The “fairly privileged young person feels lost in the world” story is well-trodden territory. The most notable incarnation of this story is probably Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel that still speaks to teenagers today. But while plenty of people around me felt differently, I hated Catcher in the Rye when I read it in high school. I failed to empathize with the protagonist Holden Caulfield, and while I now have a bit more of a nuanced take on it than I did then, I still think that the book has a hard time connecting with people who don’t already feel the way Holden does. And I have this same problem with pretty much every other attempt to tell this story. Night in the Woods tells this story, but it does so in a way that actually works.
Night in the Woods is a character study focused on the character of Mae, a girl who just dropped out of college and is moving back in with her parents in the rust belt town she grew up in. While there she reunites with her old friends and discovers how their lives and the town have changed while she was gone. Most of the people she meets up with didn’t go to college, and so a lot of the story is about how they have transitioned into adulthood while Mae really hasn’t. Mae’s best friend Gregg and his boyfriend Angus are trying to save up to move out of town and to somewhere more accepting of their relationship, while her other friend Bea is also living on her own and trying to make ends meet. This contrasts nicely with Mae who is living with her parents and not working. Even her parents are having trouble due to local industries going out of business, but none of this financial burden is ever placed on Mae’s back. Ultimately, she gets to live a “carefree” life that nobody around her can. But she still isn’t satisfied and still felt the need to drop out of school.
This set up could have gone bad multiple ways. The game could spend way too much time indulging Mae and delivering an offputtingly reassuring message like a million mumblecore movies, but it also could have gone too far out of its way to demonize Mae and render her own problems meaningless. There is a great moment early in the game where Bea tells Mae how much she would give to go to college and how it angers her that Mae had the opportunity to go and decided it “wasn’t for her”, and every primary character (even the ever-supportive Gregg) gets their moment to blow up in Mae’s face and tell her what real problems are (and they’re kinda right). But the game also does a good job of exploring why Mae feels the way she does. The answer isn’t definite and might ultimately be a little unsatisfying, but that’s pretty true to real life. By the end of the game Mae hasn’t figured everything out. She’s not back at college or starting a job. But she has at least come to terms with some things, gained some perspective, and started to get her life back on track. There aren’t many pure character studies in video games, and Night in the Woods makes a great case for there being more.
But the truth is that Night in the Woods isn’t a pure character study. While it’s hinted at throughout, the third act of the game becomes more of a ghost story/mystery than a character study. This initially made me worry that the game was either going to abandon the character study portion or use the mystery to too neatly tie up Mae’s problems or even give reasons/excuses for them that aren’t tied to her own mental health. But thankfully the game doesn’t go there. The mystery is interesting enough on its own and reveals some dark secrets about the town, and it’s used to further progress Mae’s character and her relationships without overtaking them. It brings out the reasons she left school, but it doesn’t directly tie into them. And while I was initially disappointed that the game leaves some questions open surrounding the mystery, I actually think this correlates nicely to Mae not having all of the answers about her internal struggles. Things can now move forward, but it doesn’t mean everything is solved or that the past can be totally left behind.
And while everything I’ve said about this game makes it sound depressing and serious, that’s only half true. When the characters aren’t contemplating their lives, they’re getting into hijinks, doing petty crimes, and hanging out. Night in the Woods is just as charming and comforting as it is challenging and depressing. You have a friendly knife fight, get drunk at a party, smash old lightbulbs with a baseball bat, and shoplift before feeling guilty and returning what you stole. And this works nicely in the story because while the other characters are teaching Mae to grow up, she is encouraging them to enjoy being young. It’s the give-and-take of a healthy relationship, and it makes these friendships feel real.
A lot of the subtlety that exists through all of these narratives can be attributed to the writing. While it will automatically turn some people off, the young people in this game talk the way young people talk. As a Young Person™ myself I feel qualified to say this. Most of the things Mae says in the game, I could see myself saying. And the few times she said something that I wouldn’t personally say, I could imagine one of my friends saying it. Night in the Woods writer Bethany Hockenberry wrote characters who talk like people, and that’s not something we see enoguh of. The game might star a bunch of anthropomorphic animals, but they’re more believably human than most other videogame characters.
On the topic of the visuals, the game has striking aesthetics that help maintain the disparate tones. The color palate, consisting mostly of blues and oranges, creates this great balance of comforting and somber, as well as some vistas that are just beautiful to look at. The music is very similar. It does a great job of contributing to the feelings the game is trying to evoke, and it’s simultaneously relaxing and melancholic. There’s a bridge at the end of town that you can sit on the railing of. Nothing happens; Mae just sits there, and the camera pans out a bit. But I went there multiple times when playing the game. It was nice to just sit there, take in the visuals and the music, and just decompress. Night in the Woods can get pretty heavy at times, and the game’s aesthetics help provide a bit of a respite from that.
Night in the Woods is an incredible videogame that a lot of people will probably hate. But whether it’s because of the characters or the lack of gameplay, those people are wrong. Night in the Woods tells a story that gives itself enough space to fully develop its ideas without feeling like they are unearned. The characters are flawed but not too flawed to be irredeemable, and the plot has enough intrigue to keep things interesting without overshadowing the character development. Night in the Woods has one of the best written stories in videogames, and everything else about the game and the narrative backs the writing up.
Note: This piece was lightly edited in September 2018 as part of a site overhaul. It was originally titled “Night in the Woods Review”.