'Night in the Woods' Is a Mumblecore Journey Worth Taking
I’m well past the age of Mae, the main character in the adventure game Night in the Woods. She’s 20, and she’s experiencing something like a quarter-life crisis. Dropping out of college after her sophomore year, she returns home to her tiny town of Possum Springs to live with her parents, stay out late with friends, and sleep til 4 p.m. Also, she’s a cat, but that’s actually not very important.
Night in the Woods is the story of a town full of anthropomorphized animals and their struggles with depression, anxiety, responsibility, and more. That makes it sound not very fun, I know. But the characters feel all the more relatable for the struggles we see them encounter.
The art style is eye-poppingly delightful. Everything is two dimensional, with characters that almost feel like colorful cardboard cutouts. Animation is simple but charming. The music is catchy in a not-exactly-hummable sort of way, in that I can’t say it’s memorable, but it’s very effective at setting the mood in a given scene. As far as aesthetics go, Night in the Woods is the full package. The fact that it was made by a small team after a successful Kickstarter (a fact I didn’t know until the credits rolled) makes it even more impressive.
The real highlight here, though, is the character development and the story that helps drive it. Mae has suffered with some anxiety and anger issues in the past. She sought therapy, and unfortunately wound up with a less-than-excellent therapist, as sometimes happens, so she’s not exactly thriving. Returning home, feeling listless, she reconnects with old friends, including Gregg, Gregg’s boyfriend Angus, and her old friend from girl scouts, Bea. The four of them are in a band together, which provides the game with a handful of challenging “Guitar Hero-esque” scenes, where you as Mae frantically try to press the proper button as they scroll down the screen in order to play the proper bass notes. Mini games like this, and the red-light-green-light shoplifting mini game, are fun little asides in an otherwise dialog-driven experience.
The dialog deserves special mention. It feels incredibly authentic, almost to the point of parody. What I mean is, it reminds me a bit of mumblecore in some ways. Mumblecore, if you’re not already aware, is a genre of film made popular by directors like the Duplass brothers (think Safety Not Guaranteed or Jeff, Who Lives at Home). It’s characterized by very natural-sounding, almost improvised dialog and tends to focus on characters in their 20s or 30s conversing. The conversations, in fact, often supercede the plot. That’s sort of what happens here.
Conversations are incredibly Millennial. I’m a Millennial myself, so I recognize the style. In an effort to make the conversations sound authentic, all the likes and ums are left intact. There’s no voice acting here, so you’re reading all this, but I found that it didn’t negatively affect my experience. The writing is very, very good. At times, the Millennialness of the dialog made some of the characters feel a little same-y, but in retrospect, I recognize some of that sameness in my own life. My friends and I have started talking like each other, sharing colloquialisms and mannerisms, too. It’s a natural thing that happens in friend groups. It’s yet another thing that helps the characters feel authentic and relatable.
You’ll get to choose who to spend time with on a given day, which means your experience playing through it might be different than mine (I was a big fan of Bea, so I spent a lot of time hanging out with her — maybe you’ll prefer Gregg?). Each outing with a friend plays out like its own little short story in the midst of the grander plot, and every one I saw was engaging and real and funny and sad in almost equal measures.
I won’t spoil the story, which takes some interesting and kinda creepy turns that I didn’t see coming, but chances are it will have you hooked. At the end of the day, though, the joy in playing through Night in the Woods is seeing these characters grow closer together.
Ultimately, that’s what made me fall in love with this game. I’m way out of my twenties now, but hanging out with these kids for a few days reminded me exactly what it was like.