Years In the Woods

I took a break from gaming over winter. I thought it would be permanent — with the exception of picking up a couple of retrogames to reminisce over with friends (Darklands and Tie Fighter, fyi) I hadn’t felt the urge to play anything for weeks. My PS4 remained unplugged for a month, vita left uncharged. My computer only used for work, Steam library collecting digital dust. Melodramatic: I haven’t played games for a few weeks so surely, I was never going to play them again. The end of an era!

Didn’t hit two months, it turned out, but in a way I was still right. Im never going to play games like I used to. They’re a hobby now. A pleasure I pick up when want to.

I first played Night in the Woods sometime near Christmas last year, about a year after it was released and with the new content integrated. There were several points where I had to put my controller down and stare in to the middle distance, feeling equal parts disconcerted and reassured. I have never had anything — let alone a game — hit so close to home so many times. It felt like someone had pulled thoughts straight out of my head and put them on the screen in front of me. How could something be so personally accurate and yet have been written, made, by people I’d never met on a continent half the world away? How were parts of me in a game made by strangers?

This year after christmas I fell in love with Gris, a beautiful meditation on fear and grief and the silence and isolation that being fearful and grieving can wrap you in. I know fear, of all kinds. Fear for myself, fear of others, fear of the unknown, grief for the me that never was and the things that will never be. Gris made it look beautiful and showed me again that someone else understood it too.

I had only played Night in the Woods once. Normally when I love something I devour it. I want to know everything, I play it or watch it over and over. I proselytise it to everyone I know. I find out how it was made and pull it apart, looking behind the curtain searching for flaws and perfection both.

I played Night in the Woods once and then thought about it occasionally, quietly, for a year. A lot of things happened in that time and now, in February of a new year, after being struck by Gris and reminded of how much a game can mean, I have opened it up again.

It’s as I remember. The artwork is gorgeous: block colours peppered with patterns and gradients, distinct character silhouettes and beautifully smooth animation. Instantly identifiable. The recreation of a small, dying hometown populated by animals and composed of geometric shapes only layers deep. In those simple shapes and inhuman people it achieves an atmosphere both warm and homely, pensive and hesitant about the change coming, the change in progress.

And then there are the characters and the writing. The dialogue, natural and familiar. So familiar that it makes me wonder how much the writers are like me, like the people I know and have known. Of what we have in common and what I have in common with every other person who played this game and saw bits of themselves in the cast, all broken and messed up in their own ways.

There is a danger in consuming someone’s artistic output and assuming you know them. Though made by us, from us, artwork is not us and to know artwork is not to know its creator. Carefully, aware of how easy it is to confuse the two, I sit and wonder instead, “How did they know me?”.

Much like Mae I turned up at university — 10 years ago now for me — and in my second year had a breakdown. More accurately I had been experiencing a slow motion breakdown for several years. I wasn’t in a good state when I arrived and then, as for so many people, the abrupt life change put pressure on the cracks and blew them wide open.

I have OCD — an unstoppable cycling fear in my head that I’ve done something wrong to someone and if I dont know what, the consequences will be catastrophic — for me and them. My depression started at 12, bullied and beaten for being a queer kid in a homophobic town. Worse things lead to PTSD and insomnia. I developed a social anxiety and self loathing so intense that I withdrew from everyone and left a facade up in my place. One I am still disassembling.

I started gaming young — my mother got me playing Doom and Diablo the moment I was coordinated enough to use a mouse and keyboard. My father introduced me to Heroes of Might and Magic 3, miniature wargaming and tabletop rpgs, giving me his Vampire: The Masquerade books when I was 11. (OK, being queer wasnt the only reason I was bullied as a kid.) A console from every generation and a game for every occasion. Single player, multiplayer, MMOs. FPSes and RPGs and 4Xs. There’s always been games.

