Wot I Think: Night In The Woods

At one point I was sure I was going to write about how much I disliked Night In The Woods [official site]. At a later point I realised I was going to write about how much I loved Night In The Woods. I think there’s a lot to know about Night In The Woods from that. It is both extraordinary and wanting, fantastic and frustrating. It’s a story you click through, yet features platform-based dream sequences. It’s defiantly linear, yet seems to offer moments of enormous choice. It’s perplexing, wide-ranging, specifically brilliant and specifically half-baked. The writing is sharp and intriguing, yet mono-voiced and peculiar. It’s a visual novel, but it’s a platform game, but it’s an adventure, but it’s something else entirely. I’m pretty sure I love it at this point.

I love that this is a game where you can spend the moment right before bed sat watching a crappy TV show with your dad. That it’s a game where genuine conversations take place sat on benches by rivers after nights where everything’s gone to shit. That it’s a game where a fight with your mum feels awful, something that has to be patched up. Where you start to care about the lives of characters with whom you barely interact, just catching snippets of their day in overheard conversations. Where a small town is slowly being taken apart by poverty, and this feels meaningful yet in the background, not preached at you or underlined. Where the game changes with every in-game day, as Autumn gets more Autumny. It’s bigger and better than I believed for even hours after I started playing.

I’ve come away from it with memories, in the weirdest sense. Like, I find myself thinking fondly back on that daft evening in the near-abandoned shopping mall, and the fountain. Even though at the time of that scene I was still wondering if I was ever going to find the way to like this game. I think that scene was a big part of why I started to.

You play as Mae, a 20 year old humanoid cat who has just dropped out of college and moved back to her hometown, into her parents’ house. (Quite whether you’re actually a cat is a matter of some confusion, since your friends appear to be bears, crocodiles, foxes and the like, but no one specifically mentions this, and more confusingly there are – er – felinoid cats trotting about the neighbourhood as pets.) Something happened at college, and you’re not telling anyone what it is. And indeed something happened at highschool, and you’re not willing to let anyone talk about it – just that you apparently put someone in hospital. Mae has clearly had some trouble in her childhood, and seems to be doing her best to drag it into her adulthood.

As for what the game’s actually about, so much of the eventual plot appears so late into the game that it feels inappropriate to describe it. I think here the aimlessness, the lack of a sense of direction, or understanding about where it might be going, is a lot of the point. It reflects Mae’s state of mind, if being a lot less erratic and haphazard than in her head.

And this is also the game’s initial weakness. I maintain that this isn’t a game that starts well. It looks just utterly wonderful from the first moment, and remains visually wondrous throughout – there’s no questioning that. But as for your involvement – it’s, well, minimal. For too long your role is simply to press ‘next’. I reached a point after hours of this where I thought, “I would absolutely watch this TV show, but I really resent being asked to crank a handle to do so.”

Then, definitely too late, it begins to stretch out. This has been labelled a “visual novel”, an essentially meaningless term that is usually used to describe dating sims so far as I can tell, but here means, “a story it’s going to tell you whether you like it or not”. And very often I pick “like it” when games give me that non-choice. But usually because there’s a bit more involvement in-between the dialogue. Of course, I’d not have these issues if the game were text on a black background, and I realise my own biases play a big part here. NITW eventually starts to make more of Mae’s jumpy-jumpy abilities, both in exploring the higher parts of the neighbourhood and in peculiar dream sequences, and while it’s never actually a proper platformer, it at least gives the delusion of participation as its story becomes more interesting and focused. It also has an array of mini-games, even including a shop-lifting challenge. Oh, and Mae’s computer has a complete dungeon crawler roguelite on it!

Mae is one of the most interesting player characters of recent times. She makes bad choices at a professional level, and is fortunate to have friends as good as those she does. The relationships with her chums, all members of a band she plays in (which offers some wildly incongruous Guitar Hero-style sequences where you’re given properly difficult challenges for songs you’ve never heard before), are by far the most interesting aspect of the game, each relating to Mae’s madcap approach to reality in their own way.

But I’m also convinced she’s a weirdly written 20 year old. For a great deal of the time she behaves something closer to 12, seemingly as unaware of the world as 12 year old might be. Sometimes this works, sometimes it stretches credulity. That she’s unwilling or unable to let go of her teenage years is apparent and deliberate, but I think it reaches too far into that, breaks the frame a little with overwritten silliness. I imagine that’s a contentious point, and others will argue I’m wrong – it’s a fine line, certainly, but one with which I think the game is a little too eager to take liberties.

