Playing Night in the Woods is like visiting your old house and finding a mixtape from a friend you haven’t spoken to in years. It’s a narrative adventure with a soaring indie rock soundtrack and punk sensibilities, steeped in nostalgia for the simpler, aimless days of youth. But, as Mae finds when she returns home, that kind of nostalgia can only go so far.
In Mae’s sleepy hometown of Possum Springs, as in so many other sleepy towns, people are struggling with depression, alcoholism, and abuse. Her friends have aged since she last saw them, weighed down by family obligations and responsibilities. Everyone is struggling to find their own peace of mind, and beneath it all, an eldritch horror has been awakened.
Night in the Woods is a narrative adventure with a huge emphasis on its quirky characters and exploration. This is a game that rewards curiosity, and if you take the time to climb up to the rooftops, you’ll often find little nooks and crannies that seem to have been forgotten by everyone else. With gorgeous artwork and adorable animal townsfolk, it’s a joy to see more of the world, even if that world is partly composed of abandoned shopping malls and desolate parking lots.
Mae herself is rough around the edges. She’s got a big heart and a lot of wit, but she says the wrong things, she forgets things she shouldn’t, she sometimes hurts the people around her. At the start of the game, she drops out of college and spends a lot of time avoiding the subject. But as her mysterious nightmares grow ever more haunting, it becomes clear that she has own demons to slay.
Sometimes it feels as though Mae doesn’t have much of a choice in what she does. Even though she can traverse the town at will, hopping across telephone lines and climbing up buildings, her conversations have limited scope. She doesn’t seem to be able to escape her troubled past as a juvenile troublemaker, and she falls into old routines of smashing light bulbs and shoplifting. It’s hard to discern what effect certain dialogue choices have on her relationships with the people around her, if they have any effect at all. This seems to touch on one of the themes in the game: the privilege of choice.
A lot of the characters seem stuck in the town, trapped in monotonous jobs they don’t like, caged by circumstances and unending bills to pay. Depending on how much time you spend on seeking out new interactions, their inner lives are gradually revealed to you day by day. When they are, it doesn’t have much external effect; the goal seems to simply be to build rapport and to learn about these characters’ dreams and hopes.
Aside from exploration, Night in the Woods features a number of mini-games. There’s Demon Tower, a dungeon crawler about the epic battles of Palecat. There’s band practice rendered as a Guitar Hero-esque rhythm game. There’s star-gazing, where you find constellations and learn their stories. All these games add a little burst of personality to the gameplay, a change of pace and a sense of normalcy to Mae’s routine. All of them save for Mae’s dreams, that is.
Mae’s dreams are presented as interstitial segments in a dark world, grimly beautiful and intensely lonely. They play as platformers where you scour an unfriendly city in search of ghostly musicians to rouse you back into waking life. These dream sequences are the key to solving the main mystery in Night in the Woods: Why is Mae having these dreams? Are they a byproduct of stress or something far more sinister?
Night in the Woods is anthemic, a riot of optimism and teenage nihilism, bittersweet in all the right ways. Because its dreamy neon landscapes and bright pops of color are so beautiful to behold, it seems all the sadder when it shines its light on the tiny human tragedies. But this is not a game about tragedy. It’s about the crushing absence of things: the absence of jobs, of escape, of purpose — and it’s about how even though all of that hurts, people find a way to survive.