Mae Borowski is 20 years old. She’s just dropped out of college and is only looking to pick up her old life where it left off. She moves back in with her parents, reconnects with friends, but something is missing; things aren’t the same.
The breakout title from new team at Infinite Fall, Night in the Woods has players assume the role of Mae in a narrative driven, side-scrolling adventure. Coming out of the gate with a compelling plot and relatable characters, the greatest strengths are immediately apparent.
An unfortunate second act causes the game to stumble as the initial narrative is sidelined in favour of developing Mae’s friends. While this throws off the pacing, Night in the Woods manages to hold up (for the most part) by the strength of its characters and dialogue.
Over the course of its story, players are presented with an in-depth character study exploring unemployment, depression, childhood abuse, and mental illness. If this all seems a little too gloomy then worry not. The critters making up the cast of Night in the Woods come from artist and animator, Scott Benson. Boasting this unique art style, Mae’s home of Possum Springs is brought to life in a way which manages to feel simultaneously bouncy and goofy, but also moody and sullen when the plot calls for it. The entire game’s aesthetic feels thoughtful and deliberate, as though no single frame lingers. Leaves will kick up as a squirrel skitters past, characters will make small talk, and cars will chug along the streets.
Possum Springs (based on real life towns in Pennsylvania) was home to a mining boom in centuries past. However, as tragedy struck and the miners left, the town stuck around as time flowed around it. The buildings are dated and monuments to days past stand all over town. A stroll through town feels whimsical and oddly nostalgic. I couldn’t help but notice that this feels like a world lived in. On any given day I could come across one of Mae’s school teachers stargazing on a rooftop or a violinist diegetically playing the wistful town theme. Possum Springs and its inhabitants feel alive as if they could exist without your presence, and it’s wonderful.
The lack of any real in-game obligations means that Mae’s day, and the core gameplay loop, consists of waking up in the morning, checking your laptop for IMs, and strolling through town chatting with the people you come across until you decide who you want to hang out with for the rest of the day. Sprinkle in the occasional minigame and that’s essentially what you’ll be doing for the majority of the game. As the plot struggles to shift into gear, Night in the Woods – a lot like Mae herself – can feel a bit aimless.
As it seems the game relies too heavily on the strength of its characters to string together a compelling narrative. The plot manages to pull through in part due to the agency it gives the player when carrying out Mae’s menial tasks. Giving players the opportunity to decide whether she blows off going to church, or kill time with her friends, is an effective way to have Mae (a character who is by and large predefined) feel shaped by the actions of the player. Even minor characters in town enhance the narrative through small hints that piece together Mae’s mysterious past or allude to a larger machination.
While the actual in-game consequences of your actions never amount to more than who you spend time with, your choices feel like they make an impact on who Mae was, and who she becomes by the time her story reaches its end. Taking part in character events and interacting with certain spots around town will trigger Mae to draw a picture in her notebook. These cute sketches help flesh out Mae’s character and give greater insight into Mae’s reality. Replayability is encouraged with the incentive being to fill more of the journal’s pages left empty by the game’s end. Empty pages in Mae’s journal and branching character events may prove compelling enough for some players to consider replaying Mae’s tale, although one play through feels like more than enough to have a cohesive understanding of the game’s plot.
The main criticism seen levied at Night in the Woods since its initial release is that the characters can be grating. While it sort of feels like it was done on purpose, to remind players that these are just dumb kids, sometimes the banter between two characters that I’m supposed to find endearing ends up falling a little flat. When it does hit, however, stilted conversations about the future and drunken introspective (while admittedly awkward) totally nail the emotional depth of characters who are essentially still kids.
At the end of each day, players will control Mae in a dream level. More animated and absurd, the architecture is immediately juxtaposed with the more simple buildings and straight lines in Possum Springs. Combining this with the darker more ominous colour palette shakes things up just enough to differentiate these levels from the simpler platforming and crisp autumnal colours in Possum Springs. Each of these dream stages tasks players with finding a handful of musicians to progress, with each character found building upon the levels jazzy tune. This makes for a fun, inventive way to communicate progression to the player through some of the best songs in a game dripping with atmospheric music.
Occasionally, these levels will become disorientating and you’ll find yourself stumbling around the city streets unsure of where to go next. Thankfully, the game does a good job of leaving behind a trail of breadcrumbs with each street light passed igniting the path already explored. It’s an elegant way to keep the levels from dragging on longer than they needed to. While making for a nice change of pace, these platforming focused segments can wear a little thin once the plot begins to pick up, and you’re eager to resume the narrative the following day.
Night in the Woods manages to respectfully present players with a number of surprisingly intimate moments. A distinctive art style and likeable characters keep the game grounded long after the story begins to dabble in the supernatural. While the characters may prove a little grating at times, they remain consistently complex and wise beyond their years. Nevertheless, an odd bit of dialogue and the occasional pacing hiccup make little impact on what is otherwise a compelling and beautiful experience.