Which brings us to another odd issue. The writing is lovely, and just so good in so many ways. But it’s written with one voice. Everyone is dryly witty in exactly the same way, the same sense of humour shared across the main cast, both Mae’s parents, the local vicar, a grumpy guy you bug in the street… It’s a voice I enjoy (although one I can absolutely see deeply grating with others), but it does start to feel a bit ridiculous spread across an entire town of wry sarcasm.

There are some technical issues too. Interactive pop-up zones are often too small to react to when moving. Your character runs to the left, and by the time you’ve reacted to the little bubble telling you there’s something to look at, you’ve gone past it and have to backtrack. A lot. Such an easily identified issue, if you only watch people playing your game. And the jumping, necessary for finding all the game’s hidden extras, is a touch wonky.

Worse though are those earlier scenes where the game works too hard at implying choice, and providing none. At a certain point you’re at a party in the woods, old school friends, old school enemies, and a keg of beer. Mae hasn’t drunk beer before, and so she faces the dilemma of being in an awkward social situation, there’s an ex by the fire, and everyone else is chatting in pairs. She could drink, she could not drink. Chatting to others, some suggest she have a bit more, others warn her not to. So a classic gaming situation where you approach the situation in your own way, right? Nothing wrong with a few beers at a party, she’s 20, it’s how many of us make such an evening a little easier to get through. And nothing wrong with not drinking at a party, she’s not a drinker, and getting drunk is something many of us find uncomfortable or unpleasant. Except no, it’s not a choice. Once you exhaust the conversation options, the only thing left to do is drink more. That’s the story the game’s telling, dammit, and forget your own thoughts about it!

This improves as the extraordinarily long game continues, but more by changing how it offers choice. By a combination of fewer scenes where you mistakenly feel like you’re about to be offered a decision, and an acceptance that Mae is always going to make the worst choices imaginable, that fades away. And instead you are given much larger, more obvious choices – how to spend your evening, for instance. Do you go off with Bae, the hardened, grieving, stoic croc who will attempt to temper Mae’s wild instincts, or Gregg the fox, a manic and daft childhood best friend who encourages Mae to go smash stuff with him? Maybe you take a calmer time with Gregg’s gentle, quiet boyfriend, Angus, a bespectacled bear. Or you could ditch them all one night and hang out with a highschooler mouse you find sitting on the rooftops.

The art and animations deserve accolades to rain down upon them. The striking style is gorgeous and wonderful, and it never stops being a joy to look at. It’s certainly a shame that they (presumably coincidentally) opted for the same speech bubble style and incredibly similar font as Oxenfree, as it invites a comparison that is perhaps unfavourable. Essentially, Oxenfree is the superior game, and it might not be such an immediate urge to compare the two were it not for this similarity.

But the most fantastic detail is the animation. Character movement is fabulous, and Mae’s sproingy arms and legs as she jumps about are a constant pleasure. Everyone’s movement is just stunning, and so subtly done. But even more subtle is the use of tiny, tiny details, little blinks or twitches of an ear, that are delivered with exquisite timing. It’s hard to convey in text how much this adds, but the enormous effort that must have gone in to get this so right has absolutely paid off.

As for where it ends… I’m not sure. Clearly I’m not even going to hint, but I’ve come away deciding to reinterpret a huge sway of the final act in order that it can not be what I strongly suspect it really was. It just about gives me room to do that, too, so that’s neat. But still. It’s a shame, and why can be expanded upon elsewhere, where it won’t ruin the game.

So yeah, I started off really not liking it, I grew to completely love it, and I walk away from it with so much love but a wobble of doubt. It’s by far the most elaborately graphical piece of interactive fiction, but in being so it suggests it’s going to be other things too, and it’s hard (certainly at first) to let go of all that, just let it be what it is. Get there, forget about what else it might be, and for me at least, it got me good.

I have so, so much more to say about it, and it feels mad that I only really mention the three friends so far into this review, then don’t talk about them. But that’s important, that’s me remembering to allow you the same blank slate I started with too. I want to talk about the role of religion, about the complexities of the town’s politics, about Mae’s relationship with her parents, about just so many things. But another time.

Night In The Woods is available for Windows, Mac and Linux via Itch.io, Steam, and GOG, for £15/$20/€20.

31 Comments

  1. BlockHeadGaming says:

    We’ve been playing this game on our channel. It’s simply amazing. Really hits home to those in their mid to late 20’s. Gets deep and real but stays funny.

    link to youtu.be

  2. gambl0r says:

    Excellent review. I’m really glad you came to love it! Also glad you didn’t go into any detail in your review – I am pretty far through the game but haven’t finished yet. I’ve been desperately trying to take my time, playing for an hour and then quitting, to lengthen the game. After a three year Kickstarter wait, I want to savor every last minute of it!

