(Image courtesy of Infinite Fall)
This is a spoiler-free review.
Capturing genuine emotion is difficult for any artist as the human condition is not simply communicated via laughter and a few tears. Few have come as close to mastering this art as developer Infinite Fall with their game Night in the Woods. The Nintendo Switch is all the better for having received a port of this award-winning game that’s become a fan favorite — and for good reason.
Night in the Woods is a single-player adventure game focused on the life of recent college dropout Mae Borowski. After returning to her deteriorating hometown of Possum Springs, the feline finds that life for her friends and family is as uncertain and tumultuous as her own. It’s not long before Mae and her friends realize that the challenges they face are much greater than anyone one person.
What writers Bethany Hockenberry and Scott Benson have accomplished with the characters of Night in the Woods is phenomenal. Mae, her melancholy friend Bea and the dynamic duo of chill Angus and the hyperactive Gregg are so alarmingly real in their dialogue and characterization that it almost hurts.
Why, you ask? Because the issues they face, and the way they react to them, are so real. Despite their strained friendships, the banter between the four is eerily realistic. And the issues they’re struggling with — money, spirituality, sexual identity, proximity to the familiar, difficulty in rationalizing the ways of the world — are all too familiar to the millennial generation. Hockenberry and Benson encapsulated the millennial experience in a genuine way that doesn’t pander or pass judgement; they characterized an entire town of people in such a familiar way that many may feel as if they’re watching their lives play out in trippy, anthropomorphic fashion.
Night in the Woods is not terribly long at only eight to ten hours of gameplay, but there is a slow build to the nearly out-of-the-blue ending. The adventure plays out as more of a slice-of-life game experience with a focus on relationships instead of menial tasks. A supernatural plot slowly develops throughout the first 80% of the story before becoming the main focus towards the end. Important pieces of the larger puzzle are scattered throughout Mae’s daily excursions through Possum Springs, but there’s a definite focus on the inhabitants of the nearly forgotten town rather than an end goal. Pacing is a common issue in story-based games; unfortunately, the Infinite Fall team has yet to master this part of their storytelling.
This issue is mostly mitigated by the quality of the interactions building up to the bizarre ending. Were the dialogue not so expertly written in even the smallest exchanges, one might find themselves bored exploring many of the same areas over and over. Thankfully, there’s enough variation in Mae’s day to day interactions to keep you entertained. Each day, NPCs will have new dialogue to share; most keep a familiar routine so it’s easy to keep tabs on them. Waiting to see what the inhabitants of Possum Springs will do next is a powerful draw when the characters are written so well.
The wit instilled in Mae, her friends and the other civilians keeps these frequent interactions fresh. The lore of Possum Springs is largely imparted on the player through conversation and by interacting with various objects. Mae will make new observations regarding monuments or people the player has already inspected, so it’s important to make thorough rounds of the town each day. Had such careful attention not been given to world building and atmosphere, Night in the Woods would be much less interesting. The quality of the storytelling is so good, it’s easy to forgive the adventure for its exciting, but disjointed ending.
None can criticize Infinite Fall for a lack of diversity within the cast. (Racial diversity is a moot point as they’re anthropomorphic creatures.) Mae’s characterization is an example of how to nail gender non-conforming representation. Women are too often oversexualized in media, just as men are taught to conform to an ubermasculine image. The main character is neither yet still maintains a concrete identity. The writers didn’t shy away from LGBT representation either; that there is no controversy in-game regarding these relationships (i.e. homophobia plot lines) is refreshing.
A focus on the everyday person — blue-collar workers, small town communities — highlights the less fortunate of modern America. There are thousands of towns just like Possum Springs all over the states. Low-wage jobs have brought high poverty rates; community pride is siphoned away as infrastructure crumbles and the younger generation strikes out for greater opportunity. The writers understand that the majority do what they can to provide, even if the world seems to be working against them. Hockenberry and Benson have proven they understand that relatable characters are multidimensional and act with purpose.
The port performance and platforming are where Night in the Woods takes the largest hit. Frame rate issues are abundantly common on the Nintendo Switch port of this game. The graphics aren’t very taxing; the environments are well rendered and have many moving parts, but are from realistic in detail. There’s not enough ever happening on screen to warrant constant stuttering. Simply moving Mae around can result in slight, but noticeable frame rate jitters. This becomes even more evident when jumping. While frame rate drops have been reported for other releases of this game as well, the Nintendo Switch port seems to be the hardest hit. Is it game breaking? Absolutely not. Does it hinder the player’s immersion? Unfortunately, yes.
The frame rate drops also affect the platforming, which was this reviewer’s least favorite part of the whole experience. Scaling buildings is made needlessly difficult as not timing a jump exactly right will send you falling. Two small jumps to land a third large one is a weird and non-concise mechanic that makes the small margin for error even more frustrating. That there’s no way to die or get a game over is the saving grace, but the controls could have been more forgiving.
Where you’re trying to get to is just as important how, and Mae’s mischievous nature shines as she explores trashbergs under the town, skitters across power lines and explores all sorts of places she’s not meant to be. There’s plenty of fun to be had exploring Possum Springs’ autumnal locales, especially when they’re rendered in such a somber, yet picturesque way. All of this is set to a catchy soundtrack that’s perfect for days spent indoors reading or writing.
Night in the Woods is much like an imperfectly wrapped gift from a good friend — the rougher details don’t diminish the love and thoughtfulness with which the gift was given. This game is worth a second, third and fourth playthrough for it’s narrative, player choice and ability to push the adventure genre to the forefront of the indie gaming industry.