Across the many forms of media designed to depict the coming-of-age nature of modern young adulthood, not many do it quite like Infinite Fall's Night in the Woods, a Kickstarter smash-hit that met its initial $50,000 goal within 26 hours.
This game offers some of the most memorable, witty and honest writing I have personally experienced in a video game, and with its equally memorable supporting cast of colorful and diverse characters, players have no choice but to be fully enveloped in Night in the Wood's quirky, yet still oddly familiar world of Possum Springs.
Home Sweet Home?
Within the game's opening moments, we are introduced to our protagonist, an anthropomorphic cat named Mae Borowski, as she arrives at her hometown's local bus station in Possum Springs, an old mining town on an economic decline. Mae, a 20-year-old college dropout, decided to go back home in the efforts to both reassume her sense of normalcy and to be back in a place where everything simply made sense.
After a brief interaction with an eccentric janitor, Mae exits the bus stop only to find out that her parents had forgotten to pick her up, and she is then forced to walk home alone through a dense forest where she almost gets crushed by a fallen tree. Along the way, we as the audience are allowed the opportunity to gain insight into all the small places of personal significance to Mae, such as her childhood playground, through interactive text bubbles found in the world.
It was at that same playground where I learned simple, yet relatable details about Mae's childhood experience, where, for example, she fondly recalls not being able to climb a certain tree as a kid. With that, the game also gives players the chance to further ponder those moments while also enabling their in-game creativity and curiosity through active exploration and fun platforming.
For instance, when I learned that Mae couldn't climb that tree when she was younger, it made me wonder if she could now do it as a young adult. Despite her verbal lack of confidence in being able to accomplish that task, I, very literally, took a leap of faith as I jumped from platform to platform until I got to the tree and then to the very top of the playground itself!
And even though I already previously decided that getting to the top of the playground was reward enough, as I stood high up on that vantage point where it almost felt like I could see for miles, I was presented with another text bubble that opened up a whole new line of dialogue I could have completely missed if I hadn't attempted to scale that beast of a tree.
Night in the Woods is absolutely riddled with these playful moments, and while some are often deliberate and cannot be missed, there are also just as many that hide in plain sight, eagerly waiting for the player to come and find them.
Following her little adventure, Mae runs into her aunt, Molly, an officer for the local police department whom Mae so aptly dubs Aunt Mall Cop. Realizing Mae has no ride back into town, Aunt Molly drives her home, where Mae's dad, Stan, is there to happily greet her upon her half-expected return.
It turns out there was a complete misunderstanding — Mae's parents thought she wasn't going to arrive until tomorrow night, and that is why they didn't pick her up at the bus station. After a series of profuse apologies from her father, Mae heads upstairs for the night to get some much-needed rest.
Lazy Days Leave Plenty of Room for Play
After its eventful prologue, your own personalized adventure in Night in the Woods truly begins. Every in-game day is an opportunity to do whatever it is your little heart desires, be it jumping on power lines, conversing with the fellow anthropomorphic townsfolk or even just hanging out with friends.
A majority of Night in the Woods' gameplay consists of idle in-game events triggered by the aforementioned text bubbles scattered across Possum Springs. These events can range from just a friendly (often times, humorous) interaction between Mae and one of the locals or even entire quest lines that, say, have Mae go to an old parking lot to smash some lightbulbs with a friend. Now, I use the phrase "quest lines" quite loosely here, just because there are no deliberate quests or even overhead mission descriptions like there are in most adventure-based games.
Besides that, you can spend some time practicing guitar in your room, checking messages on your computer, or even playing Night in the Woods' game-within-a-game, Demontower, a 2D roguelike with its own set of nine levels (and a final boss) to beat! It is worth noting Demontower looks and feels like its own complete game, and it features fun, addictive combat and level design that will make you want to scratch that "just one more level" itch. When I first discovered it on Mae's computer, I admittedly spent at least a full half-hour alone working my way through the first 2-3 levels only to die and be forced to start it all over again... from the very beginning!
