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Wot I Think: Night In The Woods

Wonderful, peculiar, problematic and highly recommended

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, Steam, and GOG, for £15/$20/€20.

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