Night in the Woods: A Rebirth of Graphic Adventure Games, and Trumpian Propaganda In Disguise
When I was young, my parents, motivated by the violent-video-games-create-violence narrative which has so unexpectedly reemerged in 2018 spearheaded by known anti-violence crusader President Donald J. Trump, forbade me from playing any genre of video game other than adventure games. This became problematic, as adventure games were dying out at the time; while they had experienced a heydey with 1980s and early 90s titles like the Space Quest and Kings Quest series, and then with the advent of so-called photorealistic adventures like Myst that centered on exploring a mysterious environment in first person, by the late 1990s 3D shooters were all the rage, and adventure games were seen as old hat. While some adventure games came out over the next decade or so — notably the Longest Journey series, which is lauded by critics to this day — adventure as a genre simply seemed to fade away. My parents relented, and soon I was playing Half-Life 2 like everyone else.
I’m in an interesting situation right now — a mental health crisis has led to the loss of my job, and having nowhere else to go, I’ve returned to the family home in Richland Center, a miniscule Wisconsin town where we can’t even get cell reception. In other words, I’m a ten-years-older real world version of the catgirl protagonist of the recent adventure title Night in the Woods, a game which has received substantial acclaim. I wanted to play Night in the Woods specifically because of the similarities I share with the protagonist — we’re both somewhat unhappily back home in a conservative town in the middle of nowhere, we both miss our friends, we’re both queer, and we both constantly worry we’re wearing on the patience of the family we depend on for survival. I also wanted to play Night in the Woods because I’m in love with the modern adventure game, especially the genre into which Woods broadly fits, the interactive coming-of-age story told from the point of view of a queer female protagonist. This “genre,” which as far as I can tell didn’t exist prior to The Longest Journey, now includes titles like Oxenfree (an enchanting little story which, like Woods, uses the trappings of horror but mostly tells a character story) and the Life is Strange games (which I adore, despite the original’s hopefully-accidental providing of an explanation for human caused climate change, namely queer teenage girls, that I feel like the present-day EPA would be only too happy to accept as reality.) So I had both high hopes and high standards for Night in the Woods. Unfortunately, while the game is artful and excellent, like nearly all of the games I’ve mentioned, its ending is narratively unsatisfying and politically problematic — and in the case of Woods, I can’t just write it off as unintentional. The message of the game is carefully crafted, and it is offensive as all hell.
Woods is an adventure game wrapped in a platforming engine. Most of its puzzles involve leaping from place to place — made theoretically plausible by the seeming feline nature of its protagonist, a plot point which is not directly addressed by which seems to be non-literal — but it is fundamentally, like old school adventure games, about walking around, looking at stuff, and talking to people. The story is about Mae Borowski, a 20 year old who leaves college due to mental health issues and returns to her hometown of Possum Springs. Although the game’s world is vaguely a different world from ours — religious symbols are different, and, well, everyone appears to be some form of animal — it’s quite plainly meant to be an American town in the present or near-present day, formerly a mining town, which has been “left behind” by the world around it. News headlines on Mae’s computer read like 2018 Twitter, featuring a villainous libertarian education secretary and sarcastic headlines like “Science Finds Things Probably Don’t Have To Be As Bad As They Are.” All very relatable.
And the town’s political nature is fundamentally that of one of the towns that Barack Obama said “cling to guns and religion” and Hillary Clinton described as “flyover country,” to both of their electoral detriment despite the complete fairness of Mr. Obama’s remarks. As Mae wanders around town, she encounters a group of “concerned citizens” who object to any kind of change, including helping a homeless man find housing (this leads to his death). These citizens are real people you will find in every town like this one — I know, because I am currently living in one. Mae’s neighbor tells her she’s a freak and will never be accepted, because of a (admittedly horrific and violent) crime she committed as a teenager. Oh, and yeah, the ultimate revelation is the the mysterious ghost figures and sense of existential dread Mae feels are not solely a result of her mental illness, but rather, are related to the cult which sacrifices those they do not consider of value to the community to a dark god at the bottom of an old mine shaft.
Despite the murdercult, the game is overwhelmingly too kind and too optimistic about towns like Possum Springs. Again, this is not the view of an East Coast elitist — I grew up in the town I’m currently living in, and have spent a total of four out of my thirty years living somewhere other than extremely rural, lily-white, formerly industrial American towns. At the end of Night in the Woods, pursued by the town’s murdercult, Mae falls into a dark pit which turns out to be symbolic, and like True Detective’s Rust Cohle, hallucinates an encounter with the “hole at the center of everything,” the cosmic-nihilist Thomas Ligotti quoting void. Based on this, she feels she is able to “understand” those who murder to keep “immigrants” and outsiders from “taking their jobs.” She feels that these people are simply scared to lose something that they’ve been told they would always have, and that this thing is economic. Indeed, the cult’s justifications for their actions are largely economic, and that’s an obscene misrepresentation of how towns like Possum Springs really function.
That brings me to the set of characters who form the protagonists. Out of the four main characters — Mae, Gregg, Angus, and Beatrice — only Beatrice is not queer in some way (Gregg and Angus are gay and Mae is bisexual). No one in the town has a problem with this. Normally, I’m somewhat sympathetic to the argument that it’s okay to just not depict queerphobia so that queer players can have an entertaining time without exposure to things they have to deal with in real life. But nothing about Night in the Woods is escapist like that — in fact, it’s trying to be fundamentally anti-escapist. Horrible things that aren’t made better happen in the course of the game. Why would queerphobia, and basically any kind of oppression based on gender (the church, despite being seen as highly traditionalist, has a female minister and thinks God uses nonbinary pronouns) be excepted from this game’s otherwise brutal attempt at honesty? And above all, the kids who find the murdercult should be targeted overwhelmingly for destruction by it, because if the murdercult represents the heart of Possum Springs, then they hate young queer people more than anything.
At the end of the game, Mae starts inspiring her friends to join a union. The implication is that this will replace the cosmic nihilism that’s been consuming Possum Springs with something worthwhile. This is a false hope straight out of why the Democratic Party lost the 2016 election to a fascist. Possum Springs, and towns like it that form the massive red areas that the President of the United States is so proud of having electorally secured, are not just economically depressed. They are filled with people, a majority of people, who are primarily motivated by destroying rights for women, queers, immigrants, mentally ill people — basically, the protagonists of Night in the Woods. But the town in the game is portrayed as welcoming to these people and only concerned about economic issues. This is a lie told by the left to itself. We want to believe no one could be so cruel and irrational as to be motivated simply by hate, but past voting for Trump, and past the childhood I had, there is no redemption. This area of America is worth saving only for those who are oppressed by it, those who need to be saved from it. The cult in Night in the Woods should have been honest: they just hate outsiders. They do feel a gnawing void, and they love it, and they celebrate it, and they kill for it.
At the end of the game, by accident, the protagonists cause a cave-in which kills the members of the cult. Absolutely no one they know is affected. Despite the stated fact that the cult, which represents the prevailing views of the community, has died, their deaths do not remove a single named character. This, and the tacked-on union narrative, turns the game into essentially a vile instrument of Trumpian propaganda — the idea that you could just win these people over if you understood them. I do understand them, and there is nothing to redeem.
Dr. Eleanor A. Lockhart holds a PhD in communication studies, but currently is on disability leave and unable to work, in a town a lot like Possum Springs. Pledges to her Patreon or PayPal give her hope that she, unlike Mae Borowski, might somehow escape this dismal place.