For anyone wondering, no I have not been able to beat it myself, but that is only because I wanted to focus my energy on completing the game for the sake of this review — thank you very much!
After every significant in-game event, like completing Demontower, Mae records it in her personal journal, where she draws a cute picture describing that event.
Simply put, all these extra things to do are just that — more things to do.
Alternatively, you can also do none of those things, and just move forward with the game's story as it is told. Night in the Woods puts the players' freedom of choice first, and a player's decision to NOT do anything besides than the main story is nothing more than another way of playing the game as intended.
And I do not know if I am just speaking for myself, but when a game chooses to opt against all these overused, superfluous summaries of what the game expects me to do, I immediately feel more immersed in the game's world, and in the case of Night in the Woods, I simply cannot help but just sit there, take in the world, and enjoy the ride for what it is.
Developers who make these conscious choices to help ease players into their world are to be cherished and lauded for their player-first mentality. Thanks to the folks at Infinite Fall, my choice to spend a day at Possum Springs feels just as real to me as if I were to take a stroll through my own Manhattan neighborhood, where I know I am just as likely to run into some similarly oddball characters or haplessly unexpected situations. And not only do these situations tend to mimic life so well, they double as an accurate, modern representation of what it is to be young and spontaneous, where there is no true shortage of new and exciting things to do.
Animals Make For Some Interesting People
Slowly, yet ever so smoothly, you are introduced to the town's locals, many of whom held some form of relationship with Mae prior to her return to Possum Springs. Among these locals include Mae's longtime friends who you get to connect with and learn more about throughout the course of the game, which for me made for some of the most memorable parts of playing Night in the Woods.
One of the first people you encounter is Mae's best friend named Gregg, an overly-excited fox with an affinity for leather jackets and committing crimes. Soon after agreeing to be a part of Gregg's band session (yes, you are a part of a rockin' band that ALSO plays original songs using Guitar Hero-like mechanics), we get to meet even more of Mae's friends who play an essential part in her journey.
These other friends include Beatrice, better known as Bea, a gloomy crocodile with a stone-cold demeanor who dons goth-like clothing and a lit cigarette in her mouth at all times. Then there's Greggs's boyfriend, Angus, a big, glasses-wearing bear who is both hopelessly awkward and unreasonably sweet.
Every one of these characters has something unique about them that makes them instantly unforgettable, and when you've found yourself playing this game for hours at a time, you begin to establish some very real connections to people you would not have otherwise thought twice about when you first met them.
And that's the best part about Night in the Woods' cast: they are so terribly unsuspecting, so undeniably original, and their internal struggles and personal thoughts never come to the surface until you spend enough time with them to find that out. The most unfortunate thing about that tidbit, however, is that there are many instances where you will have to pick and choose who you hang out with on a given day, so you will only learn so much about a character by the end of the game's runtime.
Even the most minute of character details stick out in some memorable way, like how Bea used to refer to Mae as "Maeday" while Mae referred to Bea as "Beebee" back when they were closer, not-so-distant childhood friends. It's the organic ways in which these characters reveal those details through idle conversation that make these small details that much more worth remembering. The youthful innocence attached to nicknames like these feel genuinely and inherently human, although they are attached to otherwise nonhuman fictional characters.
An Adventure To Remember
Night in the Woods tackles a multitude of themes and real life issues, such as trauma, social awkwardness, mental health, young adulthood and even more in the most genuine ways possible. It treats its characters like they are more than just gears and cogs meant to keep the story moving on a mechanical conveyor belt to be served to the player on a silver platter. It makes every instance of dialogue between characters, every idle act and every single unmarked "quest" not only entertaining, but, most importantly, relatable to the person playing.
Given the slew of activities in Night in the Woods and the potential for missing out on other in-game events, multiple playthroughs are encouraged, which actually gives the player a rather vast amount of content to look forward to in an absolute gem of an indie title.
With its refreshing take on the coming-of-age genre, an abundance of things to do, and top-notch writing that made me think, feel and laugh — sometimes at the same time — Night in the Woods stands out as a one-of-a-kind adventure that will surely see me taking a few more stops in Possum Springs.