Night in the Woods (2017)
Night in the Woods is a 2d side scrolling narrative driven game about growing up, stagnation, and finding a place in the universe. A classic college existential crisis. The game consists of running around Mae’s small hometown and talking to various characters, with a cute, quirky, and cozy art style that perfectly reflects the game’s writing. Like one of my favorite movies Me You and Everyone We Know the game is grounded in the minutiae of everyday life, yet prescribes a deeper meaning to these tiny events, creating a world of cutesy scenes that have a deep emotional impact and will stick with you. The art is some of the best I’ve seen, nicely capturing the flat charm of the Little Golden Books or Tomm Moore movies, but with a minimalist and moody yet comforting color direction. It’s a charming and emotional time and I highly recommend people play it, but there’s so major issues that I don’t see enough people talking about.
The mechanics of NITW are pretty straight forward, almost to the point of it not being a particularly fun game to play. There’s some interesting little minigames, but they’re almost entirely in Gregg’s arc, leaving the rest of the game to just be jumping around and talking to people. The dialogue is usually pretty good, but there’s so much back tracking involved sometimes it doesn’t feel worth the effort. Characters will also sometimes just appear in different spots and new areas open up without any indication. Events also only trigger on certain days so if you skip a character once, you’ve missed out. This means if you really want to play the game, you need to go to every spot in the game every day until it’s over. There’s also two main story lines (Bae and Gregg) which both contain enough events that you would have to play the game twice to get all the content. Here’s where my big complaint emerges.
If your game is not fun to play but you have a good story, why make it a game? I absolutely love the style of Night in the Woods, but I don’t ever want to touch this game again, and since the gameplay itself doesn’t actually add to the story… why should I? The only real gameplay that you experience in Night in the Woods is the way the character moves, I could get this watching someone else play. It’s not like Papers Please where in playing the game you start to question how meaningful your job is, so you start to let some people slip thru, causing an internal arc within the player. That is something that can be expressed in a video but can’t be fully experienced without being in the game. There’s a couple aspects of Night in the Woods that feel like justifications for being a game, but they aren’t perfect.
I like how Mae isn’t the player, too many games feel the need to make it about YOUR choice and can cause weird narrative issues, here the player gets to watch Mae and make choices based off of what they think would be more interesting. Unfortunately this can also lead to a similar trap where your choices feel like they don’t matter because the end result or message will be the same, and Night in the Woods does very often feel like that. There were moments where I didn’t care how forced the choices were, like when Mae talks to herself in the mirror before the party or during the Harfest play, but sometimes the choices can feel a little stale. But at least this is something that Night in the Woods largely does right. It really feels like in picking choices I’m diving deeper into Mae and not that she is simply a conduit for my actions. The side characters are also something that makes Night in the Woods feel more like a game. In a movie if there’s a minor character you don’t like, well you’re stuck with them, it’s not like you could edit them out. But in a game you have the ability to pick and choose what parts you want to experience. You don’t like the poem guy in the train tunnel? Well don’t talk to him. Unfortunately media causes us to expect payoffs, so the idea of a character who you should just talk to for a little spice of weird poetry isn’t something expected. I talked to a lot of people who I didn’t care at all about because I thought there might be something that hooks me in their arc later, but if I didn’t immediately like the character this never happened.
As mentioned before there’s a couple minigames within the main game, like the rhythm game sections and even an action dungeon crawler game Demontower that you can easily sink a lot of time in, I probably played Demontower for 5+ hours. It’s a decent freeware length game, a youtube playthru of it with no deaths is 35 mins long. I almost wanted to make a separate review for just this game because it’s really well done. The game makes you trade health for mobility, forcing you to become really good at quick decisive attacks and time your movements just right. I strongly recommend a controller for it because harder levels will want you to dash to specific spots and being limited to eight directions is pretty much unplayable. But this isn’t a super important aspect of the game. It serves as a light hearted break from the serious themes the game presents, but watching these moments is just as effective as playing them. If anything this brings the parts where you’re hanging out down because the minigame mechanics at least give you something to do as compared to the usual “Walk right until dialogue happens”. Beating Demontower gives you some extra Angus dialogue, but he’s the worst character so it’s not really a good reason.
There’s one more mechanic that I have serious issues with, Mae’s journal. If you talk to Selmers you learn that the journal is something she was instructed to fill out by her psychologist, so this is something that exists within the game world. But playing thru the game causes panels on specific pages to unlock instead of illustrations appearing on the next page sequentially in the order of Mae drawing it. This causes a schism in the immersion, on one hand it seems like Mae is filling out the journal based on observations she makes, but the journal is then full of these blank pages. The journal also functions as a quick summary, potentially allowing the player to figure out where they left off, but since the journal is in no real order it’s harder to remember details because the illustrations jump around in time. The game also ends with the player reading thru the journal, so when I finished the game there was a lot of blank pages and parts of the story strewn around with no logical order. I didn’t feel like I was reading something a character made, but an achievement list. I guess the gaps in the journal allow the player to know they missed things, but a basic achievement system could do the same. What they should’ve done is make the illustrations an svg or other vector based art (heck even 3d models could work), then scale and place them on the page as the player completes the game. This would’ve given a better sense of the player’s narrative unfolding.
It may seem like I’m picking on things that aren’t important. After all this is a narrative game, shouldn’t a review just be about the writing? But even the most heavily narrative game, like a visual novel, have mechanics that help the game tell its story and mechanics that make the game easier to replay for all the arcs. But in Night in the Woods nearly every mechanic that is introduced causes problems because the game has inherent design flaws. Luckily the other elements are strong enough that they can stand on their own, otherwise this game wouldn’t be so universally. This isn’t to say that Night in the Woods is a bad experience, it’s honestly some of the most fun I’ve had with a game in recent time and have recommended it to several people. If anything this speaks to the strengths of the game that these core issues just aren’t a bigger deal to people.
It’s honestly kinda impressive that a game like Night in the Woods can exist and that it is an enjoyable experience. But if we want games to be treated as a serious medium we need to move away from things that rely heavily on old mediums. Alfred Hitchcock has this concept of “pure cinema” which was when a movie had a moment that could only work as movie. Because he was considering this he was able to push movies forward and we got stuff like shower scene, an absolute celebration of editing and framing capturing the experience of a murder in a way never before seen. This is what we need to demand from our games or it will just be viewed as a parasite, with no unique identity. Just like how TV was viewed compared to movies, and movies to plays before that. Night in the Woods could’ve done so much more to make the game more engaging to play, but sadly made something that’s more fun as a YouTube video. Like Mae Night in the Woods is lost, and ended up where it shouldn’t be.