Night in the Woods is one of the rare games that I've both been looking forward to playing and know almost nothing about. It isn't a sequel or from a familiar developer or based on an existing story. But it's frequently been mentioned alongside a variety of games that I know and dearly love, so I treated it with reverence, studiously avoiding spoilers or, really, any information at all.
In retrospect, I probably didn't need to be that paranoid. It isn't a particularly twisty game, and would probably still be as enjoyable if you went in knowing the characters and overall plot. Regardless, it's always nice to go into something cold and have it delight you.
From the minuscule amount of information I'd gleaned prior to playing, I'd vaguely thought that it would be similar to Oxenfree: following a group of young people revisiting a familiar place, encountering unusual phenomena, solving puzzles. However, it ended up being a lot more like Life Is Strange, oddly crossed with Dex. It has a marvelously relaxing structure for most of the game: you don't feel rushed, and can spend your time wandering the environments, chatting with friends and strangers, looking for hidden things in nooks and crannies. It focuses on relationships, both rekindling older ones from your childhood and forging new ones. It handles some of the same themes as Life Is Strange, treating serious topics with respect, albeit with much more humor. The actual gameplay feels surprisingly similar to Dex, a side-scrolling cyberpunk game I enjoyed recently. Both are prominently focused around city navigation, which is primarily side-to-side but with some interesting wrinkles that keep it from feeling too flat. Both make great use of vertical space and movement, Night in the Woods even more so, opening up entirely new vistas as you learn how to climb to the rooftops. They use parallax to great effect, giving a nicely 3D feel while keeping simple 2D controls intact. Dex has some fun hidden secrets you can find via exploration, and Night In The Woods has a lot more, which can easily become the main activity in the game.
I guess the dialogue is kind of similar too. It doesn't use the real-time system like Oxenfree, but more of a conventional system where your character automatically speaks most lines, and occasionally pauses for you to select a response. Where Dex and Life Is Strange both had menus of responses, though, Night in the Woods usually only has two choices. Most dialogue choices don't lead to significant branching plots; there are branching plots, but those are more due to actions you take than the lines you say. The protagonist Mae has a very well-defined personality and backstory, so roleplaying isn't exactly a huge part of the game, but it's still great to tune her responses to various situations.
One thing that's a little unclear is when a dialogue choice will have a big impact. Most of the game follows a fairly similar pattern where you wake up, explore the town, chat with friends, and end up doing something that night with one of them. (Which, now that I think about it, is actually really similar to the old "School Simulator" games I used to make back in the day.) Anyways, sometimes when a friend asks "You wanna hang out?" and you say "Yes" it ends all your activities for the day, and other times it means you do something together during the day but can keep on planning. It's definitely not a huge deal. You can't lose the game, and since you have multiple days to do things you can even finish optional side-content that you were planning on doing that day. I think it's actually written pretty well, as I can usually tell in retrospect that "Oh, yeah, I should have known that would happen". Just something to potentially keep in mind.
If you were to just beeline for those conversations and end the days, you could finish the game very quickly. It would probably still be fun, but I absolutely loved the vast array of stuff to do. Most of these are fun in and of themselves, again like Life Is Strange. You get more insight into characters, both your close friends and the background people who make up the town. And you learn more about the town itself: its history of mining, manufacturing, and labor strife; its crumbling local businesses and the efforts of the chamber of commerce to turn things around; what people do for fun and where they go and what they want to happen. And there are lots of nice little mementos to unlock: you have a journal, and add cool little doodles and notes as you find and do things, and occasionally earn a Steam achievement for accomplishing something off the beaten path.
It's also totally worth doing stuff just for the dialogue itself. It's so, so wonderful. I was going to say that it's natural, but it isn't in the same way that, say, Oxenfree is. It's maybe a little heightened, hilarious, clever, profane, alternating between delightful stupidity and running in-jokes and really elaborate metaphors and associations.
The personalities in the game are so strong and vivid. Late in the game there are some scenes that take place in total darkness, where you can just see the words being spoken, not who is speaking them, and you can immediately tell who is delivering each line: the vocabulary, the cadence, the style, have been so brilliantly and consistently defined that they are instantly identifiable. And those personalities carry through to the art as well, whether Gregg's adorably spazzy arms or Bea's perpetually downcast eyes. I love these people so much.