    The issue you point out of the ‘hit zones’ of being able to interact with someone/something is literally the only problem I can find with the game. Every time I talk to Mae’s mom in the morning, I find it odd that I know I’m going to hop up on the counter, but have to go over to her first, press the interact button, and then watch Mae hop up on the counter. This is the most minor complaint in such a well-crafted game, though.

    I really hope the developers can tell additional stories within the world they’ve created with NITW. This is one game I would have absolutely no problem paying for DLC :)

  3. Premium User Badge

    phuzz says:

    Out of interest, roughly how long did it take you to reach the end of the story? You know, ish

    • Joshua says:

      Just about 14 1/2 hours for me. Maybe 2-3 of those were spent in the rogue-lite bonus game.

    • Luperts says:

      Steam tells me 10h, but 1 or 2h of those was probably spent afk.

      I took the time to try to speak to most characters each day (ignoring 1 or 2 I found boring) and also completed the afformentioned bonus-game.

    • Superpunky says:

      It doesn’t seem a very reliable source by now, since there are just 2 submitted play times, but you can use this website to check how long to beat a game is: link to howlongtobeat.com

  4. Joshua says:

    “But I’m also convinced she’s a weirdly written 20 year old.”
    It’s really that she’s a certain type of 20 year old. I deeply relate to her levels of immaturity and mental illness. Which I think is why it’s the only game where a lack of choice has upset me. Watching Mae make mistakes that I’ve made and not being able to stop her was rough.
    Really good review, though. Even the parts I disagree with (“Oxenfree is the superior game”?!?!?!)

  5. grimdanfango says:

    Thanks John. I’ve been hyped for the game since it first hit Kickstarter, but having started playing it, my early experience was almost identical to what appears to have been your own. I love the writing, the subtley of the animation, the lack of exposition-dump, and the gradual hints of unfolding complexities… but I’ve found it hard to maintain enough enthusiasm to keep coming back to it, simply because I found being railroaded along linear paths in any given scene, even while appearing to present you with choices, felt a bit… disempowering.

    Really good to hear that it’s worth sticking with, and that I should just get over the lack of choice and learn to roll with it.

  6. poliovaccine says:

    I wish more indie game makers would just have the confidence to tell a story outright, and to go ahead and make a movie, or a cartoon, even if the aesthetic they’re wanting is one from a videogame. Like, if I were just watching Virginia, I would enjoy it so much more – and yes, I do mean watching it rendered in the Unity engine and all. I think people are starting to see the narrative potential in these aesthetics, but because they know em from games, they feel beholden to some degree of interactivity – no matter how frustratingly lite.

    • MikoSquiz says:

      I feel like a big reason it’s a game is that there’s not much else for a story like this to be. Cartoon Network isn’t going to pick it up, and there’s nowhere for entirely independent long-form animation to go that’s going to cover costs; animation makes literally pennies on YouTube. It’d lose a lot as a comic book or novel. So the entire list of options is pretty much “make it a game and put it on Steam and itch.io”.

      • gambl0r says:

        I can’t imagine NITW as a feature-length animated movie. So much would have to be cut from it for it to be a cohesive film. No more daily chats with Selmers or the rest of the townspeople. No more side-stories of adventures with your friends. A movie would have to focus on the main storyline, and it would suffer for it.

        Plus, even with a larger potential audience on the Apple store or other streaming video services, the amount people are willing to pay for an indie animated film is soooo much less than a game – like you pointed out, it would never break even.

        This story-telling game is a genre that is just beginning to find it’s place. I’ve aged out enjoying most AAA games. I don’t usually want something that lasts more than 10ish hours or I’m going to get bored or distracted by more important things. But I will gladly pay $20 for a well-written, well-crafted interactive novel.

        • nattydee says:

          >I will gladly pay $20 for a well-written, well-crafted interactive novel.

          This resonates so strongly with me. I’ve played a string of games recently that exemplify the ‘story-telling game’ to me: Life is Strange, Oxenfree and OneShot all come to mind. There’s something deeply comforting and highly engaging about this sort of game that makes them so impactful emotionally.

          In a strange, chaotic and often exhausting world I find these experiences way more therapeutic than stories about death, conflict and dying. I’m super excited to check out NITW now :)

        • MikoSquiz says:

          When I say “long form animation” I mean by present day standards, i.e. more than a couple of minutes. I could easily see NitW as a series instead. I like it a lot but I feel like the interactive elements weaken it. Fruitless exploration busts up the pacing (but you have to explore a lot anyway, if you don’t want to miss things) and the faux-choices are frustrating. (Hanging a lampshade on them by giving you a dialogue choice between “There’s always a choice” and “You can always choose” is cute, but unhelpful.)

