Night in the Woods
Hey everybody and welcome back!
On Bronze League, its a rare occasion for us to take such a deep dive into more serious topics. Gaming is important (duh), but mental health is substantially more important. Night in the Woods is a game that touches on relationships and friendships, mental illness, change, and other real life themes. Some of which are not so fun.
I know I wouldn’t be able to do this game justice if I were to talk about it, so I have asked two of my closest friends to dive in and share their insight. Andrew and JB, as you will find out, really love this game so I wanted to ask the experts.
Let’s jump in
Where to begin with Night in the Woods? I’ll be honest, I’ve written, deleted, rewritten, edited, and deleted probably three paragraphs trying to figure out how to start off explaining the game, the characters, the gameplay, the story, all that jazz, and I’m honestly unable to figure out how to approach it. I suppose at its core, NITW is a game about returning home, but finding out that perhaps home is less of a physical place and more of a mental one. Or maybe it’s a journey where we find out that the real friends are the ones we made along the way. At the risk of coming off as some Corny Snowflake, I think it’s best described as an experience.
The game centers on Mae, a college dropout who has returned to her hometown of Possum Springs. It follows her day to day routine of sleeping in until noon, loafing around town, meeting up with friends, running along power lines, minor crimes, chatting up locals, standard stuff. Along the way we meet her friends Bea, Gregg, and Angus (who I’ll probably come back to in a bit), and… that’s kind of it. Like, the gameplay is pretty much just a vessel to tell the story, which, in my opinion, is one of the most human and relatable stories for anyone who’s left their hometown and returned to find it different. Or was it always that way? The main incident that drives the game is that one of Mae’s old friends has gone missing, and she and her group decide to look into it.
Also everyone’s an animal, and if, for some reason in 2022, you’re afraid to play THOSE kind of games, you are seriously robbing yourself of a great game.
Before I get into the main cast of Mae, Bea, Gregg, and Angus, let’s talk about the graphics. The setting. The coziness of a dying town in fall, locals in the street going about their business lamenting that businesses are closing due to the Mega Mart down the freeway. Boarded up buildings with sale signs. Smoking outside of a bar until it opens, talking about the game last night. The game is absolutely OVERFLOWING with personality. The character design is simple and effective. The dialogue is (mostly) organic -- call me cheugy, but it’s very much a game by millennials for millennials. The gameplay is pretty much just walking from point to point, although there are two minigames (one rhythm, one game inside a game) that are honestly pretty tight; I’d love for a Demontower release on its own.
So the characters. The four main characters are some of the most real-feeling characters in probably any game I’ve played. Mae is a young woman at, well, many crossroads in her life. She’s trying to find herself after dropping out of college, figuring out how to navigate the world as an adult but still being treated like a kid, trying to figure out how to not be treated as a kid while not succumbing to the soul crushing reality of wake->work->wank->weep, and she is also dealing with past anger, depression, and other mental health issues. Bea is jaded, weary and worn after trying to run a store in a dying town and dealing with personal tragedies. Gregg is a manic, hedonistic, carefree punk who is one of two queer/gay characters in the entire town with his boyfriend, Angus. Angus himself is calm and steady - the rock to Gregg’s chaotic personality. For me, these two specifically really stood out, because at the time that I was playing, I had still not come out to anyone, let alone myself. I remember streaming the game and deciding to hang out with Angus one day, and his story/background actually made me almost cut the stream. The two are planning to save enough money to be able to move out of the town to get away from the small people and their attitudes towards their relationship. Playing this game and seeing their relationship definitely helped me towards accepting such a crucial part of my own self.
I can’t really go more in depth on the story or the characters, since this game is extremely story and character driven. All I can say is that if you have the opportunity to play the game (it’s extremely short; Steam shows 10.5 hours on record for me, and I know I dicked around in Demontower and playing the rhythm games a bunch), and take your time to explore. You do have to make some choices, and there are consequences, but ultimately, play the game and hang out with whomever you want.
I’ve written about Night in the Woods before. It’s been a very important game to me ever since I first played it the year after it’s release, on my ancient laptop that screamed from the work of actually running it. I’m a sucker for nostalgia, not in the way that it makes you smile but in the way that it makes you ache from deep inside. I think Night in the Woods is kind of developed from that painful sense of nostalgia, from almost missing a time when you were more miserable than you are currently, because it’s very easy to romanticize parts of your life that are gone.
Every autumn I get super nostalgic, especially for college and being young enough to leave for parties at 10:00 pm and drink entire bottles of wine without being hungover the next day. It was pretty normal and fun for me. What I often forget about those times is the deep depression I was in, my failing physical health and serious health scares, nearly failing out of school and recovering from abusive and toxic relationships. At the time, I was generally miserable. Now, I look back, conveniently block all of that out, and just remember the pretty autumn scenery, the soundtrack, the lame poetry I wrote.
It is no coincidence that Night in the Woods takes place during the fall season. Change is possibly the most important theme of the game. From the very beginning, the player experiences a deep change in Mae’s life as she gets off the bus at the Possum Springs bus station after dropping out of college.
