Games of 2020: Night in the woods

Another game that did not come out in 2020 that I played during the pandemic is Night in the Woods. The most obvious strength of the game is the immediate vibe that is set up during the opening with your character Mae alighting a cross-country bus in her hometown in the middle of the night. The thin undercurrent of threat and the eerie is immediately present when there is no family there to pick her up, leaving Mae to walk home through the woods.

When me and my partner played it, we got sucked in to it in that teen-obsessive way that we had with things like twin peaks and buffy in the past. It’s hard to tell if this was deliberate on the part of the developers of if it was just a shared kind of bullshit. Neither of us were around for twin peaks the first time around and we were too young for buffy until it’s last seasons but we’ve bought into a kind of aspirational nostalgia for this kind of small-town horror and teen melodrama, like a lot of people our age. There’s something comfortingly self-indulgent about these stories where teens know the real shit that’s going on and have so many feelings, but boring adults just want them to grow up and follow the rules. Mae really embodies this archetype from the get-go, being entirely in her own feelings, looking cynically askance at the fading home town that is accepting her back and crucially, insisting that there’s some grand sinister plot behind the weird goings on. She’s basically a defensively sarcastic young person going through a mental health crisis and I think we both related strongly to that.

NITW is a narrative game mainly and uses dialogue choices to allow player expression but Mae is a character herself and asserts her personality by limiting your options. The game doesn’t allow you to move through every situation perfectly or sit on the fence or game your way through to better outcomes. It’s clear that you are playing a particular character rather than a player stand-in and that made the game so compelling. When my anxiety is bad I get really overly concerned about messing up situations in games, it’s what led me to play all of fallout 3 with a wiki open (that and I needed to know where the zombies were so I could mentally prepare). Mae’s personality shaping the events felt very freeing after this and the general discussions of mental health hit hard as I was several months into my first-ever prescription of anti-depressants and fresh off of several months therapy.

The writing and the presentation of mental health issues and shared trauma is actually really strong and healthy which is relief. A large part of the game is Mae learning that everyone around her, even her town itself has trauma too. People are always calling Mae out on her shit and it can be cringily close to home but you’re rooting for her all the same. She has the charm and wit of a lot of for want of a better word, outsider teen characters but with that Millennial twist of it extending into her twenties.

One of my favourite parts of the game is Mae’s sketchbook which is about as close to a traditional quest reward that you get in this game. When you advance a plotline or complete certain interactions, Mae records it in her sketchbook with cool doodles and funny notes. This really struck a chord with us as art school kids and I found it to be such a good motivator for exploration and following plot threads. Obviously you’re also in a cool band which is just the right amount of crappy to really hit home, the songs are depressed juvenile anthems that I fucking wish any band I was in as a teen were good enough to come up with. Mae plays bass too which is a great choice for a non-committal depressed character (can relate).

I don’t know how to end this now because I’m not used to writing things that aren’t reviews. There’s a lot more to get into about this game and its inter-related depictions of folk horror and failing late-capitalist economics, the fact that the floor could fall away at any minute, the relationship between Mae and her Mum. I’d like to revisit some of this stuff when I’ve got my writing hand back in and done some homework. Feel free to comment if you’ve read this and had thoughts.

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