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      Or else these people want to make a game, so they do. Plus I think the difference between a barely interactive game and a film is greater than you suggest.

      • malkav11 says:

        Yes, exactly. The act of interacting, even if it’s not especially impactful or “game”-y, makes an experience that is qualitatively different than other media.

        And hey, if you would really rather just watch something, you can almost certainly find someone else recording their playthrough on Twitch or Youtube.

  7. Unknown says:

    I’ve had a pretty similar experience. At first I was frustrated by the lack of interactivity, but as I went along, I found myself drawn into the world and its characters and I started to have a lot of fun just bouncing on the power lines and exploring every nook and cranny. If I ever get the itch for, like, “gameplay”, there’s always Demontower, which is way more fun than any bonus game-within-a-game has any right to be.

    It’s funny though, the linearity and choices-that-aren’t-really-choices never bothered me in Kentucky Route Zero, I wonder what it is about NITW that made it so initially frustrating. Maybe it’s the sheer AMOUNT of dialogue you have to click through in NITW versus KRZ?

  8. Monggerel says:

    So a solid 7/10 then?

    Good. That cat has haunted me with its fucking monster eyes since the game was announced in 1998. But now its average.

    • robertlepervers says:

      Nightmare Eyes, you mean ?

      • Monggerel says:

        No, I’m pretty sure I meant monster eyes?

        The image on the steam page with the main character’s eerily contracted pupils is apparently one of my phobias.

  9. Ralsto says:

    Bit of a laugh to see you gushing about how great it is that this is so barely-interactive, ultra-linear, and full of illusory choices after all the times you’ve whinged about those exact same traits in your Telltale rants. This is different because it’s a charming indie title though, eh?

    • Premium User Badge

      John Walker says:

      Might want to take another stab at the ol’ reading.

    • omf says:

      I largely agree with the review and also feel that Telltale games have rarely succeeded in any of the ways NITW does. Maybe it’s just that TT leans far more towards trying to be a real game and pretending to provide real choice where NITW hardly does at all. But also, the writing, and certainly the art, are simply on a much higher level in NITW.

    • noodlecake says:

      I like Telltale games. Or I enjoyed the last three series I played. The fact that they don’t change up or improve on their formula is a little bit annoying though.

      A new game in the same genre that has a very different feel, as well as a distinct and successful aesthetic quality, should receive more praise than a game that’s played it safe and is more or less the same as the last five games in my opinion.

      I have A Night in the Woods, and like with Oxenfree, I would rate them both above most recent Telltale games, simply because they aren’t challenging themselves enough.

      I haven’t played much A Night in the Woods yet, but it’s not on the level of Oxenfree so far.

  10. Mandrake42 says:

    I just finished it and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I did think act 4 was a bit of a confusing mess though. The epilogue helped clear up some of the confusion I had (I’m avoiding saying too much because spoilers) but I still was a little let down by Act 4. Still, the journey was great and spending time with the inhabitants of Possum Springs is not something I’m going to forget any time soon.

  11. Canama says:

    “But I’m also convinced she’s a weirdly written 20 year old. For a great deal of the time she behaves something closer to 12, seemingly as unaware of the world as 12 year old might be.”

    I don’t agree with that. Mae is Literally Me™, or at least the closest a video game character has ever come. I’m 20 and in a very similar place in my life to her, and much of the stuff she said sounds like stuff I’d say.

    • CarterG81 says:

      I have my career in the field of psychology – specifically young people. Mae is extremely accurate as a 20 something. Since the author believes Oxenfree is the better game, despite the unrealistic characters (30-something teens who seem blatantly written by 30-something adults who don’t have an accurate memory/knowledge of how teenagers act/think), I get the feeling the author had a very different (better, safer) childhood/life than most people. Or just forgets how childish adults can feel- especially when struggling through weird shit like Mae…

      Mae is one of the most realistic characters I’ve ever experienced. A strikingly accurate mind of a 20-something.

      To say she acts like she is 12 is an insult to millions of young adults. She, in fact, is matured far past a child- she just makes bad choices. You constantly think ‘oh… why Mae? Why?’ but in a way you understand why. “Because. Who cares?” Which IMO is the most realistic part of the whole story.

      As someone who holds a degree in psychology and has a lot of experience with young persons, let me just say this:

      Mae’s psychology is REAL. What an amazing game. Award winning character writing.

