It’s difficult to describe Infinite Fall’s debut game, Night in the Woods, in terms familiar to the average gamer. It’s a sidescrolling adventure game that features a beautifully vivid papercraft-like art style, but its appeal lies in the strong personalities and stories told through interaction with Possum Springs’ anthropomorphic animal residents. I realize that this doesn’t really describe the game as it equally well describes a short story, but really, that’s what Night in the Woods is. There are gameplay mechanics in the form of simple minigames, but these really serve to supplement the game’s strength – storytelling.
Thematically, I would put Night in the Woods in the same boat as Firewatch, Life is Strange, and Gone Home, as they all share a similar sense of angst and tell stories that probably appeal to a subset of millennials. Its protagonist, Mae Borowski (a cat), is a sarcastic twenty-year-old who doesn’t quite know what she wants in life. After a three semester stint at a distant college, she returns home and confronts issues of emotional detachment and a lack of meaning in life. Like any good, young protagonist, she has difficulty being an adult. In the first few hours of Night in the Woods, you’ll find yourself performing seemingly mundane tasks like going to the mall with a childhood friend, Bea (an alligator), or committing petty crimes with Mae’s charming high school pal, Gregg (a fox). Occasionally, you’ll be treated with a band practice with Mae and her buddies in the form of a rhythm-based minigame. It can be a little difficult to call this actual gameplay but it seems that as video games become more accepted as a medium for storytelling, we’ll see more titles with a stronger focus on storytelling than on game mechanics. In turn, we’ll be allowed more unique experiences that really push gaming’s boundaries a little bit further, like Mae Borowski’s conflicts with identity and adulthood.
…its effectiveness depends on how well you can relate to its cast of teenage archetypes.
The game features no “real” dilemma, only Mae’s personal problems. Very rarely are we treated to a story that is completely based on real issues that an average person faces, which is a nice change from the end-of-the-world scenarios that gamers are usually sold. Night in the Woods is personal and intimate, but its effectiveness depends on how well you can relate to its cast of teenage archetypes. Mae’s friends, Gregg, Bea, and Angus are culminations of things that we have seen in other young adult fiction (Scott Pilgrim immediately comes to mind). They get into typical teenage antics and speak with slang that would confuse the average parent (ex: “gregg rulz ok”) and can seem cheesy to some, but to me makes these scamps all the more lovable.
Along with Mae’s friends, Possum Springs (think an Animal Crossing village hit with a recession) is brought to life with great writing. There’s a sense of gloominess found in the former coal mining town. The mall is desolate, beloved family-owned establishments have closed down, and its citizens face many of the same problems that humans do. These alligators and foxes have faced the loss of loved ones, poverty, and a whole plethora of human experiences in a way that is uncommon in video games, much less one that features talking animals. Which leads me to believe that the whole intention behind using lively anthropomorphic critters was to make the game just a bit less depressing.
…would be difficult to play without feeling invested in the game’s characters.
Where Night in the Woods fails, is in its format as a video game. It has some elements of a platformer at times, but aside from that, it’s mostly a collection of minigames that are widely spaced out with heavy narrative in between. The minigames are passable, and remind me a lot of Warioware games where there’s a single, simple objective to accomplish, such as shoplifting from a Hot Topic while avoiding detection from the cashier who clearly hates his job. Because the game is so light on “actual” gameplay, Night in the Woods becomes repetitive and would be difficult to play without feeling invested in the game’s characters.
The brilliance of Night in the Woods to the player largely depends on his or her expectations of what it actually is. If the player comes into it expecting a traditional video game, they might be disappointed. But if they are prepared to experience one of gaming’s most relatable and mature depictions of adult themes, they might be pleasantly surprised, as I was. The ideas it tackles aren’t new and have been treaded upon thousands of times before an infinite number of coming-of-age stories. But it manages to feel fresh, largely thanks to its charming art style and lovable cast of characters.
Very rarely do games successfully leave an emotional impact on me…
There’s a famous quote in the film Garden State that goes: “You know that point in your life when you realize the house you grew up in isn’t really your home anymore? All of a sudden, even though you have some place where you put your shit, that idea of home is gone.” For the first time since that movie’s release, there is a video game that proudly embraces the particular lack of direction that some inevitably face in their twenties. And it does so in a distinctly un-game-like manner. Night in the Woods is quiet reflection of the disorienting mess that some, even talking cats, go through as they stumble into adulthood.
Very rarely do video games successfully leave an emotional impact on me, but that’s not for lack of trying. Titles like Firewatch and Life is Strange pushed games into new frontiers of storytelling by championing characters that didn’t feel one-dimensional. Night in the Woods, takes this a step further and depicts a protagonist with issues far too similar to those of faced by many young adults. But unlike Mae and those other young adults, Infinite Fall’s first outing, Night in the Woods embraces its own unique identity and provides an emotional experience seldom seen in video games.
Kevin played Night in the Woods on PlayStation 4 over the course of about ten hours. You can read more about our review and scoring methods on this page.