Becoming disabled changed gaming from a hobby to a lifeline. Before, I threw myself in to sports, ending up at badminton and cycling. I used the distraction and exhaustion to manage the untreated mental illnesses, keeping myself too busy and too tired to be ill. But then I hit 20 and the severity and frequency of my neuropathic conditions — cluster headaches multiple times a day and hemicrania — became too much.

For the last couple of years I could barely function. Even waking up was too difficult: each morning the act of sitting up, no matter how carefully, felt like pushing an icepick through my eye. Sometimes I just didn’t get up.

The confluence of physical and mental bullshit happening inside my head started to erode me. I was in so much pain, so caught in patterns, so fucking sad all the time, so isolated.

I played games.

This is a lot about me to talk about Night in the Woods. I don’t know how to explain why this short game mattered so much without telling you what I was when I played it the first time. Very broken, very alone, trying to be anything but me in my own life.

Gaming offers a unique embodiment of the power fantasy. Games allow us to take — albeit limited — control and be the engine through which those fantastical stories progress. We exist in a no mans land between audience and participant. In control, down a set path of limited variation. More active than watching something.

I needed as much fantasy, escapism and distraction as I could get. Films and TV felt too passive on top of how inactive a role I had been reduced to in my life. I needed to do more than nothing but… I couldn’t do anything.

I played games.

For a long time the things I played were missing something that I didn’t know wasn’t there. Dark Souls, Bloodborne, the Witcher, Skyrim — all games about becoming powerful and doing the impossible. Games about being something else, leaving myself behind, or being a fantastical idealized version of myself. Never actually me, all broken and fucked up and not good enough to adventure.

Representation is important. Seeing yourself in the media you consume to confirm you exist to others, you matter and have a place and a voice in the worlds people chose to create. That when someone has a blank canvas in front of them, they don’t think it looks more beautiful if they fill it in and leave you out.

Characters I played were all healthy, popular, attractive, successful. They were aspirational avatars, not representative. It’s not a criticism — the escapism is a marketing point. “Escape from yourself, there’s no you here, it’s safe, better”. I was very happy with that.

No one puts baby in the corner and no one ruins Mae’s night but Mae.

Then I sat down to play Night in the Woods and thirty seconds in I knew what Mae was going to be. A struggling fuck up with issues and mental illness and maladapted social behaviours and no clear path ahead of her and I cared about her, so much, so quickly. Rude to people, out of carelessness and or defensiveness. A bad friend and a thoughtless daughter, misplacing anger and being too preoccupied with her own problems to notice that life has been happening to everyone else too. A breeziness and bravado to her responses that you only see in people scared of where they are and of being found out. A fake c’est la vie attitude in the face of people who still hold her past again her. Fuck you, Mr Penderson.

I, too, am always tired, and I always had a headache.

Mae’s world treats her as she really is. There’s no saccharine lie about everything being ok now that she’s upended her life trajectory and put her family out. Coming home isn’t a symphony of sympathy and a line of open arms. She left as a ticking bomb and came home detonated and there’s a mess to clean up. The clean up crew love her and want to help, but there’s no simple fix and no absconding from her own role in things. That too, I recognize.

I see not just myself but my parents. Worried about where Im going now and what to do about my brain melting out of my ears. Trying to cope with the costs, in every sense, of having a daughter like me. My friends, not sure who I am now and how to reconnect with me — or if they want to. Have I missed their own lives happening to them because Im selfish or because Im a fuckup? Does the why even matter if what they need is someone capable of paying attention? Are we friends because of proximity? Do they like me out of choice or lack of choice — no one else to see and nowhere else to go, so I’ll do?

Am I good for the person I love? Can I become better, or do I need to leave and let them find better, no matter how much they think they need me? When I lie in bed listening to them breath, how do I stop myself feeling like Im nowhere near good enough for them?

God didn’t find me either, Angus.

During the titular night in the woods, the cult gives the cast a question — what is one person worth? What are they worth to a community, and what are they worth from a community?

