Night in the Woods – specifically, the Weird Autumn complete edition – has made its quirky, charming way onto the Nintendo Switch. Have Mae, Gregg, Angus and Bea survived the trip?
Infinite Fall’s Night in the Woods tells the story of Mae, a cat who drops out of college, and returns home to live with her parents in the town of Possum Springs. Returning, she finds the town in economic decline, and her friends all grasping to find their place in the world as they move from adolescence into adulthood.
Night in the Woods may feature a cast of animals, – who are, without exception, beautifully drawn and animated – but its themes and emotional beats are as relatable and human as they come.
Mae is clinging onto her youth, too old to go fuck about in the woods, but still driven by a burning desire to do just that. Her friends, Gregg and Angus, are ready to move on, having decided to spend their life together in pastures new. And Bea, a crocodile who works in hardware store, is becoming increasingly cynical of the world around her.
Night in the Woods takes place at a moment of change for the town and its characters, and the game explores how both need to adapt to survive. Yep, it’s a game for the post-recession millennial generation alright.
Night in the Woods unfolds over an autumn, gloriously depicted through Scott Benson and Charles Huettner’s incredible art. Each day involves little more than taking a mooch around Possum Springs, catching up with your friends, exploring and poking into the corners of the beautifully drawn world. As you do, the game’s story is gradually nudged forward. There’s a routine to it that recalls Animal Crossing’s daily to-do list, and a laconic pace that also reflects Mae’s feeling of ennui.
On certain days Mae’s friends will provide opportunities to embark on excursions away from Possum Springs. These short episodes usually serve up a little variety in gameplay, but more importantly they give the player the chance to flesh out the relationships between Mae and her friends. There are small branching paths, and it’s unlikely that you’ll will see every scene on an initial play through. As a result the characters you develop a close affinity to will likely vary.
Although there are some light platforming aspects to the game, the vast majority of Night in the Woods is delivered through the conversations Mae has with her friends, family, and other townsfolk. And this is the game’s greatest achievement.
I have played a number of dialogue-heavy games on the Switch in recent months, a daunting prospect for a self-confessed ‘video game explorer’. Typically, I eschew story-heavy games in favour of those that give me the chance to chart vast open worlds, or fiddle around in dungeons and puzzle rooms. The nature of the Switch – and some welcome eShop discounting – has led me to games I would have usually ignored.
I tend to struggle with the stilted manner in which adventure games deliver dialogue. Telltale’s titles, for example, often lose dramatic momentum with their “After you, Sir.” “No, after you, Sir” approach to conversation. The first season of Batman: A TellTale Series – a fine game, but only fine – being a prime example. Another, Night School Studio’s Oxenfree, was also a game I didn’t particularly enjoy – I found its characters as cold and remote as the game’s island location – but its masterful dialogue system was a revelation at least.
Night in the Woods doesn’t have that trick up its sleeve, but it’s just as successful due to the pacing and quality of its script. The speed at which dialogue is delivered, its structure, and its economy, are all sublime. The result is naturalistic and resonant dialogue that sings as you read it. Although you are just spamming a button to move the script on, each word is delivered so perfectly that it feels like you are authoring each line as it flashes up.
You could accuse it of being a little bit smart, but then, it is really smart. And often, it’s also hysterically funny.
Each day is booked-ended with a moment shared with Mae’s mother or father. Despite their domestic mundanity, these are among the game’s most memorable scenes. What begin as small, guarded conversations, hewn with guilt and disappointment, gradually thaw and develop over the course of the game. The relationships that develop feel authentic, display a touching and genuine affection from both sides. This leads to an offhand revelation about the state of the family’s finances being just as devastating as any plot twist I’ve previously experienced in a game.
A word also for the game’s audio. Alex Holowka’s score is subtle, melodic, and remarkably happy to take a back seat, yet it’s also evocative and memorable. And Em Halberstadt’s soundscape lends texture, and no small amount of humour to the game’s rich tapestry.
There’s a feeling that Night in the Woods should somehow continue forever, with instalments dolled out like episodes of an ongoing soap opera. I would have been quite happy with such an arrangement, but the game has to conclude. To do so a macabre plot thread comes to the fore in its last quarter, tasked with giving the narrative a reason to wrap up. You could argue that it would have benefited from a little more foreshadowing, but it’s effective and spooky, and sets the scene for an emotionally satisfying coda.
When the game ends, it’s not the dark turn that lingers in the mind, it’s the small moments. It’s the memories of a trip to the train tracks, an impromptu day out with your mum, the exploration of a derelict mall, or an afternoon spent stargazing with a hobbyist astronomer.
Night in the Woods is a touching and poignant game. It’s set in a cynical world, but its characters are full of heart. At the end of its generous playtime I was left with that bitter-sweet sense of youth receding into the distance and a lifetime of adult responsibilities barrelling over the horizon. Night in the Woods was a reminder of my own youth, and every bit as affecting as a browse through an old album of college photos.
Above all, Night in the Woods is a love letter to friendship, and family. One that captures that moment in life when responsibility shifts from a parent to their child. It’s also one of the best games I’ve ever played.