Let’s delve into the expansive and emerging world of Indie gaming , with its unique art and graphics, dynamic story telling, and style dripping from every pixel. Dan Price brings us on a journey of all things Indie: from insights on the industry and its developers to game reviews- he’s got all angles covered. Even if you’ve never picked up a controller in your life, this influential industry is something that’ll keep you on the edge of your seat.
Night in the Woods, created by first-time indie developer Infinite Falls, is a critically acclaimed story-based 2D adventure game, owing its creation to a successful crowdsourcing campaign. It tells the story of Mae, a college dropout, and her return to her hometown Possum Springs. This game quickly caught my attention as someone who is enamoured with coming-of-age stories, and because it is lauded as an insightful portrayal of struggling with mental health, and feelings of failure and inadequacy. As the academic year comes to a close, and many people are faced with daunting decisions about their future, these themes feel especially poignant. In a Medium interview, co-creator Scott Benson stated “my work stems from pulling meaning, solace, community and friendship, out of this void – which sounds like whatever, but. You’re going to die at some point but you have to figure out what you’re going to do now. You have to live, and what does that mean? Like sad greeting card platitudes, you have to pull the positive out of the negative stuff”. This statement gave me a hint of what to expect playing Night in the Woods, and I was curious to find out how effectively the game portrays these sentiments.
All images courtesy of Night in the Woods by Infinite Falls
The game begins as Mae, in the dead of night, exits the bus station of Possum Springs, a sleepy autumnal town that the world seems to have left behind. It is surrounded by farmlands, rolling hills and tall trees, reminiscent of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, which it borrows heavily from. A TV is broadcasting a late night news channel, talking heads blubbering nonsense buzzwords about the economy. Mae’s dad isn’t waiting to pick her up as they had planned, and the only available telephone has been ripped from the cord, leaving Mae to walk home through the woods alone. A town message board has a poster pinned reading “Casey Harthey (19) missing”.
Playing through the first few hours I was honestly struggling to resonate with the game. The story had cycled me through multiple repetitive days, waking up, speaking to mum in the morning and dad in the evening (both sweetly natured but concerned by Mae’s decision to leave college and her unwillingness to talk about it), exploring the town and catching up with old faces. Mae is a difficult protagonist to gauge. She keeps her feelings to herself and resorts to jokes when challenged about her decisions. Most of the townspeople are talkative and welcoming, but those that recognise Mae allude to her infamy. One of her neighbours warns that the politeness of townspeople should not be trusted. They have neither forgotten nor forgiven her. For what exactly, the player is left guessing. Conversations centre around unemployment, work stress and being a college dropout and a failure. Mae is criticised and her circumstances are undermined. One person berates her, “I’m unemployed, you’re just lacking a day hobby”.
Things begin to pick up once Mae regroups with her old band. Her friend Gregg is overjoyed to see her but the others are indifferent. After proving her worth at practice, they head for pizza, and stumble across a severed arm laying on the side of the road… From this moment onward, Night in the Woods descends into a surreal and absurd murder mystery, in which Mae slowly loses her grip on reality.
Where Night in the Woods succeeds most is in its storytelling. The game stands out by relishing in the small moments. Everyday activities such as stargazing and going to the mall are given space and time to convey their significance. The overarching story is fantastical, entailing a group of outcasts on a supernatural small-town murder mystery, however the characters, their history and their conversations are the beating heart of the experience. Chapters such as ‘The Party’, where Mae throws up tacos in front of her ex-boyfriend in an inebriated rage are mortifying. Her embarrassment is palpable and the game delivers a relatable portrayal of how everyday social events can be painstaking and cringeworthy.
Her friends all have their faults, but try to be supportive. Each of them have baggage and are facing their own unique struggle. Bea has recently lost her mum and resents Mae for wasting the opportunity to receive an education and the freedom to escape the town. Driving Mae home she says ‘I stayed here and got older while you went off to college and stayed the same’, one of many examples highlighting the rift which has grown between Mae and her old friends. Gregg struggles with low self worth and inadequacy, spending sleepless nights imagining his partner Angus doing better without him. Angus also resents Mae because she brings out Greggs rebellious side. Gregg and Angus feel unwelcome in the narrow minded town, and are saving to move to a city where they will feel accepted. Mae appears unable to deal with any of this. Despite her pain, and theirs, she is desperate to rekindle friendships.
