Indie developers have never been as big as they are today. Whether they’re making a big entrance on Steam’s storefront or winning everyone’s hearts over every gaming platform, there’s no denying that they are just as relevant as huge development studios and publishing houses. This year’s party seemed to start quietly for the indie darlings until Night in the Woods showed up and asked the DJ to put on something a little more quirky.
It can be difficult not to bump into at least one tweet or Tumblr post related to Mae Borowski and her gang. First released in February, the game has received major praise for its writing. It even earned the “overwhelmingly positive” review tag on Steam, a feat not many developers can brag about. Successfully funded through Kickstarter in 2013, Night in the Woods is a peculiar gem that either exposes the low standards the gaming community has set for itself or how picky yours truly actually is.
I won’t make excuses. I’m a picky gamer—or as some will likely call me after this review, bitchy. I never say I’m a fan of a certain genre because there are more than a few games within each that I don’t like. I either can’t get myself to even start playing them, or I can’t get past the first few hours. Whenever someone recommends me something, I’m careful with it. That said, I did start playing Night in the Woods with an open mind. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and although it was alluring at first, it became a chore after a few hours of gameplay. Part of me was glad that my own life was somewhat represented, but a much bigger one wanted to do anything other than explore Possum Springs.
The game’s description mentions that it focuses on exploration, story, and character (development) without combat, which made me quite interested after almost 50 hours of NieR: Automata‘s fast paced action. At the beginning, Night in the Woods has a certain charm to it, but it struggles to keep a decent pace, a coherent story, and a balance between what it wants to be and what it actually is.
We play as Mae Borowski, a navy blue, 20 year-old cat who just dropped out of college. As with most college dropouts, she goes back home, in her case to the small town of Possum Springs. There Mae meets with her supportive parents and childhood friends, as well as neighbors and teachers she didn’t know too well in the past, and spends her days exploring the town, chatting with residents, and hanging out with her friends. Every now and again players are presented with a mini-game such as band practice (which take clear inspiration from Guitar Hero and similar rhythm games), identifying special groups of stars in the sky, or even helping your best friend move a long forgotten town relic into his apartment.
Despite the promise of exploration and the attempts at engagement, Night in the Woods tries to tell a boring story about an ordinary young adult who dropped out of college. If the developers intended to express how the life of a dropout (something I know a lot about) is boring and confusing, then they’ve certainly achieved that. But if the artificial choices and unnecessary minigames, that exist solely to give some level of interaction, were meant to make people think that this is a misunderstood masterpiece, then it was a long shot.
The second half of the game feels as if Infinite Fall realized there was little to nothing to it besides its cute designs and soundtrack, so the best solution was barely putting together a storyline with some supernatural elements. Throughout the game, Mae has psychedelic dreams which seem to mean something, but ultimately make as little sense as the unveiling of the events they’re connected to. Night in the Woods‘ crawling pace does nothing to prepare players for the mysteries they’re about to uncover, which makes the last sections feel like an afterthought. Whereas some better adventure games, such as Life is Strange, excel at setting a tone, Night in the Woods fails by trying to tell a story few can relate to and then suddenly attempting to spice it up with a “wow” moment that turns out to be anticlimactic.
Its many shortcomings make Night in the Woods a very niche product (or a downright work of art depending on who’s playing it), which makes its overall positive reception rather shocking. It does have great moments, but none make up for the whole piece.
While it has its flaws, such as a protagonist who talks as if she’s writing an edgy teenage blog, and an odd fear of the word “fuck,” the writing shines brighter than anything else. The story that suddenly materializes toward the end is one of the weakest moments of the game, but the loose threads in the beginning and the message they try to convey as a whole are effective. Each character was carefully constructed to come off as naturally and real as possible. As with any video game, there are moments where the dialogue, much like the mundane choices we’re presented with, feel artificial and forced, but overall it’s difficult not to fall in love with Gregg, or want to hug Angus, or agree with every single thing Bea says.
In the end, Night in the Woods is about growing up, finding one’s self, and watching your friends grow up to follow their dreams. It’s a strong message told in the most unexpected way: through a college dropout who’s just as lost and confused as anyone who’s done the same, and who finds it difficult to be the adult everyone thinks she should be.
Had Infinite Fall focused on this aspect specifically, they would perhaps have succeeded. The game as a whole would still have many problems, but figuring out what it was supposed to be would’ve been the first step into shaping it accordingly. The confusing and rushed ending and the things it tries to explain feel out of place considering the chill and casual atmosphere presented in the beginning. We start off with a casual philosophical journey that sacrifices gameplay to inspire emotion, and end up with a Lovecraftian short story that, unlike what the writer produced, just isn’t cohesive.