The Greatest Games: Night in the Woods (2017)

Night in the Woods (2017)
Developed by Infinite Fall

With the medium focused on stories which are bigger than life – a necessity when so many are built around combat – it’s surprisingly rare to find a game which feels truly personal. Growing up queer in an industrial town on the decline, where being gay was not just taboo but borderline unfeasible, I never expected to find a high quality game reflecting these aspects of my experience.

Night in the Woods is that game and so much more. You play as Mae, a recent college dropout returning home to try to get a grip on her failing mental health. The town is being hit hard after their mines have closed, but she tries to remain above water by reuniting with her childhood friends. The nostalgia beats heavy in the beginning, Mae and Gregg catching up with each other like nothing has changed. But things have changed, and Gregg is now planning a future with his boyfriend. Other bestie Bea is painfully serious, rightfully chiding Mae at various points for trying to regress into childhood familiarity while everyone around her is trying to get by and move on.

A lot of queer representation in gaming feels rather shallow, whether it’s a mainstream game fumbling with serious issues (if they’re even attempting anything beyond a mild reference) or an indie game operating as wish fulfillment in a magical world with no prejudices. Few feel as honest as Gregg and Angus, who are already in the midst of a long-term relationship. Their story captures that underlying feeling of growing up somewhere that has never truly felt like home. In a side-conversation, Bea brings up her own concerns; what are the chances the only two openly gay men their age are going to stick together if they move to a city with more options? Where so many stories hyper-focus on external factors like homophobia, Night in the Woods goes straight to internal fears. Beyond prejudice, finding actual love when your options are so limited feels impossible. Even within one of those impossible relationships, that fear can linger, that your partner has chosen you not out of love but loneliness. By directly confronting these issues, their relationship becomes that much sweeter as the game reinforces what has brought them together.

The game does an equally powerful job representing economic hardship. Early on, Mae’s favorite restaurant suddenly closes shop, a sad reminder every time you cross the town. As you go to meet up with her friends, you realize they’re all stuck in retail jobs; even Mae’s father has been reduced to working at a deli. Upon Mae’s return, Gregg convinces her to join his band practice, where they play a song titled “Die Anywhere Else.” This struck a familiar chord; as a teenager, the idea of spending my entire life in the same place was one of my greatest fears. Yet the sentiment reinforces the theme so well; it seems so simple, but how do you get anywhere else without money? Working class life in a small town feels like a vortex where you start low and can only be dragged lower – which adds an extra layer of sadness that someone like Mae would choose to return.

Traditional for any story involving a small town, there’s something very wrong beneath the surface. Mae’s other close friend, Casey, has been missing for a long time. But what makes this game so special is that it focuses on the more mundane issues. Any exploration of this mystery serves more to reinforce the bond between these characters.

This is about as story-heavy as video games come; aside from a roguelike you can play on Mae’s computer, moments of gameplay beyond exploration are few and far between. Some of those moments are memorable, such as the aforementioned Guitar Hero-styled band practice or a knife fight with Gregg, but what makes this stand as an all-time great is the sheer quality of the writing throughout. It’s not just the main story that shines. Several NPCs you pass on the way to visit Mae’s friends have their own evolving story, giving you an actual reason to stop and chat. With such well-defined characters, Possum Springs is one of the most vibrant towns in a video game.

Adding to this charming town is the game’s simple art style. The characters are cute, anthropomorphic animals, which makes swallowing some of these heavy concepts a bit easier. It’s hard not to fall in love with Gregg the moment he appears, happily flapping his arms as he’s reunited with Mae. The use of warm colors throughout perfectly capture the spirit of its autumn setting.

Though it falls squarely in the adventure genre, few games actually feel like Night in the Woods. Tackling serious subject matters in an incredibly approachable style while ultimately being a story of friendship, it never feels too heavy. While not necessarily pushing the boundaries of the medium, Night in the Woods takes a resonant story and tells it incredibly well.

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