Night in the Woods: Making Art Relatable Through Essential Emotion
This article briefly discusses mental illness. It also contains spoilers for the video game Night in the Woods.
Night in the Woods is a lot of things. It’s thrilling, bittersweet, and a small-town mystery/exploration game that leaves players with a lot to think about. But more than that, it’s relatable, and for weird reasons.
Mae first comes back from college to her old hometown and discovers that a lot of things have changed. It’s only been a few years since she left home, but there are already so many differences in the little town of Possum Springs that Mae almost doesn’t feel comfortable anymore. Shops have been closed down, all of her friends have jobs, her family might lose their house, and lots of people have moved out.
Mae quickly turns to crimes, vandalism, and late-night adventures to ignore the fact that her entire world is changing. But it never works for long.
A common human fear is the fear of change. Gradual changes, sometimes, can be okay. But big changes are the ones that we’re less prepared to deal with. Going to college, moving houses, switching schools, quitting jobs. These are big changes that happen all the time, and they can be absolutely terrifying for most people that encounter them. In order to cope, we revert back to things from our past, so that we can cope with the big change by not having to worry about the small one. For example, a college student moving away from their family home might bring childhood books to read, stuffed animals to live with, and their favorite movies from when they were younger. By reverting back to a time when fewer things have changed, it makes the big change more comfortable.
We see this in Mae, too. The reason that she comes back to her old town is because she has dissociative disorder, where she has identity breakdowns and can no longer attach meaning to objects in her mind. She frequently disassociates to cope. However, the big change of leaving for college is making her disorder worse (likely due to the stress of a new environment). Mae thinks that, by coming back to her hometown, she’ll be able to relieve the stress and get rid of the worst of her mental illness.
However, the problem with a fear of change is that the world is constantly changing, and there’s really nothing we can do to stop it. If Mae had been living in her hometown this entire time, maybe she would have been able to accept the changes more easily. However, she comes back, and, to her, the entire town has changed right before her very eyes. She’s extremely upset; the places she used to frequent have been abandoned, boarded up, or knocked down. Her dissociative disorder comes back full force in musical nightmares, blinking lights, and disassociating at stressful moments.
It’s difficult for a game to fully capture the vast range of human emotions. When we look at art and we feel something, that’s an incredible effort on the artist’s part. In order for us to be interested in anything, we must feel, which means, in some odd way or another, we must relate to it; books, paintings, TV shows, movies, even this very article you’re reading right now. But, somehow, Night in the Woods manages to make us feel what Mae is feeling. Despite never having seen Possum Springs before — despite it not even being a real town — we still feel upset that so much of it has changed. Players are made to feel a sense of sadness, a sense of longing, for the old Possum Springs.
This is because the game’s very essence is entirely relatable. We’ve all been there. There has always been, and will always be, change. It’s inescapable. So, even though we never get to see the old Possum Springs, even if we’ve known the little town for five minutes and not twenty years, we can still feel the sadness that Mae feels. Players can relate it back to when they left for college, said goodbye to childhood friends, moved out, switched states — any big change in their life can relate to what Mae is experiencing in the game.
I think that there are two big things that we can take away from Night in the Woods. One: in order to make your work interesting to others, all you need is an essential feeling or fear that they can relate to. Your audience will be able to fill in a few emotional gaps because of their relation to the essential emotion. Two: Night in the Woods is a game that covers a lot of things, but it mostly covers change. Everything that happens in the game is a result of change, or a result of the fear of change. It’s terrifying for us, as people, to accept the fact that things change. It turns our world upside down. And the fact that the game is able to capture that feeling within just a few seconds of the player “returning” to Possum Springs is incredible. It’s what makes the game so good, and so emotional.