They’re asked to weigh up other people, though. For me, I stood over that void and I measured my own worth. Over and over again. I spent years in the woods, drawn there by my own splitting headaches, asking — if I throw myself down in to that permanent darkness, do I cause more short term pain than the long term pain of existing? What would my family be better off with, the grief but the stillness, or the gears still turning in my head and chewing everything up between their teeth, spitting razorsharp shards over everyone’s lives?

It is hard not to offer ourselves up.

This was everything I took in the first time I played the game, the pain at it’s worst and my tether almost snapped.

Now?

Last year, in august, the worst — and most — of the pain stopped. Why? We understand part of it — but most of the why is a big fucking question mark. Who knows. Who cares. 2019 was the first year, in 6 years, I started without a pickaxe in the eyesocket.

Replaying Night in the Woods, I remembered everything. This time round I smiled in recognition. I only needed to pause to admire. There was more this time round, though, my reflection in more than just the mistakes and suffering of the cast.

It’s easy to recognize yourself in the faults of others — real people or characters. What I saw this time around, unshackled from so much of the self loathing and despair that long time illness binds to you, was how the characters were written with so much genuine affection. How much they were written to care about each other. And, perhaps most importantly, how much every other person playing the game loved them.

Society has an awful attitude towards health, worth, and who it will care about. It is hard not, after years of being bombarded, to internalise the idea that to be fucked up and to be a fuck up is to be unloveable. Platonically and romantically unworthy. That no one else will care about you if you’re broken. That at any moment, your disguise will slip and people will find you out and everything will come tumbling down.

And I realised I adored them as well. As much as I hated myself for having to keep putting off my degree as my health degraded, I wanted to reach in to that world and squeeze Mae and tell her it wasn’t her fault, and she’d find a new path through. I wanted Gregg and Angus to know they were great on their own and brilliant together. I wanted Bea to feel proud of surviving such a loss and existing past it, that it was still early days.

Finally, as I looked in to the game, I saw the real people. Other people saying, “This is me”. “I do this”. “I feel like this”. “This game is about me, as well”. I wanted good for them and for everyone who saw anything of their own lives in game.

When you’re in so much pain you feel like your skull is splitting open it’s hard to conceive that anyone else has ever felt this way or could ever understand.

When you feel so sad you could swear your ribs have been cracked open and spread out and your heart torn away to leave a bloody space it’s difficult — and horrifying — to believe that you aren’t the only person that has ever felt this way.

When you feel so empty and hopeless about your future and how little you see it containing, you can’t comprehend that other people are more than meaningless shapes, let alone that some of them would understand what you meant if you tried to tell them.

It’s hard to accept you even know what it feels like as you feel it.

Playing a game where Im a superhuman scripted to end up godlike can be fun. Even the healthiest, of us are not gods. We bond over fantasies of power and success. But that’s not about who we are — it’s about something we’re not, and the wish fulfillment of closing the gap between those two states.

Looking at those stories I always knew I was looking at something I was not, and when I looked at other people sharing their wish fulfillment fantasies I knew I was not looking at them either. We were both pointing at something away from us, that we didnt contain, at most seeing the negative space in each of our lives that those fantasies could fill in. Like seeing the silhouettes we cut out of our environments.

Something like Night in the Woods, I feel like I can see shapes in an outline as opposed to an emptiness. Ill defined, but there. We are pointing at parts of ourselves, contained in someone else.

Some of me is still empty space, where the pain sank in and erased what was originally there. Now the pain is gone and I haven’t filled it back in. Im taking my time.

Night in the Woods reminds me that we still love characters — and each other — even as parts crack or break off completely. As we irreparably mess up our own lives, let each other down, miss things, make rash accusations with only half the story, and say things we regret when we’re confused and hurt — people still care. The connections between us can fray and stretch apart and then we can come back together again. Mistakes and damage don’t have to be permanent, they dont have to become all that we are to each other.

Now — you saw yourself in Night in the Woods. If I looked, would I see part of myself in you, too?