Gaming Editor Emma Kent rounds up the EGX Rezzed 2018 session on breaking into games journalism, and asks Eurogamer about diversity problems in the industryWritten by Emma Kent on 24th April 2018
Review: Night in the Woods
James Law reviews a surprisingly different game with mystery, emotion, and complexity - Night in the Woods
I have no idea where to start with Night in the Woods. Damn.
There’s a lot I love about it. From the Twin Peaks-ey soundtrack, beautiful aesthetic design and natural-looking animation to the small gameplay touches that make you more connected to your character, such as in order to pick up a soda in the game’s first scene you must move Mae’s hand towards it. There are just so many little things that make Possum Springs an engaging, captivating place to be.
To be honest though, it was the characters that made this game. Night in the Woods spoke to me in a way that I have never experienced before from any art, regardless of medium or genre. I’ll try to avoid big spoilers, but NITW is story-based, so aspects of characterisation that I cover here might be considered spoilery, so if you’re real scared of that, go get the game and don’t forget to read this when you’re done. I finished it recently, and it’s been really hard for me to organise my thoughts about it because there’s so much I want to say, but here goes.
Just to set the scene - you play as Mae Borowski, a 20-year-old college dropout cat who has just returned home to Possum Springs, a village of anthropomorphic animals. Once Mae returns, she takes a journey through the woods to return home, as her father had thought she would be back the day after. Even in this early scene, Mae’s seemingly uncomfortable dialogue felt familiar to the way I would act in such a situation. It was a simple and innocent mistake, but Mae appears to not want to talk about it.
Maybe her relationship with her parents isn’t as close as some people’s. Maybe she’s unable to show her true feelings. I know that when this kind of thing happens to me, I get irrationally hurt, and hide it with varying degrees of success. Did they do this deliberately? Am I forgettable? Does anyone care about me? Now, I know I may be reading too much into one single interaction – the first interaction with someone Mae knows – but the fact that even one of the first scenes hit me like this speaks volumes about the way this game was written. The conversations spark empathy. I see myself in Mae. Not even just Mae; I see aspects of myself in each of the main characters. I never expected a video game about a cat and a death cult to be so reflective, but here I am, reflecting.
Please keep in mind that this is just my personal take on the game. Others may have found it to be insensitive, unrelatable, too on-the-nose, not inclusive of their own struggles. I may not cover in detail some important issues if they do not directly relate to me as I feel unqualified to project my opinion on mental health issues I have not experienced. I don’t know what it is like to dissociate in the ways that Mae is described as doing in the game as an important narrative and thematic point, so I cannot discern whether the way it is discussed in the narrative is accurate and sensitive. That is for other writers to discuss.
Mae is very me. She likes bad puns, she plays the bass and she is always feeling her parents’ expectations to succeed. She feels like dropping out has let them down, and her mother confirms this one morning, suddenly springing on Mae the family’s struggle to get her to college, and the extent to which they expected this approach to hep Mae be successful. This is a fear I know I hold. If I drop out, who am I letting down? What if I am unable to get shit done due to my mental health screwing me over without warning? The anxiety related to letting others down terrifies me. This is one of the most common intersections of depression and anxiety. Depression often renders me unable to function.
Anxiety makes me go through the implications of my inactivity in this exact moment, going through a mental flowchart to the worst-case scenario. I know I’m projecting, but Mae’s relationship with her family is greatly influenced by her mental health struggles. It’s not that her parents are unsupportive – quite the opposite. But with that support, Mae feels a burden on her shoulders. She owes them, at least in her mind. It doesn’t matter if they actually feel that way – Mae’s mother makes it clear that her one outburst was simply that – a one-off outburst that she didn’t really mean, and generally she is really supportive of Mae, regardless of Mae’s struggles to communicate her feelings efficaciously. It isn’t anyone’s fault, and that’s something that’s hard to learn when dealing with mental illness.
The player is unable to really influence the behaviour of Mae. She’s not a silent protagonist, or one whose choices you can influence strongly aside from choosing with whom she spends her time. Often, you can’t decide what she says and does. You just don’t get the option to. This is a way that the game mechanics can show the impacts of mental illness. In many situations, I wish I could act or speak differently, but I just can’t. I don’t have the choice that many have. I can’t snap out of it, I can’t help talking back – I’ve pissed someone off before even realising it. Mae acts like this on multiple occasions. She decides she needs to break some shit, and trashes the bathroom. This isn’t a choice you make. This is Mae’s impulsive nature. Whilst carrying out these actions, I wished Mae would stop, but she didn’t. That’s just not how it works.
