Guest blogger: Deborah J. Brannon (codename: Geek Dame) spends her days in the Southeastern United States, scribbling furiously as a freelancer and speculative fiction writer. In her free time that may or may not exist – it’s in a box somewhere with a cat, she really doesn’t like opening it – she plays video games and reads books and talks about both incessantly. Find out more at www.geekdame.com or follow her on Twitter at @geekdame.
“The point remains that this is the setup for some great stories.”
“Or terrible, horrifying, traumatic experiences.”
“Great clearly means different things for us.”
Gregg and Bea, Night in the Woods
Welcome to Night in the Woods. There is death here and disappointment and decay. There is also connection and catharsis and care. It’s okay not to be okay, and it’s okay to change your mind. You may face a cosmic horror, or meet the truest heart – all in a playfully illustrated, easy-to-navigate video game.
Night in the Woods is an indie game successfully Kickstarted and developed by Infinite Fall, a small game studio founded by Alec Holowka and Scott Benson. It’s a 2D platformer set in a dying small town where the four most prominent characters are college dropout Mae (a cat), convenience store worker Gregg (a fox), hardware store manager Bea (a crocodile), and video store clerk Angus (a bear). (They’re proper people, it’s cool.) You play by walking/running, jumping, and limited interaction with specific objects like pretzels, baseball bats, and knives. The story progresses as you (Mae) make decisions (probably bad ones) about how to spend your time: you choose who to spend it with, how deeply you reconnect with certain characters, and what mischief you get up to (there will always be mischief). You can binge at a party, try to play bass, listen to a neighbor’s poetry, fight with your parents, investigate a weird murder… y’know, just typical life stuff. The storyline and setting deal with some serious subjects, too: depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, economic insecurity, poverty, child abuse, homelessness, and more. It also deals with these subjects organically, the game itself acting as both buffer and simulation for some players to recognize and process these experiences within themselves.
In other words, Night in the Woods can show you – with a wink and a grin! – the messiest parts of yourself, AND convince you to invite them to a party where you will find your closest friends with all THEIR messes too and you can laugh or cry or dance and the cops won’t even be called. (I mean, maybe Aunt Mall-Cop. But she’s okay.)
This game doesn’t stand alone: Longest Night and Last Constellation are two small supplemental games dropped in the years leading up to Night in the Woods’ release, which served to introduce gamers to the world and whet their appetites. I played Lost Constellation in the depths of winter nearly two years ago – wrapped in blankets on my couch with our porch door open, the night sky full of scintillating stars visible through bare tree branches. My cat had just been given a death sentence: Kaylee was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She lay snuggled on my chest, purring under my chin, while I guided crocodile astronomer Adina Astra on her long night trek fraught with witches and gods, so that she could walk again beside her deceased lover – even if only through the mirror of a frozen lake. I had already begun grieving my beloved cat, keenly aware that every moment was precious, and Adina’s story – from the aching stretches of empty woods to the snowman with existential dread – was beautifully and deeply affecting.
Scott Benson’s signature illustration style and Beth Hockenberry’s storytelling rife with wry and oddball humor captivated me from the beginning; discovering the depth of connection encouraged (not to mention the opportunities to find yourself in the game) caught me unawares. I knew, before playing one second of the game itself (released this February), that I was in for an emotional time. Still, the way it caught on the edges of my own anxiety and even helped me better see the struggles of friends around me left me raw.
I’m not going to lie: Night in the Woods was hard to play sometimes. When you’re immersed in something that’s messy and gutting and brilliant, that tends to happen. Mae is depressed, experiences dissociation, and is haunted by her family’s past and expectations. Gregg is insecure, engages in risky behavior, and probably lives with bipolar disorder. Bea is trapped by economic necessity, exhausted and struggling with the death of her dreams. (She also has a spiky history with Mae familiar to many girls.) Night in the Woods was all too real in many ways, opening doors that I thought I’d shut long ago – and maybe one or two that had been wallpapered over.
Night in the Woods is a game that doesn’t focus on “fixing” anyone; it acknowledges the mentally ill, the dispossessed, the struggling, the forgotten – it invites them out for a slice at the Clik Clak Diner or home to watch horror movies. It tells us it’s okay not to be okay.
From an accessibility standpoint, Night in the Woods does pretty well. The music and sound effects are atmospheric and playful, but not necessary to gameplay or your enjoyment. All dialogue scrolls out at a pace slow enough to read, but the hard-coded font may be difficult for some users, especially when emotion is periodically demonstrated by lines of dialogue shaking. The game’s visuals mostly have good contrast, and you do have access to brightness control. The controls are simple, too, and moving through the game doesn’t require much finesse. (Although, if you fall off buildings as often as I did, you might get frustrated! At least I don’t have any dead Mae’s on my conscience… unlike the hundreds of Mario’s buried down there.) There are mini-games that can be more difficult, but they’re optional and don’t truly impact the story.
The last and largest character in Night in the Woods is the town, Possum Springs, itself. Possum Springs is dying, and you watch it decay through Mae’s memories and her investigation into the history of the town. It’s a story familiar to many small towns across America – big industry is the biggest or only employer in town, big industry pulls out, town falls into poverty. The town’s history and folklore is bloody and problematic; it’s present sees better people trapped in the town’s gravity well. They have no financial safety net to catch them, no means to get out, and no choice but to live there. Those most vulnerable members of society who need access to mental health resources cannot get them. Yet, for all this, Night in the Woods is not a bleak game: it shows us that our community, even if small and broken, is the bridge that supports society and the blanket that comforts the individual.
It’s totally worth playing – life, that is. And, yeah, Night in the Woods too.
NITW RULZ OK
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