There is a character in Infinite Fall’s Night in the Woods who sits on a stoop and spits poetry at you, if you allow her to. Her name is Selmers, and at the start of each new day, she offers such high quality verses as: My heart is a dankness | But when I see you | I feel a thankness
Later in the game, you might realize that there is more to Selmers than meets the eye. But whether you come upon this realization depends entirely upon the choices you make, or more specifically, how much you choose to interact with the people you encounter. And at its core, Night in the Woods is a game centered on the connections you forge and the ones you lose.
The world isn’t out there somewhere. It’s here.
In most video games, moments of friendship and platonic intimacy are treated as decoration. Though experiences such as the bonfire scene in Chrono Trigger, the various “dates” in Undertale, or many of the social link conversations in the Persona series are often considered some of the most memorable aspects of those respective games, such sequences are treated as extras, like the fondant rose flourishes to the multi-layered cake that is The Plot™.
Smaller, more personal interactions are typically sprinkled along the edges of a bigger, grander tale. They inhabit the pauses between the action, the brief moments of respite before the next dungeon, the next villainous encounter, the next dramatic twist. Scenes of friendship and camaraderie add an enjoyable flavor to any game, but in terms of the narrative, they are often besides the point.
But Night in the Woods argues that friendship is the point, and that only our personal relationships can give meaning to the shapes that define our world.
We’re good at drawing lines through the spaces between stars.
Night in the Woods centers on a young woman (of the anthropomorphic feline variety) named Mae, who returns to her small, decaying hometown after dropping out from her second year of college. Contrary to my initial expectations, this isn’t a game about regaining one’s footing after a misstep or discovering one’s vocational passions.
This is a game about the spaces in between, the moments that are typically left scattered on the cutting room floor. Yes, there is a more sinister narrative (one that involves mysterious shadowed figures, kidnappings, rural poverty, and the generational divide) that rises to the foreground in the last act. But the game shines brightest in its quieter moments.
Night in the Woods is as character-driven as a story can be, and it offers a cast unlike any you’ve seen elsewhere, in video games or otherwise. The main quartet consists of two women and two homosexual men, and that alone already singles out the game as an oddity within its industry. But the script rarely lingers on the demographics of its characters; instead, it is the depth of the characterization that truly distinguishes this game, and it emerges only when engaging in silly, mundane, or even destructive activities.
Some of the most poignant dialogue is only triggered after delinquent acts of violence and sabotage, often borne of a perpetual boredom that, to some, is inherent to small town life. One memorable conversation occurs after a mini-game in which a friend challenges Mae to a non-lethal knife fight. Other conversations crop up through gentler pastimes, such as stargazing or grocery shopping. Like in real life, these small moments are the building blocks to larger revelations on difficult topics such as emotional trauma, self-worth, spirituality, and mental health.
I have really up up days and really down down days. And I don’t know which it is until it’s over sometimes.
Each and every character in the main cast has some problem that has shaped them significantly, some deep wound that has never fully healed. Yet no single flaw or trait defines any of these characters. Mae might be a college dropout, and a delinquent in the eyes of some, but she’s also a rusty bass guitar player, pizza enthusiast, introverted and often speaks before thinking, “out of shape” but trying hard to be body positive, and perhaps not the most mentally healthy individual, but she’s working on it.
At times, Night in the Woods is almost brutally honest with its characters. There are instances in which friends and acquaintances perhaps rightfully label Mae an “asshole.” There are also instances in which some likeable characters make depressingly pragmatic and unpleasant observations about other likeable characters. This brutal honesty allows the game to feel real, more real than most games with casts that consist of actual humans.
Many players have expressed the view that the ending of the game is anticlimactic or even disappointing. Some of the game’s mysteries are never fully solved. There are many lingering questions as to what, exactly, occurred during the game’s more action-oriented ending chapters. But I think to dwell on the loose ends is to neglect the aspects of this game that are most significant.
Late night conversations, jam sessions, whiling the day away at the outskirts of town: these moments are Night in the Woods’ beating heart. In comparison, the rest — the shadowed figures, the seemingly supernatural occurrences, the conspiracy at the heart of the town — all of it is white noise. It is besides the point.
Image taken via screencap.