Night in the Woods is an adventure game that stars anthropomorphic animals, and yet it is one of the most human games I’ve ever played. Mae, the main character you play, is a 20-year-old cat back from college. When she’s not giving vague reasons as to why she dropped out, she’s hanging out with her friends, seeing how her town has changed, and marveling at the depression of live. Night in the Woods has a cast of melancholy creatures that bury themselves in your brain with their witty dialogue and true-to-life conversations. And that dialogue is only part of what makes the game special.
Mae Borowski is having a rough few days. She’s returned home from college to the dilapidated town of Possum Springs. What she remembers as her home is a memory of the past, and what stands in its place now is an old mining town filled with concerned, unemployed townsfolk. After an eventful night of traipsing through the woods, Mae finds herself back at home with her parents where not that much has changed, at least on the surface. As Mae you fill your days exploring your small hometown and talking to the people living and working in Possum Springs. Mae has a small group of friends that she can bug to hangout with, but they all have jobs now. That means that Mae is left to her own devices at times and needs to entertain herself.
When Mae isn’t convincing her friends to have band practice, explore graveyards, or smash up cars, you’re free to explore Possum Springs as you like. Night in the Woods is an adventure game through and through, though it does consist of some light platforming. You control Mae directly and can walk and jump around the 2D town at your leisure. There are little secrets to find that lead to interesting and often humorous moments as Mae finds old high school decorations or walks into a poetry meeting. The dialogue and writing of Night in the Woods is by far its biggest strength. Everyone in the game feels so real despite the fact that they’re all cartoony-looking animals. Sure, your best friend Beatrice is a walking alligator (or crocodile) but that doesn’t mean her very real issues of her dead mother and overworked, now depressed and lazy, father aren’t very real. In fact, most of the characters in Night in the Woods are going through trials and tribulations that are much more real and relatable than most videogame characters. That feeling of relation to the world you explore is a great feeling in the game as you grow attached to characters you only speak to once per day, I’m looking at you porch guy.
At the heart of the story is a mystery. After getting pizza, the group of friends finds an arm, a very real, amputated arm. This builds into a mystery that gives Mae a reason to get up in the morning. But I wouldn’t qualify Night in the Woods as a mystery game. It’s more of a story thread used to put the friends in different situations, get Mae to reflect inwardly, and slowly but surely give the player the information they’re clamoring for from the moment they meet this dynamic cast of animals. Speaking of which, pacing in Night in the Woods is expertly done as well. Instead of giving away too much too soon or info dumping the player at the very end, Night in the Woods gives out bits of info when they’re worth giving. Again, the likeness to what we all go through on a day-to-day basis is staggering. We don’t just info dump on people we haven’t seen in a while, we hold in what’s important until we feel we can trust them or there is nowhere else to turn.
Mae’s life is that of an undecided 20-year-old. She isn’t in college anymore, has no bills, no money, and no consequences to her actions. She wakes up, chats with her friends, runs along rooftops and power lines, and tries to solve mysteries about ghosts. Yes, she’s 20 but she’s also unsure of where she’s going in life and just wants to reclaim the fun and carelessness of the past. And isn’t that something we can all relate to as we get older? In fact, there were times where I had to step back and let the moment happening in the game wash over me completely. I have a feeling that a lot of the conversations will strike very personal chords with a lot of players as the characters discuss their lost dreams, hopeless futures, and their general fear of being forgotten.
That isn’t to say that Night in the Woods is dreary and depressing, quite the opposite. The beautiful and vibrant art design does a lot to make the game feel cheery and upbeat, as does the game’s stellar soundtrack. The town of Possum Springs is drawn in a beautiful, clean 2D art style that features bright colors and unique character designs that are a joy to look at as you romp around town. Likewise, the music adds an emotional touch to the entire game, knowing when to come in to perfectly accompany the scene in front of you. Whether it's friends practicing their homegrown songs or a melodramatic score to underline a particularly troubling scene, the art, soundtrack, and writing all blend together to give Night in the Woods a cohesive feel that envelops the player from start to finish.
Mae’s adventure is mainly story-driven, but there are some light platforming sections and other gameplay-based beats. While these are certainly the weakest points of Night in the Woods they aren’t terrible in any way. Mae’s dreams often show themselves in basic platforming levels where Mae’s goal is to find four specific locations in the dream and return to its center to wake up. These sections aren’t timed, and the neon glow of the art style in these sections is a fun departure from the warm colors of the regular setting, as is the jazz-like music. Mae can also play Demon Tower, an isometric hack-and-slash game with pixilated graphics and basic controls. While it’s not the greatest game within a game to exist, it is certainly fun to play before Mae goes to bed, much like how I myself gamed before bed when I was 20. For what it’s worth, I found my time with Demon Tower to be pretty enjoyable and managed to beat the game as well. Band practice is another fun mini-game that is essentially Guitar Hero on a controller as you press buttons based on what comes up on the screen. Songs get harder and Mae admits she doesn’t know any of these songs, lending the player an excuse for when they get too hard. These little sections of the game do well to break up the overarching mystery and larger story of the town itself.
While I can try to find something negative to say about the game it would be absolute nitpicking and at this point, nothing comes to mind. I can certainly say that Night in the Woods’ relatable and lifelike story won’t be for everyone, and I can imagine some finding the characters too whiny or depressing. However, I think the people who enjoy these kinds of stories and characters will be in for one of the best examples of lifelike interactions and relatable storylines in a game to date. Night in the Woods blends beautiful art, a nuanced soundtrack, and expertly crafted, human writing into a single, cohesive experience.