn’t actually care about the emotions or wellbeing of her friends and the entire arc of the story is about her showing not a desire to improve or do better but rather her friends reconciling and accepting that. It’s a story that shows everyone around Mae growing, and Mae herself finding some way to be the same person and for that to be okay. It doesn’t feel like Mae grows as much as Mae finds the rationalisation for what she was already going to do, the person she was already going to be. It is a person whose family and friends have done enormous emotional effort to care for her, whose main focus despite all this is yes, but how will this impact me?
And then you find out that her issues are because she has a Cthulhu in her head.
This frustrates me endlessly. It’s not just that she’s a bad person. It’s not even that she’s a bad person the story looks at and says ‘well, you said you’re a bad person, so you’re okay.’ It’s that in addition to this and the childhood trauma, it’s all tied back to an actual supernatural force that actually exists and there’s an actual cult and she is a poor, beleagured girl bearing up under this and there’s really no reason anyone should be mad at her for being a selfish screw-up.
In the end, Mae exists in a world that does not feel Mae did anything wrong enough to judge her for, surrounded by people who continuously extend care for Mae, and then since that is not enough, the world bends to show that Mae’s fears and horrors and pain and burdens are all the result of magic.
Speaking as someone who grew up poor in a cult environment and had rage issues, this all feels like a bit of a cop out. In this story that needed precisely zero magic, there’s magic. In this story where everything could be about the slow bleed of capitalism and the overactive information of someone struggling with her own emotional identity, no, it’s magic. Don’t reflect on what it means to contain the actual horror of knowing you have something monstrous inside you. Don’t consider how you’ve inflicted yourself on your friends. Don’t consider how your use of your parents’ money has impacted that dad whose work situation is a late-game plot point. No.
These problems are all external.
It’s fucking magic.
Like, how do you review that? It’s not like it’s badly done. It’s not like it’s a bad work. It’s clearly an excellent work because if it wasn’t good at presenting its characters as things that exist this would no more bother me than a cheap greeting card. I am genuinely concerned that people will dislike me because of this opinion as if I’m attacking them by disliking this game. It’s resonant. It’s affecting.
I don’t even dislike the game.
But I hate Mae.