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The fog of depression is much more noticeable on the first play through of Infinite Fall’s Night in the Woods. The economic depression afflicting the old mining town of Possum Springs. The depressed fugue state main character Mae spends much of her time in. The depressing attitude Mae’s best friend Bea has to everything. It’s hard not to notice and it can occasionally obscure the game’s other themes and events but one that does rear its head early and often is the horror story taking place in the background of Mae’s journey of healing and acceptance.
Twenty year-old college student (and anthropomorphic cat) Mae Borowski has returned to her home of Possum Springs after dropping out of college. Suffering from a depersonalization disorder Mae hopes that returning to her old friends and parents’ home will help her get back to normal. As she reconnects with the jaded-beyond-her-years crocodile Bea, her anarchist queer punk fox best friend Gregg and his reserved bear boyfriend Angus Mae realises that something isn’t quite right. An old friend has disappeared – presumed to have run away – while on Halloween Mae sees a shadowy figure abduct a teenager. Numerous other sightings as well as the discovery of a severed arm push Mae and her friends to investigate.
Night in the Woods is not necessarily a horror game but its supernatural elements are far too numerous and real for it to be considered a straightforward Rust Belt drama. Mae’s first encounter with a supernatural entity – although neither she nor we realize it – is when she meets the Janitor after stepping off the bus late at night. The old custodian will reappear here and there like a cryptic, mystical Scruffy from Futurama. He will often disappear into thin air and seem to have knowledge of things Mae and her friends have yet to discover. It’s a wink and a nudge when he turns up playing a forest god in the Harvest Festival play but there are far more powerful entities at work in Night in the Woods than a bird-janitor with preternatural knowledge.
Mae’s dreamscapes are frightful places to be at the best of times. Often reflective of how she sees the world when in the depths of a disassociative episode – basic colours, block shapes – they only seem to be inhabited by Mae, a mysterious jazz-fusion band and the Sky Cat. In the third part of the game Mae dreams of an empty landscape lit by a sunless, dark blue sky. Against this backdrop rests the enormous Sky Cat. The cat-shaped entity might have fur or feathers, it’s ears are either especially pointed or it has horns. It’s eyes glow like twin full moons.
Night in the Woods wears certain influences on its sleeve. The autumnal all-American town is pure Stephen King as are some of its sinister goings-on. Here in this dream is where H. P. Lovecraft’s influence looms largest. Although the Sky Cat has nothing on Cthulhu or Yog Sothoth it’s undefined features and nihilistic attitude are pure Lovecraft. It makes pronouncements that wouldn’t seem out of place in stories like The Dunwich Horror or At the Mountains of Madness. In contempt of linear time the Sky Cat says: “The Beginning Is Moments Ago; The End Is Moments Away”. It refers to Mae as “atoms” and all living things as “little creatures” which it regards as a mistake of evolution. Mae refers to the Sky Cat as a “big jerk” which is really the only correct response to tired, old nihilism uttered by ageless beings with no experience of our reality.
The reality of an ancient death cult is, per Night in the Woods, probably more logistically difficult than it is in the stories. In Stephen King’s IT seven kids fight against adult apathy. In others like Dan Simmons’ Summer of Night five boys team up against an evil so lacking in self-awareness that it possesses all the adults the boys don’t mind killing. Through either supernatural happenings or complicity King and Simmons make the kids the only possible heroes. In Night in the Woods the idea of a cult is so ridiculous that no one except Mae and her friends stops to consider it. Even then that was only because Mae saw the cult abduct a teenager. The kidnapping leads Mae, Bea, Gregg and Angus on a adventure that ends with a collapsing mine, an encounter with the cult and a mysterious entity from beyond space-time known as the Black Goat. It’s the closest Night in the Woods gets to being a proper horror story but even then its mentions of real world horror trump its fictional homages.
For all its nightmare gods and shadowy figures Night in the Woods isn’t all that scary until of course Mae confronts reality. Mae hates reality. She finds it easier to escape into impulsive adventures with Gregg and lose herself in band practice with her newly reformed friend group. Confronting the realities of her own failures, her parents financial woes, Gregg’s spiraling bi-polar disorder and Bea’s desperate home situation are not realities Mae wants to confront but she has to because that’s what growing up is.
On a trip to the woods with Angus, the kindly bear reveals the extent of the abuse he suffered as a child to Mae. Much like Bea’s desperate grasps at the life she craved outside of Possum Springs and Gregg’s desire to preserve what he has with Angus this is a watershed moment for Mae. Being confronted by reality is often a good wake-up call for the headstrong cat. Moments like these ground Mae in a reality where she can do something even if it’s something as simple as chasing after Bea or assuring Gregg that he is a good person.
Near the end of their night spent ghost-hunting and star-gazing Angus reveals to Mae the lesson his friends taught him. “I believe in a universe that doesn’t care and in people that do,” he says. The universe with its Sky Cats and Black Goats is a cold, evil place and getting lost in all that horrifying darkness is easy. It’s the people we know and care about that ground us. The world, reduced as it is to Possum Springs, is full of people willing to help Mae. Once she realises that keeping her feet on the ground – even if her head is always half in the clouds – is easier with them around to help then reality is no longer such a scary concept. Reality, after all, can be dealt with but it’s best to leave the entities beyond space and time to the horror writers.