Each of the characters have their own issues they must deal with throughout the game, and everyone’s experience of playing this game will be different, as you must choose who to hang out with each evening, learning more about their characters. I ended up spending a lot of time with Gregg, the hyperactive fox thing. Outwardly, he is really cheerful, excited, and outgoing, which is a stark contrast to myself. In the real world I often enjoy being around with people like this, as when I am alone with this type of individual, it makes me feel less useless – more important. Gregg was mega excited to see Mae on her return, and this immediately made me gravitate towards him. He’s unlike me in an ‘opposites attract’ way.
Later on, though, I even found aspects of his personality that resonated strongly with me. Gregg’s frantic exterior is a veil for his deep, pervasive anxieties regarding the people around him. He’s in constant fear of not being good enough, particularly to his boyfriend, Angus. He analyses and reanalyses every action he takes in fear of it messing up his relationship that he worries he may be overly dependent on.
Speaking of Angus, he’s a shy, socially anxious big ol bear, with a ‘sweet ass’ according to Gregg. Makes me wonder if he was actually designed after me. My ass is great.
But as well as this, he’s an introspective dude. One line that made me a little worried that he was exactly me was when Mae asked him why he’s going to a party – he’s not really a party guy. But Gregg is also going to the party, and ‘you know how sometimes you wanna curl up into a corner? Gregg’s my corner’. Damn. My loved ones are my corner, and I’ve just never been able to articulate it like this. I’m not able to just go meet new people. I need a corner to curl my sweet ass up in. I could do a few thousand words on Angus alone, but I’m not going to because I don’t want to ruin the experience more than I already am.
Bea, a cynical blue crocodile, despite our limited interaction, hit home with me massively. She’s focused in reality unlike Mae, as she has had to take significant responsibility in her own life due to a challenging sequence of events. Whilst Mae tries and fails to find meaning and purpose in the world, Bea is jaded. She’s trying to just survive until the next day, and resents a lot of the blue sky thinking that surrounds many of the people she meets.
Maybe this is just me projecting this aspect of my personality onto her, but hey, maybe this entire review is me projecting my personality onto fictional characters. I don’t really care. Bea tolerates Gregg and Mae in the game’s story because of her friendship with Angus. She hasn’t got time for hopes and dreams other than getting out of the mundane funk that her life has become.
Her fears are rational, and whilst a lot of my anxieties are far from this, I have very often ended up in a loop of suspicion and resentment of the folks around me. Why do they get to be happy? Why aren’t they worried, all the time, wanting to get out and do shit but simultaneously unable to do so? Bea illustrates this when driving a drunk, slurring Mae back from a party in which Mae made an absolute arse of herself. How can she get away with being so carefree? She’s dropped out of college, and still hasn’t got a job. Grow up. Be more outwardly angry with the world like me.
Okay, that last one is probably just me but still, Bea’s bleak outlook and lack of hope for the future, combined with the mental health themes displayed by the other main characters almost made it feel like the game was made for me, and people like me.
Night In The Woods communicates these themes with nuance and grace, illustrating Mae’s subtle behavioural and verbal reactions to each of the people she interacts with in a way that speaks volumes about the way she views the world around her. Mechanically, the game is able to show this too. Mae has to choose one friend over another on multiple occasions. I worried that this would lead to alienating both of them, and damn that’s a feeling all too prevalent in my life. When both Gregg and Bea are busy, Mae is completely lost. Just like the evenings when I’ve been alone, with no one to talk to, no one to share my thoughts with, unable to move or do anything or think properly.
This game has helped me personally to better articulate and communicate my feelings into more tangible concepts in a way that no other piece of media has really done before. I urge you to play this game for yourself – I can’t possibly illuminate every aspect of these deep, nuanced characters with my own words, and you are likely to have a wildly different reaction and relate to different aspects of each of the characters than I did.
It’s fucking art, man.
A lot of the time, I struggle to consume media that has an emphasis on mental health. It often triggers my anxiety and makes me relive my most traumatic and scary moments. Night In The Woods doesn’t do this. It made me feel listened to. And the fact that I felt listened to means that others will too. I’m glad this game exists.