Starting to dip into the actual plot somewhat... yet another aspect of the game that I enjoyed and that reminded me a bit of Life Is Strange was its really nice portrayal of religion. Like Max, Mae isn't exactly a believer, but she's close to people who are, and they are treated respectfully and their faith is portrayed positively, as a source of comfort and strength. I especially liked how Mae's mom works for the church, and seeing how their family life intersected with the church felt very true to my own experiences in a similar family. The church is a spiritual place, but it's also a workplace, a very human place. I felt particularly strong nostalgia for the church library, a sort of sanctuary within a sanctuary, a calm refuge filled with books and peace.
Like so much of the game, the church isn't a core element of Night in the Woods; I'm pretty sure that you could complete the entire game without even laying eyes on the church, let alone going inside or chatting with the great pastor (who reminds me a lot of my Aunt Fran). But it's a key institution in Possum Springs, a respected moral voice speaking up and caring for the poor and disadvantaged people on the fringes of society.
In another part of the game, you chat with an old-timer who grew up with your grandfather, and she reminisces about how the church was one of several pillars of the community, along with the union hall. There's a really cool and strong economic message that builds throughout the whole game, starting off as a kind of vague and generic nostalgia for "the good old days" and morphs into a surprisingly explicit call for leftist mass action. The original founders of Possum Springs lived dangerous and dirty existences, risking their lives in the mines for the benefit of the greedy bosses, and they formed the unions and fought for a better lot in life. This resonated really strongly for me having recently read Strike! and similar books over the past year, and I was swept up again in the history of bold labor movements of the 19th century.
From the very start of the game, there's a consistent focus on the economic situation in Possum Springs and how that's affecting the local culture. There's plenty of "economic anxiety" to go around: like many rural towns around America, Possum Springs seems to be shriveling up. Once-grand stores have been shuttered, vacant businesses line the downtown, people who were once proud to work a union job in a factory are now bagging groceries or forced to live on charity. Near the end your father gets at the part that pains him the most: even more than the loss of high(er) wages, there's a lack of respect, on the part of the bosses and those who still wield influence. There's still great pride and culture in Possum Springs, but people are worried for the next generation: young people don't see any good opportunities locally and are leaving for big cities, forever. Those who remain feel a variety of emotions, from resignation to bitterness to fury. Selmers stunned me with her amazing poem: "some night i will catch / a bus out to / the west coast / and burn their silicon city / to the ground".
I'll talk in Major Spoilers about how some people are addressing this problem, but I'll note now how much this game seems to be tapping into the zeitgeist. Your friend Bea is a member of the Young Socialists, working for social and political change. Your dad decides to form a union, and you can promise to support him on the picket line. Anyways, it all reminds me a lot of the current energy around the DSA and Antifa and other elements of the resurgent left, and I absolutely love how this game connects the modern movement to its historic antecedents. (Again, without really making the game about that - it's a very strong part of the story, but you never feel like you're playing through a polemic. [Even though it probably is.])
The game is also very modern in its matter-of-fact handling of orientation and identity. Gregg and Angus are an absolutely adorable couple, high-school sweethearts now making a life together, well-liked by all. Well, almost all. Late in the game Bea shares her harsh-but-realistic take on the couple: Angus can do a lot better than Gregg, and sooner or later he'll realize that. But it's the same sort of criticism that would apply to any small-town 20-year-old pair. I'd kind of shipped Mae and Bea for most of the game, but Bea seems pretty clearly straight. Mae, though... I absolutely loved the party scene where she discovers how much she loves to dance and flirts with that occult college girl. The game never pins down her sexuality, and never asks you to define it either: she's just a girl who really wants to wrestle people and talk about their feelings.
I got to know Bea really well over the course of the game, while Angus remained mostly a mystery. I really liked how the game seems to reward you for focusing on the people you care most about: when you spend more time with them, you learn more about them and they open up more to you and you build a stronger relationship. It's the opposite of how most games seem to be structured, where you have a perverse incentive to save the stuff you care about the most until the end and do the less interesting things first. Here, I'm pretty sure that I missed out on Angus's whole mission by putting it off for so long, and I'm guessing that I might not have spent that night in the city with Bea if I'd waited too long. Anyways... I sometimes get bummed by knowing that I missed out on some content, but I absolutely loved it here, since it was the direct consequence of what I cared about and how I spent my time.
