Game of the Year 2017: Night in the Woods

I dropped out of university. I came home.

The reasons for why aren’t particularly important here — a mix of toxic personal circumstances and poor mental health — the point is that I returned to the small rural town I grew up in, and proceeded to, well, get stuck. Coming home I found myself in a hole I couldn’t get free of. The events that had led to my return had taken a toll and on the other side of it I found myself in an unsettling situation: I couldn’t feel anything anymore.

Growing up I was always known as the kid who “felt too much”. A kid with a big beating heart who cared about everything. And yet coming home I didn’t feel much of anything. Apathy took over, and not in an “edgy” way like I was just too above everything to care, but literal apathy. Dulled to the point of bare existence. A shell. I could see people try and bond with me, try to be friends or be supportive, but I could never feel it. The connection always stopped before it reached my heart, and I didn’t know how to change that. I stopped writing, creating, and went into autopilot.

All sense of a future seemed robbed away from me too. I was home, but nothing seemed to exist outside of it. I tried to picture what my life could look like, but everything would always be hazy or fill me with anxiety and dread. It was like standing at a crossroads, only for all the roads to disappear, too. I couldn’t see a path out of my town, a way to that brighter future that people kept insisting existed out there for me, somewhere.

I was stuck.

And as the months turned to years, it seemed like there really was no hope out of there. The friends that had meant the world to me slowly started drifting further and further away. Some due to simple life circumstances, others due directly to my stuck-ness, to how I was regressing and unfeeling. To how I had no motivation, no drive. The struggle for just continually existing was not enough for them. I was left behind.

When the Kickstarter for Night in the Woods launched back in October 2013 it almost seemed too good to be true. The game was to follow Mae, a girl who drops out of college and returns to her small town only to find that things have changed, the town is falling apart, her friendships seem to be drifting, and something just doesn’t feel right anymore. With a focus on narrative and exploration, as well as canon explicit queer characters and beautiful visuals, it felt like the game was practically made for me. I instantly backed it believing that maybe by playing this game it would somehow help make my life make sense again, that it would help me push past the haze and give my life a sense of purpose again, of direction, of hope.

It was, admittedly, far too much to put on the shoulders of a single game.

At the time though, it felt like it was my best shot. So I followed the development of the game closely throughout the years. Every update, every blurry screenshot the devs would post on twitter. I tried to consume as much of it as I could. When they released a backer-only short featuring Angus and Gregg I’d watch it over and over again. It was only a minute long, but the visuals, the music, the feeling of it all, seeing these two gay characters in love — I don’t know, it was like a lifeline. There was hope.

From the Backer-exclusive short. I feel iffy sharing it here since it still hasn’t been released publicly, but it just meant so much to me at the time.

Leading up to Night in the Wood’s February release, I was getting worried. There was no way it could live up to all that I had put into it. For three and a half years it was my most anticipated title, the game I looked forward to above all else. I was hoping that it would speak directly to me, that I would be changed for having played it. Booting up that game for the first time, I was asking so much of it, there was no way I wouldn’t be disappointed, that it wouldn’t live up to the image of it that I had in my head. I mean, how could it?

So, let’s talk about the game.

Night in the Woods is Everything.

And I don’t say that lightly. I have never in my life found a piece of media that spoke so directly to my heart like this before, be it film, literature or games. Everything about Night in the Woods from beginning to end felt so in tune with my life, my experiences, my values and the things I look for in a story and in a game. I’ve never had that experience before. There was not a single bum note throughout the entire game that rang false to me or that negatively threw me off. Even with other games and stories that I’ve loved there were usually aspects of it that didn’t quite rub me right or that I had to compartmentalize in some fashion or wish it had done differently, but I never had to do that here. Night in the Woods was everything I hoped it would be, and then so much more.

Night in the Woods is largely a game centered around characters and setting, and exploring them both. Mae’s small mining town Possum Springs is wonderfully and fully realized with a great sense of place. Exploring the nooks and crannies of the town and learning about its history and the people that reside in it is one of the highlights of the game as the town is lovingly fleshed out and created. You physically explore it through platforming elements by jumping and falling, climbing onto lamp posts and telephone wires, and running through the richly detailed setting. The game is made up of Mae’s daily life as she explores the town and talks to its residents with each new day offering new conversations, new backstories to unveil and new things to do. As the game progresses, more and more areas of the town become available and new characters show up and the game never lets up. Even in the game’s final sequence there are still new characters to find and talk to and get to know.

Breaking up the core gameplay of exploration and talking with the residents are small minigame-type interactions. None of these are particularly difficult or challenging (with the exception of a very fleshed out and enjoyable music-based band minigame), but they don’t need to be. Their primary purpose is to give you little windows through which to interact with the world and the characters more and I always found myself enjoying these little vignettes as they appeared.