It is in these struggles that Night in the Woods truly shines. Through a series of increasingly unlikely events, Mae’s friends begin to unravel their thoughts about how they deal with the world around them. Topics of death, accepting change, and coping with mental illness are present, but often only break through briefly in conversation. The game impressively juggles a multitude of themes without feeling hamfisted or force fed. The uncomfortable nature of pain leaves her friends reluctant to talk about their feelings, and so the player is left piecing together their history and filling in the gaps.
The subject of change is also prevalent in Night in the Woods, and bleeds into the landscape. As the story progresses, the town changes in small ways. The local pizza shop closes, workers on their smoke break gradually leave town and some of the houses are boarded up. These details subtly enhance the impermanent atmosphere of the game. Nothing stays the same, towns and people get left behind. The art style is minimalistic but the colours, lighting and thoughtfully designed environments are absorbing. The childish style is disarming and inviting, making the mature content feel surprisingly weighty and impactful.
While the storytelling and dialogue are profound and thought provoking, unfortunately the gameplay feels lacking and at times restrictive. Movement consists of walking, jumping and balancing along telephone wires. Button prompts reveal information or dialogue in the environment, and small puzzles and minigames allow the player to drag and drop items. Players used to fast paced gameplay will have to adapt to the peaceful and explorative design choice. The animations feel sluggish, complementing the slow nature of small-town life. The button mapping is also poorly planned at times. Some buttons have the dual function of bringing up Mae’s journal and quitting the game, a small but unnecessary imperfection that becomes irritating towards the end.
Each evening ends in a dream sequence which becomes progressively abstract and absurd. Unfortunately, the gameplay loop in these sequences is repetitive and it was difficult to keep an interest after the first in-game week. Occasionally the player is also presented with dialogue options during conversation, which I found to be a confusing design choice for a game that is so intimately focussed on how characters think and feel in unique ways. I was more interested in what Mae would want to say, rather than what I thought she should say. I think the intention may have been for players to experience Mae’s anxiety when choosing her words in social situations, but unfortunately the inconsistency of these options left it feeling like an afterthought.
None of the characters in the game are voiced. It’s difficult to know whether this was intentional or the studio lacked the investment required, however I think reading the dialogue made the game feel similar to a graphic novel. It gave me control of the pace of conversation, which I found to be refreshing. It also created an empty canvas for voices to be imagined making the experience feel personal to me. I was able to interpret each line from my perspective rather than that of a voice actor. Evidently a lot of work went into expressing the emotional depth of the characters which could have been restricted by the silence. Long pauses were used consistently for building up embarrassment, displaying disapproval, and for tension and comedic effect.
The game does not include a minimap or waypoint markers. Instead, the player is prompted to interact with townspeople or when Mae wishes to recollect about something in her environment. Through this method, piecing together her history and relationship to Possum Springs and its inhabitants feels exploratory and organic. Mae is not obligated to speak to people around town, so the extent to which the player gets to know them is entirely optional. However, the eclectic assortment of characters bring authenticity and depth to the town, and ignoring them would be detrimental to the overall experience. Talking to them and interacting with the environment also reminds Mae to note in her journal, which she uses to manage her anger issues under the recommendation of her doctor. Her notes and drawings accumulate into Mae’s personal interpretation of the story through her own eyes, giving the player an additional glimpse into her mind.
Upon finishing Night in the Woods, I was left thinking that it is ultimately about friendship and loneliness. How relationships all too easily fade and lives grow apart. It expresses the hardships that arise between adolescence and adulthood. The yearning for the golden days of zero responsibility and zero expectations. It portrays the damage that feelings of failure cause, and leaves the player with a sense of melancholy and unanswered questions. Do we value achievement over connections with people in our lives? Will my friendships survive life’s many changes? How do people find meaning in existence?
I would recommend Night in the Woods to anyone… it’s rough around the edges at times, but in many ways the roughness complements the rebellious charm of a story about outcasts and failure. Night in the Woods is emotional and thought provoking, and it is absolutely worth your time.
Dan Price is a first year Linguistics student here at QMUL, and he hopes that his reflections on the industry and reviews of some particularly narrative-driven games will resonante with the student body.