Night in the woods
I, like many, was waiting on Infinite Fall's Night in the Woods for a while.
In the reliable pang of Kickstarter-backed-game patience, I watched delay notification after delay notification come from Infinite Fall headquarters. But I'm used to playing the waiting game. I'm not gonna gripe if a game coming from a three-person development team takes a while to come out. The fact that such a small team can make something at all seems like a blessing.
So, I played (and fell head-over-heels for) the mini game Infinite Fall put out in the interim. I kept my ear to the ground. And, about a month ago, Night in the Woods finally came out into the sun.
It wasn't what I expected at all. Or it was. And I loved it. Or I didn't.
Necessary plot points
Night in the Woods follows the story of Mae, a twenty-year-old college drop-out who returns to her home in an aging, slowly-crumbling Rust Belt town. Her parents are loving & their house is cozy. Her friends are working in the assorted businesses around town, learning how to be adults. Half the buildings in the town center are boarded up, and each day seems to bring a new closure.
The player controls Mae as she explores the town on a daily basis. There are some (very light & rather clunky) platformer elements, where players can direct Mae to scale trees and jump along rooftops to get to out-of-the-way locations and secret spots. There are sudden little mini-games to play, like a surprisingly-introduced Guitar Hero-style bit when Mae resumes her spot as bassist in her friends' band.
However, most of the gameplay is dialogue-based. From the moment Mae wakes up in the morning, it's up to the player to decide how she spends her time: Does she settle into or skip out on chatting with her horror-novel-loving mom in the kitchen? Is she determined to beat "Demon Tower," a game-within-a-game that lives on her laptop? Does she steal a pretzel for some rat babies? Does she bee-line straight to one of her friends to entice them to hang out with her in the evening?
It's in these small decisions where Night in the Woods does best.
More than anything, the player decides who Mae talks to, and how she does it. Personally, I fell hard and fast for her pal Gregg, an anarchy-loving over-excited fox man who just wanted to smash some light bulbs, and who needed to be quietly assured that he is "good," and that he and his boyfriend Angus deserved to get out of this town.
It's their ability to create lovingly-rendered characters that is really Infinite Fall's strength. They certainly did it with Lost Constellation, the short companion game released a few years ago, and they don't disappoint here. Even in writing the above Ode to Gregg, I feel like I'm doing a disservice to the other characters, from Bea (Mae's stoic goth friend who has taken over her family's business since her mother passed away) to Angus (Gregg's quiet & kind boyfriend who works in the video store that magically remains open); from Germ (a punk kid who lives out by the tracks and knows the quiet beauty of the parking lot), even to the three weird teens that show up to perform some light witchcraft.
Or Lori, the kid who hangs out on the roof of a specific building every day, who invites Mae to hang out at the train tacks and talk about horror movies & life as the trains rush by inches away. I loved Lori, too.
But the night
Having played Lost Constellation, which was heavily steeped in lore-creation and gods in the woods, & (not to mention) going off the game trailer, I kept waiting for the twist with Night in the Woods. I was continually told that Mae was coming home, and that there was ~*~something in the woods~*~
And, indeed, there was. Mae's dreams become vivid platformer labyrinths, haunted by ghosts. (I found this at first stunning, then annoying, and then started to feel like that latter part was the point.)
And there is something in the woods, something that is haunting the town.
Honestly, I was a little disappointed with this part of the game, which I found surprising given how much I loved the lore spookiness of Lost Constellation. I fully expected it to be the strongest part of Night in the Woods. However, I felt it a bit tacked on, like they started with the intention of making a spooky game, found out that the beauty of it was in relationship-building, and then felt like they couldn't back out of their original promise. It was all smooshed together, and one half didn't necessarily complement the other.
However, even though it doesn't live up to their previous heights, Infinite Fall still does better than some of their peers, and I found a real satisfaction in not knowing (before, during, and [honestly] after) if that "thing" haunting the town was an actual thing, or if it was just the shadow of desperation in a town that feels like its been forgotten by the rest of the world and is slowly falling apart.
Or both, tied together.
On the negative side of things, the actual gameplay was kind of a mess: load screen between each section of town slowed down the pace of an already slow game. (Imagine: watching Spirited Away and, every ten minutes or so, being greeted by a black screen as the next ten minutes took a moment to load.)
By about the halfway point of the game, I was visiting a small village of people each day, some of whom were only accessible by jumping around a series of telephone wires, windowsills, and rooftops. If I happened to mistime one of my jumps, I could send Mae falling to street level, meaning that (if I actually wanted to get where I had intended to go), I would have to start that little jumping puzzle all over again and deal with any load screens in between.
But I did always start over, because I wanted to talk to all the folks I had integrated into Mae's daily routine. And I think that fact ultimately shows the success of the game.
Despite the gameplay hiccups, I genuinely loved the world that Mae lived in. It reminded me of the many small towns that I know. It reminded me of all the weirdo punk and metal kids I hung out with in high school, and how we all promised ourselves that we weren't going to end up there as adults, and how some of us did anyway, and how (sometimes) that was OK.
It reminded me of all the dirty, lost kids (who are actually adults) I love, and how we're all just trying our best.
Night in the Woods also felt deeply topical, with the undercurrent of a town that is trying to keep itself together amidst economic hardships, and the lengths people will go to believe in a god--any god--that might promise something better than boarded up windows and abandoned strip malls and kids who just won't come home...
It felt really human, and really familiar, and I was thankful for that.