Gamenotes: Night In The Woods
At the end of everything, hold on to anything
I remember at the end of last year when I was listening to the Giant Bomb Game of the Year deliberations, and I found myself pulling for Night In The Woods, which I hadn't played, sometimes even over games I had. Maybe it's just because I've heard Scott Benson on podcasts or seen him on Twitter and like the cut of his jib, maybe I got annoyed by Dan Ryckert's oddly insistent dislike of the main character, or maybe I'm slowly turning into a furry. Whatever the reason, I thought I should maybe play it to see if my #teamNITW instincts were justified.
There are people who've written great stuff (this, for e.g., is particularly good) about Night in the Woods being a game that spoke to them in a way that few pieces of media have. That mostly seems to come out of having a particular experience—being from a town that you can feel is slowly rotting away from the inside, like a tooth; having crashed out of university due to undiagnosed mental issues, etc. I found a lot that spoke to me, but most of it was a lot more low-key.
For example: the church portrayed in the game was really well-observed. Despite not actually being Christian if you pay close enough attention (I guess in the world of NITW you'd run into the Grandville problem of 'what species was Jesus?'), it captures the feel of that sort of place extremely well (my favourite example of this being the name "Trans4rm" for the youth group—I could not have come up with a better fake church youth group name if I tried). It's a specific kind of church—very much the kind I grew up with—smallish, with (you get the impression) an ageing congregation but a still-important place in the community, exemplified by the minister's attempts to help a homeless guy camping out in the woods nearby. Mae's relationship with the church is mediated through her mother, who volunteers there, and can be found there during the day.
I'm a big fan of Mae's mum: she's lovely, but it's a specific believable kind of lovely, where she will get mad at you for completely fair reasons but then apologise to you later on. She reminds me a lot of my own mum, apart from the whole "being a cat" thing. Beyond the more fractious moments, though, the game manages to capture something else I remember about the parent/child relationship at that age; there's a moment when Mae's mum takes you out to a field and says "we used to come up here all the time". Mae reacts with surprise because she's never been there before, and her mum responds "There were a lot of 'we's before you and me, dear."
I got a similar feeling about a conversation you have with Mae's dad towards the end of the game about the way in which he dislikes his work. It's not just that "parents are people too", it's that, if they are a specific sort of parent (which mine definitely were), once they have kids they inhabit their parental roles to the extent that it comes as somewhat of a surprise to children when they reach a certain age (usually, I think, approaching the age the parents were when they had the kid) that their parents were, in many ways, just like them at one point.
This is partially down to a certain youthful obliviousness that sits in odd tension with a profound but limited self-awareness, another condition of that kind of age the game brings out. It possibly pushes that a bit far in certain respects (possibly this is just me being limited by my specific experience) as there are some no-good-choice choices in dialogue which really work, but some which just seem somewhat baffling and almost acme me agree with Dan Ryckert. The biggest of these was when Mae's crocodile friend Bea takes Mae to a college party in a nearby town and Mae ruins things for her by acting like an idiot and saying things there's really no reason to say. You run after Bea, though hostile city rooftop geometries (the only time the game has presented a real impediment to your platforming) and sort of apologise (but it seemed kind of half-arsed to me). I understood that it was conveying something about the character but of all the times the game took control away from you or limited your choices to bad ones, this was the only time I felt like it didn't seem to do it in service of communicating some kind of deeper truth.
By and large, the relationships with the friends are the strongest things about the game—I'm mulling a replay (though I might satisfy my urge by watching Youtube videos)—to see what the interactions with the friends I didn't spend as much time with looked like (in my case, as in the case of Tom and several others, Angus). Bea was the friend I spent the most time with and ended up explaining near the game's climax (in a manner that reminded me of John Darnielle's Wolf In White Van) the childhood trauma that had led to her present predicament. It wasn't the big moments I found connected me to the other characters the most, though, it was the smaller things, like the IM messages exchanged at the beginning and end of each day; the simulation of the routines of friendship.
The shape of the game, in this way, is almost like Animal Crossing: you wake up, go about your day, do your routines. Except... you don't play your 15 minutes for the day then get forced to stop, you just go and play another day. And another, and another. It's giving you more stuff to do, sure, but the monotony is played up; the people who complained about the fact that you have to walk into the town every day missed the point slightly, I feel. It's a simulation of a particular mental state. This may have stood out to me more as I mostly played the game over the course of a week off during which I cultivated a routine of wandering into town every day and not doing very much.
There's so much to this game; I haven't said anything about: the beauty of its art style and extremely appropriate choice of colour palate, its anticapitalism, the charming secondary characters like the old teacher who lets you use his telescope and the neighbour who's a poet, the cosmic horror stuff or any of the other huge number of things this game is filled with. I might try and do that at another time, but loads of people have talked about that stuff already, and I've tried to talk about things that spoke to me that I've seen less conversation about. It affected me in a way deeper than anything has for a while. Play it (if you haven't). Seek out #discourse on it (if you have).
"Nothing is going to save us forever, but a lot of things can save us today."
 This, incidentally, is where I think the developers show their age a little bit. The IM client is very retro (away messages?) and confining messaging to the computer, while understandable in terms of the game itself, feels like "the way things were for the devs at that age" rather than "the way things are for late teens/early 20s kids now".