      • CarterG81 says:

        No offense to anyone btw. It just takes someone understanding where Mae is coming from to really get her and see she is far more mature than some 12 year old.

        For example if someone had their life already planned out before even graduating high school, with loving perfect parents, and no troubles plaguing their mind, they may not understand Mae at all. Why would they? Or if someone had to bust their ass at a job from 13 onward to put themselves in college bc their parents were absentee druggies, why would they get that slacker Mae? She would seem so incredibly childish to them. Wasting that opportunity and being such a slacker right? But they dont get her anger.

        I can see Mae being someone that certain people despise in a way. I’m sure they still like the game, but may have no respect for Mae. But they don’t understand her troubles is all. Their life was too different, good or bad. They don’t see her maturity – only her childishness.

        Maybe they lack that… darkness swallowing their mind? That darkness hovering over you.

  12. Iamreallysadrightnow says:

    Well written, I really like the piece. I don’t quite understand what people wanted out of the choice system. Maybe that their choices have bigger impacts on the greater story. There is a bigger movement in culture to look down on young people and brush off things that are important to them as frivolous or a faze or why is that teenager literally crying in their room because they said the wrong thing. I think what’s important in this game is how the creators instead of waving those off for the sake of a larger more important story, treat those small things as just as precious to the game as the larger story.

    There is a moment where you are trying to tell your friend Bea to stand up for herself, but regardless of how you try to word it, you know it comes out wrong. You are judging her life, you don’t understand her situation, and you couldn’t understand her situation. It’s easy to want the best for your friends but you can never understand what that person is going through and no one lets people walk over them without a good reason. She has to do things she doesn’t want to do and in the same vein, you are coming from a very privileged position to be telling her that. Regardless of your choice of words, you feel like it comes off wrong. It’s this weird moment of giving you the ability to decide feels like it has no impact, and that it shouldn’t.

    The wording, the conversations, the moments you spend with your friends destroying lightbulbs behind work are what you remember from this age. There is a larger story, but it is essentially there to highlight each of the characters and expand upon them. Not for the sake of some magical journey. This is a character piece and it is done differently than anything else I have ever played.

    If you really want to connect and explore characters and the world, this game is incredible. If you want a main story arc and don’t understand why young people are so passionate about the things they are passionate about, probably the wrong game. This is a game about empathy and reading into things and understanding each other and feeling like no one else is willing to do the same for you.

    I loved this game. I hope other people connect with it in the same way I did.

  13. CarterG81 says:

    Oxenfree is absolutely NOT a better game. In any way.

    Night in the Woods beats it on every level.

    I say this having played Night in the Woods first, then IMMEDIATELY afterwards playing Oxenfree.

    The author played Night in the Woods after Oxenfree, so probably doesn’t remember or know of the flaws Oxenfree has that NITW doesn’t. It’s like remembering a classic Atari game as awesome, but forgetting that it actually sucks. Kind of. We forget the bad.

    Oxenfree’s writing is also far worse. Since these two games are all writing? That says alot. Oxenfree has no rebindable input either – so amateurish. Really tired of these Unity devs and their lack of fundmentals. Soooooo amateur it pains me. I just played Hotline Miami and was shocked to find you can’t even change resolution or fullscreen/window mode. And here I was thinking Oxenfree was amateur. Yeesh. I digress.

    Anyway, Oxenfree characters are voiced and written as adults, not teenagers. And not immature adults either.
    NITW writes characters like real people. They actually talk like their age. Oxenfree writers could learn alot from NITW writers.

    Oxenfree is a forgettable game with forgettable characters. Good, but not great. Oxenfree characters are far from real. They are very gamey.

    NITW has characters you will remember forever. Personalities so impactful they feel like real people.

    Nuff said.

  14. Mully says:

    Fucking awesome review John! You touched on and explored a majority of what made this game so special for me. As someone who has just finished uni/college and is trying to understand their own place in the world, Night in the Woods was one of the most relatable games I’ve ever played.

    The dialogue, although as you mentioned seems to have the same personality across a majority of the characters, was hilarious and helped to balance out the more serious themes at play throughout the game. And it is those themes, and how the developers addressed them, often subtly, which an incredible amount of finesse and confidence which really struck home. But more importantly are often themes not touched in mainstream video game culture. So it was refreshing seeing themes such as mental health, depression, life after school (or the core game after finishing the tutorial, as I like to think of it) and real deep and meaningful relationships explored to such and extant.

    Love your work and will be sure to be back to check out more of your reviews! link to your Twitter?