For the rest of the game, Mae learns about more and more of the change that has befallen her hometown. The old Food Donkey’s closing. Sinkholes are opening up all over the place. Her angsty best friend Gregg and his lovable boyfriend Angus plan to move away next year. Her father has lost his job and both of her parents have taken up low-paying service jobs to cover their mortgage; and still, they are at risk of losing their house. One of her old friends, Casey, has gone missing, and has seemingly been forgotten as a delinquent who likely just hopped a train and ran away.
Change is not only happening around Mae, however; it is also happening within her. Throughout the game, Mae’s mother asks her to talk about school. She is confused about why Mae suddenly dropped out and is concerned that her daughter is slipping away. While Mae secretly shares in her mother’s concern, she is hesitant to speak about school or her reasons for dropping out, always pushing the topic away or changing the subject. It is clear that Mae has left school due to some mental health problems, based on dialogue citing events from her past, but it takes quite a bit of gameplay for the player to discover the truth behind Mae’s last-minute decision.
Mae isn’t the only character going through troubling times. Her friend Bea, a goth alligator that is entirely disenchanted with the world, has been thrust into an early adulthood, forced to run the family hardware store after the death of her mother and her father’s resulting emotional shutdown. Angus opens up about his bad family dynamic and memories of childhood abuse. Gregg fears that he is simply not good enough for Angus, and the player can presume from conversations between Gregg and Mae that he suffers from bipolar disorder.
I think part of the reason that Night in the Woods is so important to me is because of the way it handles mental illness. Without going into too much detail, I struggle with severe mental illness and have for a very long time. Experiences and situations in my life have exacerbated it and made it difficult to cope with and difficult to treat. And I honestly think it’s the reason I have an unhealthy habit of romanticizing my challenging past. It’s also the reason I connect so heavily with Night in the Woods as a game.
The game’s handling of mental illness is possibly the best I’ve ever seen in any form of media, and trust me, I consume a lot of media dealing with mental illness. Every character in the game deals with it on some level. With change can sometimes come depression, anxiety, and other mental challenges. These things are evident throughout the playing experience, and the player learns more and more as the game goes on. It becomes very easy to relate to. Everyone has gone through struggles in their life. Everyone has gone through change. The way Night in the Woods wraps these two things together in this perfect storyline is meaningful to say the least.
So why is it that a game — set in a crumbling small town, dealing with the depressing lives of several twenty-somethings experiencing the most realistic transitions into adulthood, and tinged with the heaviness of implied mental illness — hits its players so hard in their feelings and at the same time offers to its players the secret to beauty and hope in the ugliest of times?
It’s the idea that, while time is constantly moving and change will happen around you regardless of what you do, change will only happen within you if you make it.
This is why pieces of art like Night in the Woods remain so powerful even years after their release. This sense of nostalgia, melancholy, pain, and sadness does not only last for one year. No — this feeling of nostalgia comes with every single autumn, and it will continue to as long as autumn continues coming.
So, does Night in the Woods simply leave us hanging high and dry, desperate for some reprieve from the melancholy feelings that the game only exacerbates?
No. It teaches us possibly the most painful lesson of all: there isn’t really a clear-cut answer. Just like fall will follow summer every year, we will experience nostalgia, and melancholy, and pain, and those of us with mental illness will still have it, and everything will continue going on like that until it all stops for good. The game doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending. There is no big moral, no final lesson that the player can take with them after the game is over. Instead they are left with the open-ended question: how are you going to react to the change around and within you?
I’m 26 now. I graduated college four years ago. It’s been a long time since I was able to go out at 10:00 pm or drink an entire bottle of wine. But I still deal with mental illness. I still deal with chronic physical illness. I live in a world dealing with a global pandemic, the ever-looming threat of world destruction at the hands of climate change, a corrupt government. Things are rough, to say the least. But things have also changed for the better since I was 20. I’m heavily medicated, and while that's sometimes depressing, it keeps my moods in check and I don’t deal with highs and lows that hurt myself and everyone around me. I live with my wonderful partner in a wonderful house with three wonderful cats. I have a steady job that gives me a steady income and that, most importantly, I can perform because I have my mental and physical illness under control. I have friendships that are better than I’ve ever had before. I have new hobbies, which is honestly a big deal for me because my mental and physical illness has made it quite difficult to participate in anything at all.
Change is hard and change is good. I play Night in the Woods pretty much every autumn to remind myself of this. It is a beautiful game with beautiful graphics and a beautiful soundtrack. It makes you feel that painful, aching nostalgia and then reminds you that hope is the most important thing you can have to get through challenging times. “At the end of everything, hold onto anything.” The game's tagline is something I want to look at every day of my life. It itself is something I can hold on to.
I encourage anyone who hasn’t played Night in the Woods to give it a try. It’s short, you can finish it in a weekend or in a day if you want to. Pay close attention to the amazing dialogue. Let yourself explore parts of yourself and your life that maybe sometimes you hold back or push away. Let it drown you in nostalgia, pain, aching, and hope. And let it be something that you hold on to at the end of everything.
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