Night in the Woods is a beautiful and deeply heartfelt indie “platformer” that focuses far more intensely on story than tricky platforming elements. It hits close to home for a lot of people, especially when it comes to mental health. For myself, it felt like a biography.
The game stars Mae, an anthropomorphic cat who returns home to Possum Springs after dropping out of college. Possum Springs is a run-down former coal town filled with boarded-up storefronts and unpleasant memories. A lot of the people are distinctly “stuck,” stooping on porch steps and dangling from rooftops as if waiting for something. In Possum Springs, though, seemingly nothing comes or goes.
Mae’s reasons for leaving college go largely unstated early in the game. When Mae’s mother asks if Mae’s college friends will miss her, she nonchalantly responds that she didn’t have any. Nothing to worry about.
Like Mae, I returned from college this summer unsure if I would ever go back. Like Mae, I had a lot of trouble making friends while I was there. We’re both twenty. We’re both a bit infamous in our hometowns for childhood transgressions. And, most pointedly, we’re both deeply confused about what we want to do and who we want to be.
Playing Night in the Woods felt, at times, like playing through a day in my own life. Waking up in the afternoon because there’s no reason to be up any earlier. Avoiding Mom when she asks about you getting a job. Dodging questions about obvious lack of motivation.
The game is obviously deeply personal to its creators. Every moment feels ripped from someone’s personal struggles. Perhaps that’s why I shed tears when Mae’s father asks her to watch television with her, and they sit in silence on the couch next to each other. It’s not much, but it means more than either of them is able to say. My father and I love each other deeply, but we often struggle to hold a conversation, never mind express how much we care for each other. Mae and her father are much the same.
These little, true-to-life moments are what make Night in the Woods a special game. I could go on about how similar Mae’s experiences and mine have been. It’s like looking in a cross-gender, video game mirror. Maybe that’s why I had so much trouble picking the game up regularly.
Sometimes excellent films are the hardest ones to watch. I think of Grave of the Fireflies, personally. It’s both innocent and world-weary, like watching The Girl in the Red Coat from Schindler’s List for ninety minutes. Grave of the Fireflies is an incredible film, but I was so frustrated and upset by the end of it that I couldn’t ever recommend it with clear conscience.
Playing Night in the Woods felt a lot like watching a difficult movie. Every time I booted it up, I was overwhelmed by how Mae’s struggles reflected my own. The game wasn’t designed this way - few games are designed to make every second traumatic - but I found myself being moved to tears by humdrum dialogue. Even when Mae wasn’t a perfect match for me, her friends picked up the slack. Deeply depressed? Mae’s childhood friend Bea absolutely appears to be. Willingly and knowingly self-destructive? Gregg, for all his wonderful charm, is probably even worse. For a lot of this summer, the game stared back at me on my Switch as I opted to play something less taxing. It was too emotional, relatable, personal.
When I stopped playing, Mae and her friends were, like me, dealing with a lot of seemingly irreparable problems. Fortunately, I’ve been supported and challenged by the loving people around me. Things are looking up. I’m going to go back to college, and I’m going to continue to find solutions for my depression and lack of direction. It’s no longer a tremendous strain to open up Night in the Woods. The game is still intimate, but because of the progress I’ve made it’s no longer reinforcing issues that felt impossible to overcome.
I’m climbing out of my hole, finally. Here’s to hoping I can bring Mae and her friends along with me.