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My brain and I have often been at war with each other. At times in the past it was a blitzkrieg of bad decisions. At others it was like constantly shifting alliances mediated by therapists, friends and family. At the moment things are good, better than good but there’s a tension there; as if the bullets might start flying again. When I play Night in the Woods I relive all those battles and ceasefires. Mental health and, by extension, mental illness is something that has to be fought and negotiated with. It’s a constant push and pull that in a lot of cases never has a definitive victory or defeat, only the constant promise or threat of either. That’s what makes Night in the Woods such a cathartic, warm and often heartbreaking journey.
Mae is a recent college dropout, also a cat but that’s not hugely important, who has made her way back to her hometown of Possum Springs. A former mining town Possum Springs is starting its descent towards economic ruin. Mae suffers from some kind of disassociative disorder a symptom of which seems to be depression. The signs are all there from the start: poor diet, heavy drinking, nightmares, a lot of sleeping and fragmenting personal relationships. Mae’s old friends Bea, Gregg and Angus are in the middle of going about their lives when Mae lands back in Possum Springs. All is not right however as disappearances and shadowy figures haunt the edges of both the town and Mae’s psyche.
I have a lot of respect for Mae. It takes a lot more strength than a lot of people know to up and quit when things get hard. The phrase “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” gets thrown around a lot and it’s true that sometimes the best thing to do in a difficult situation is to persevere. On the other hand it takes a great deal of courage to admit that perseverance can hurt more than giving up. Mae, through previous experience realises this but she’s afraid that her loving parents and supportive friends won’t see things the same way.
Locking yourself away behind emotional or even physical barriers is pretty common when the fog descends. Being depressed, whether chronically or only occasionally, can feel like wandering through thick fog or looking at the world through a heavy pane of glass. Being close to people whether physically or emotionally doesn’t help. It’s a chemical imbalance in the brain. Even though you’re in control of your body and all its functions the emotional centers of the brain are misfiring, flooded as they are with the wrong kind of emotional chemical. And so we close ourselves off not content to wallow in misery but incapable of doing anything else.
These things are easy to do. To lock the bedroom door, to not talk when someone’s willing to listen, to stop seeking professional help. What’s hard is opening up. Mae doesn’t make it easy on herself though. She’s a headstrong, difficult young woman with severe emotional issues but she’s also a loyal friend and a loving daughter with a mischievous fun streak. Night in the Woods is a game after all and although games aren’t necessarily meant to be fun it really helps when they are.
For as many razor sharp reveals and moments of heartbreaking darkness that Night in the Woods has it also has a great deal of levity. Mae and her fellow Gen Z-ers view the world with the sort of ironic detachment and humour common to those raised on message boards and MySpace. But life in small town America tends to fuck you more often than life in the Big City does.
Bea, Mae’s chain-smoking childhood crocodile friend, has recently lost her mother and is now in charge of the family hardware store. Gregg, the manic anarchist fox Mae has known since adolescence, can also feel the clouds moving in darkening his view of himself, his relationship with his bear boyfriend – bearfriend? – Angus and life in general. And that’s without mentioning Mae’s parents’ financial troubles brought about by recession and bad luck. It all paints a dark, grim picture of life for the people in small town America but Night in the Woods isn’t all doom and gloom. It wouldn’t be much fun to play otherwise.
Gameplay-wise beyond some short mini-games Night in the Woods pretty much boils down to walking, jumping and talking. Your time in Possum Springs will be spent traversing the town from its bustling but slowly shuttering Main Street to its starkly gorgeous church to the oppressive woods of the title. In Possum Springs you’ll while away the mornings and afternoons talking to the townsfolk like Pastor Kate, the bad-good poet Selmers and the homeless drifter Bruce.
The evenings is when Night in the Woods truly comes alive as Mae embarks on adventures with either Mae, Gregg or her bird friend Jeremy Warton aka Germ Warfare. This can involve a trip to the mall with Bea, a friendly knife fight with Gregg and several ghost-hunting trips with the gang. It’s in these moments as well as those that Mae spends at home in the kitchen talking to her mom Candy, watching TV with her dad Stan or reminiscing on her role model: her Granddad.
As much as Night in the Woods is about finding the light through the fog as provided by friends and family it’s also about the things we leave behind as life goes on. Whether it be the place we grew up, the friends we left there or the people that passed on along the way Night in the Woods has a great reverence for memory. I relate to Mae in a lot of ways both in her struggles and successes. She and I have fought our bad brains to a standstill time and again. We’ve both surrounded ourselves with good friends willing to support us ad be supported by us. And perhaps most important of all to me: we both really miss our granddads.
Losing an older relative hurts. I’ve lost both grandfathers in the last dozen years. Losing a grandparent or any older family member, especially when you’re close to them, feels like a very special kind of loss. A door to a specific view on and interpretation of history has closed forever. The past is no longer as accessible as it once was but that makes memories shine all the brighter.
I wasn’t as close to my granddad as Mae was. He read to her in bed. He left her his old collection of horror stories. He visited her as a ghost in a dream. As people pass on their image grows in our mind. My granddad might not have been much of a talker but what he said may as well have been gold. He always knew what to say and when to say it, a talent that seems to have skipped a generation or two in my family. The images that myself and Mae have are idealised but they’re all we have now and that has to be enough, even when it’s not.
Despite its distinct focus on mental health and the debilitating effects grief and mental illness can have on it Night in the Woods never feels like a game exclusively about either of these issues like, say Depression Quest or Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Instead Night in the Woods – with its get-up-and-go attitude to depression and distinct, ironic sense of humour – feels like a game about coping as best we can with life and all the things it can throw at us. Even when it descends into an occult nightmare inspired by Algernon Blackwood stories Night in the Woods is quick to return to the themes powering it. Night in the Woods is a game about life in all its fragile beauty and how despite all its hardships and losses it is ultimately worth both living and enjoying.