The visuals, by Scott Benson, are breathtaking and gorgeous. Night in the Woods is easily one of the best looking games I’ve ever played with a nice crisp almost storybook art style. The game continues to introduce beautiful visuals and settings throughout its run that constantly delight and surprise. The game is full of simply beautiful colour schemes that perfectly capture the feelings of autumn in which the game is set.

And much could be said about the music, by Alec Holowka, as it is hands down one of the best soundtracks of the year. Each track is beautiful on its own but together paints a loving atmosphere that sways between nostalgic and melancholic, often in the same composition. Even now I’m listening to it as I type this, completely enraptured by the songs. Some of my favourite tracks include Cloud Vacation (from the recent Weird Autumn Edition update), Title, Batter Up, Knife Fight, Harfest, Mallard’s Tomb, Astral Alley, Microfiche, Cycles I, Cycles II, Finding Bea, Proximity, Snow and more. Perhaps my all-time favourite though is End Credits, which never fails to make me tear up.

Of course the heart of the game is its characters, their struggles and their lives. The writing in the game is phenomenal both in the larger narrative, themes and metaphors sense, but also in the dialogue, the beat by beat moments. Never before has a game felt so in tune with me. I’d find myself laughing out loud one moment, only to find myself tearing up in the next — sometimes even in the same scene. The game deftly handles its themes and tones exquisitely and moves between them with grace and fluidity. It’s honestly hard to believe that this is the first major game for lead writers Benson and Hockenberry as their writing shows a level of skill and aptitude that is often missing from most games narratives.

The characters and writing are perhaps the most human I’ve ever seen in a game before, with a narrative that gaming at large has sorely been needing. It’s hard to say it any other way, but Night in the Woods is entirely unique with some of the best, most human and honest writing I’ve seen. It deals with so many huge topics like mental illness, economic struggles, queerness, the horrors of capitalism and damage left in its wake, with the utmost care and tenderness and realism. It is perhaps the most fully realized and honest depiction of mental illness in games I have ever seen. By the end of the game, the characters stick with you. And not just the primary cast, but the secondary characters as well. The game pulls you into their lives and their stories and their personalities, and before you even know it you’ve fallen in love with them. A few months ago as I showed this game to one of my close friends, I was constantly finding myself telling her “Oh I love this character” or “I love him” and so on, and it was true. Soon enough I was saying it about pretty much every character they were coming across, and I meant it. They’re beautifully human, flawed, loveable characters and I found pieces of myself reflected in so many of them.

Spending time in this game’s world, hanging out with its characters… I feel like a broken record at this point, but it just spoke so intensely to my heart. I was invested in all of it and just wanted to spend more time with them, wanted to hangout more, wanted to get to know even more of the characters as intimately as you do with core cast. But unfortunately, like every story, it has to end at some point.

Much has been said about Night in the Woods’ ending, about where the plot goes and what lies beneath it all. Some came away from the game thinking that everything is doomed, that everything in the world is shit, and there’s nothing that can be done about that. I didn’t, and I don’t think the game itself is suggesting that either. I helped kickstart the game back in 2013 hoping that it would speak to me, that it would help me figure things out, and learn how to move on. The game’s tagline “At the End of Everything, Hold Onto Anything” has always stuck with me, but by the end of the game I considered it in a new light. In 2017 in particular it can at times feel like towns like Possum Springs, and the world in general, is just ruins. That there is a pervasive darkness in our lives threatening to consume us whole. But there’s also a lot of light to cut through it all and sometimes, the best we can do is survive today, so that we have a tomorrow. And, yknow, maybe that is enough.

In the game’s absolutely beautiful and life-affirming epilogue, one of the final things Mae can say in the game is “Nothing is gonna save us forever, but a lot of things can save us today”. The problems I’ve been dealing with for the past few years haven’t entirely gone away. I’m still living in my small town. I’m still a little uneasy about my future and what it would even look like. But there’s hope. There are a lot of stars in this night sky. There’s a whole lot of Something to hold onto.

Night in the Woods is a beautifully crafted game by Alec Holowka, Scott Benson and Bethany Hockenberry. With a big beating heart at its core and its honest and empathetic portrayal of its characters, settings and themes, it is not only my Game of the Year for 2017, but my absolute favourite game of all time. It is a much needed, absolute treasure of a game that will both break your heart and galvanize it, letting you know in these final dark hours of the year that the world is not just ruins, but a home, and there’s a future out there for you so long as you hold onto it today.

“Here’s to you, Possum Springs. Here’s to Survival.”