Night in the Woods is a 2D story-driven game made by Infinite Fall and published by Finji. It originally released on February 21, 2017. It costs $20 and is now available on PC, Switch, PS4, and Xbox One. It’ll soon come to Android and iOS as well. I played Night in the Woods on PC.
Imagine an RPG where all you do is talk to the people in town. However, instead of listening to their usually short and pointless monologues, you get conversations that feel like you’re building real relationships. That’s essentially Night in the Woods. It’s a charming slice-of-life game that unfortunately takes its dear sweet time getting to the point.
Its primary focus is on its characters, which it nails with aplomb, and secondarily on its plot, which is awkwardly executed. All the elements are there, with a great mystery and a tense climax, but because the pacing is so off, it feels unsatisfying at the end. This is a game where the sum can feel less than its parts.
Beginning with its characters, Mae is an excellent protagonist. She comes back from home a college dropout, unemployed and directionless. From her snarky comments to her vague anti-sign t-shirt (anti-what? I have no clue, but I love it), she is an honest and endearing character. If this game were voice acted, she’d totally be voiced by Aubrey Plaza. Make it happen, guys.
I’ve never been as angsty or anti-establishment as Mae and her friends, but I feel like this game just gets me. I may not have dropped out of college, but I certainly have felt that existential “what do I do with my life?” attitude that pervades the entire game. I guess many people my age have felt it. If the game gets one thing right, it gets youth culture.
During the day you’ll choose which character you’ll hang out with for the afternoon/evening, and I really liked this mechanic. It gave me the same vibe as a choose-your-own-adventure book. Most of these activities came in the form of silly mini-games, ranging from jamming with your old band (Mae plays bass, which gave me some serious Scott Pilgrim vibes), to discussing the butterfly effect with Gregg, to pretending you’re the voice of God via mall speaker system to cheer up Bea. After each hangout session, Mae will get inspired to write in her journal. I always anticipated these entries. At first I thought the journal would be my way of finding out why she dropped out of college. But no, they were just doodles.
Then you start having these dreams where you platform around and find four musicians before you can wake up. Again, I thought the dreams would get more interesting, maybe putting in things from her day, or maybe giving hints as to why she dropped out. Nope! Just the same task in each dream, night after night. It’s unfortunate filler for a game that’s already slow-paced.
I feel like the journal and the dreams were big missed opportunities to keep the story’s mystery going and to give more character development. Mae has a mental condition that I won’t spoil here, but most of the theming with her illness is incredibly subtle until the end, and even then it wasn’t executed as well as I would’ve liked. Games like Celeste are special because you get to experience the protagonist’s point of view and establish a special shared knowledge with that character. I really wanted to have that same experience with Mae, but that experience never came. Strangely enough, there were other events that did fully explore big themes like becoming an adult and navigating unemployment in a small town. So why did it tease the mental illness and then only give it all as exposition at the end? There were so many tasks with empty space where it would have fit in perfectly. So the game ended up being a strange mix of both connecting and disconnecting with the characters.
*One last note for parents: while this game may appear cute with its storybook design and its anthropomorphic cast, it’s actually more like a PG-13 game. Some language is used, alcohol is referenced, and the climax gets quite dark. I can totally see some parent mistakenly getting this for their kids when it’s probably not appropriate for them yet, and I wanted to put that out there.*
While it certainly had some missed potential, Night in the Woods was still an enjoyable experience. Maybe get it on sale if you’re on the fence about it? It gave me a series of poignant and funny moments that unfortunately didn’t create the best whole. But I’ll always remember Mae, Gregg, Bea, and Angus, and all the misadventures we had together. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes unique interactions with eccentric characters, and to anyone who likes a spooky small-town mystery.