So, the big question: just who were the people in the Death Cult of Conservative Uncles? They're definitely individuals within Possum Springs, but are they people we've actually met in the daytime, and if so, who? During that scene in the mine I'd speculated a bit based on the attitudes they articulated: perhaps your cranky neighbor, or the stoop-sitter near Selmers, or someone on the Chamber of Commerce? But they're still around the following day, so I guess not. (Or perhaps they were able to escape?) It's interesting to think that, for example, the gravedigger really could have been the ghost after all, reconciling the apparent conflict between your and Bea's theories.
It feels like a solvable mystery. The people have such distinctive voices, I feel like you could probably match those words against other voices in town and find some matches.
I'm also left wondering what they look like under their robes. When you see them all gathered together, everyone looks so uniform, but Possum Springs is so unique, with distinct profiles for cats, alligators, birds, bears, and so on. I'm curious if the cult is drawn exclusively from one particular species of animal, or if the robes are deliberately concealing their varied body types beneath. Or it could just be an art aesthetic thing that the game designers liked and I might be reading way too much into it.
I'm still mulling over and cheering on the Big Reveal at the end. It is so cool and so hard to thread that needle between the supernatural and the realistic, and it feels really disappointing when stories mess it up, and frustrating when they sidestep it after establishing that tension. This was just a huge tour de force, and I was reminded a bit of, say, David Mitchell's climactic metaphysics unveiled in The Bone Clocks, revealing a detailed system and purpose behind decades of foreshadowing. I adore it when a work goes on record and goes: yep, there is something supernatural going on, and this is how and why and with who.
The whiplash made it all the more fun: you're in a dreamlike state and see the ghost and are convinced it's all real. Then Gregg shoots it with a crossbow and the ghost yells and swears and runs away: the mystique is broken, reality re-established. And then you find what's beneath it all, and the awe grows even larger. The cult members are all mortal, even mundane, regardless of what they serve. That said, though.... if you look closely, you see that that one particular "ghost" does have a bit of a fading effect on his sprite; he's slightly shimmering into the background in the cave, even while the rest of the "ghosts" are firmly opaque. And it does seem like he's flying at the end when he comes up out of the mine shaft.
Could he be possessed by the spirit in the well? There seems to be some precedent for this; we've learned that the cult's founder could walk through walls, so perhaps this one has been "chosen" in some way to carry out the spirit's will. But that's also odd, since it seems like the spirit wants you as a disciple, and doesn't want you to be hurt, so why would it support one who intended harm for you? I dunno. And I suspect that this particular mystery will remain unknowable.
Among other things, the big reveal seems to give some forgiveness to Mae and her history: she wasn't crazy, or wasn't just crazy. This is another area (the last one, I promise!) where NitW seems to dovetail with LiS: both games address mental health in honest, serious, and respectful ways. In the end, though, Night in the Woods is both more detailed (Bea diagnoses Gregg, seemingly accurately, with bipolar tendencies) and maybe a bit more optimistic. Depending on how you play Life Is Strange, mental health might seem like a difficult-but-manageable challenge or an insurmountable obstacle. Night in the Woods closes on some really sweet messages, though. I teared up a little when Bea tells Mae something like, "I can help you find someone who can help you." I've never heard that before, and I'm definitely filing it away for future reference. There are ways to support others without becoming responsible for them, and help is out there: even if you've run into your own Dr. Hank, there are better options, you just need to find them.
I liked this game a lot! It may end up being one of the rare indie games that I replay some day: now that I know how to make all of the jumps, I want to explore more of the town during the early days; and I want to spend more time with different people and learn more of their own stories. It's a lot of fun to play, and can also feel really important in the topics it handles and the weight it gives to them. And I haven't even talked at all about the wonderful music, or the wonderful way Mae's eyes swivel up to watch Beatrice on the porch, or the beautiful stars, or the rat babies, or.... well, there's a lot. And still more to find! Judging by the concept art unlocks, I still have about half (!) of the secrets left to find. I do feel satisfied by the game I've played and the story I've heard, and I'm glad to have the option to head back for even more. Like a delivery pizza, this game is good as hell.