I did not grow up in a small town but my parents had a house just outside of one that we’d go to on the weekends. In many ways Night in the Woods captures the rhythms of that kind of American community, where people actually do know their neighbors’ names and the things that seem truly important are the local happenings around your neighborhood, rather than whatever’s going on in some city hundreds of miles away or in another country across an ocean.
Night in the Woods unfurls like a literary novel, set in a very particular community with a specific set of characters, and focused more on showing the player what those characters feel and who they are than on telling a strong or urgent story. Night in the Woods doesn’t have the graphical fidelity or scope of an open world game, but it paints an emotional sense of place stronger than any video game I have played before, and makes Possum Springs feel like a living, lived in, small city.
I would say that was Night in the Woods’ greatest strength but it’s really its second greatest, behind the music, which is just phenomenal, and ahead of its third and fourth greatest strengths, the visual style and the characters.
At its core Night in the Woods is kind of like a 2D walking simulator, with some light platforming and very light puzzle elements, and a ton of charm. The writing is (mostly) sharp, the visuals are fantastic, and it’s the kind of game that includes both an overhead dungeon action game as a game within a game AND a well-polished rhythm minigame that is both fun and challenging, and marred only by the fact that you are somehow expected to read the subtitled lyrics and respond to a very fast note highway simultaneously, which I could not do.
In some ways Night in the Woods seems like it was strongly influenced by Ron Gilbert’s “The Cave," being a mostly narrative experience with some light platforming and more repetition than you’d like (the game uses repetition thematically, to create a sense of place and familiarity, but it also requires traversing the same easy areas again and again, especially if you want to do the game’s side-stories.) In others it seems almost like a visual novel, with lots of text, a few key choices that lock out other options, and very little gameplay.
That’s not to say that Night in the Woods doesn’t feel original, because it does. The striking art style does a lot to make the game stand out, since few games use these kinds of clean illustrations and bold colors, but even more than that Night in the Woods stands out from the way its writing hews closer to an independent film about a group of friends in a crumbling town than the traditional video game stories about adventure and violence. This is a story about characters who feel real and grounded, despite being anthropomorphic animals, and their experiences in a (mostly) normal situation in a (mostly) normal place. Mae Borowski, the protagonist, is a fantastic, layered character. She’s brave and strong, yes, but she’s also petulant, selfish, stubborn, self-doubting, and real. She is a step forward in relatable video game protagonists and while I didn’t always agree with what she did or the choices she made I always felt connected to her and her story.
Night in the Woods also engages with very adult themes, ranging from love and sexuality to the pain of growing up, being unpopular, the economic decline of the American middle class, how much it sucks to do a job you hate, and a lot of other important, interesting material. Most games that try to be about something real are ABOUT it in a way that's too focused to feel subtle and real. This is one of the reasons I didn't like Gone Home, because it was so focused on what was going on with the sister character that it shortchanged everything else in the family's life, pushing it to the periphery. Firewatch gets around this by moving its characters out to a national park, where their relationship is literally the only thing they have going on, but that's a bit of sleight-of-hand that Night in the Woods doesn't need. It is confident enough to tell a story about people and let the themes emerge more organically.
So why, if I like so much about Night in the Woods, do I say that it is less than the sum of its parts? Some of it is due to pacing problems caused by the fact that you have to check a lot of areas on the map for every day in the game, often to find there's nothing there, and I also have some other minor complaints (some of the minigames aren’t very engaging; after you finish the game you can either resume from right AT the end or you can clear your save but you can’t do a new-game+ or pick a chapter to play again, which this game SORELY needs.) Mostly though, the game is betrayed by its ending, which is, if not objectively terrible, than at least of far lesser quality than what came before it (I am specifically talking about the part BEFORE the epilogue.) The ending undercuts everything that has come before it and is a very confusing choice from a game that doesn’t make many false steps in its first three quarters.
I need to get more spoilery to explain specifics.
The game ends by revealing that the thing Mae thought was a ghost was actually a member of a cult that sacrifices people to some ancient entity in order to bring prosperity to the town...which isn't actually all that prosperous anyway. Some members of the cult have magical powers. It's silly, disjointed, and opens a host of questions it does not answer. In a normal game it would just be normal bad game writing, but in Night in the Woods it plays out like the incredible writer who wrote most of the game left the script open on their computer and their punk 12-year-old brother got into it and wrote some third-rate Lovecraftian bullshit, then everyone decided to just go with it.
I am fine with the game having supernatural elements, since they are hinted out throughout, but the whole Cthulhu thing was just silly, and way too hamfisted. I get it, the Cthulhu creature represents the needs of the town, sacrificing the young so that the old can thrive, and the dad cult wants induct Mae and friends so that they can reproduce the oppression. But the game has already surfaced those themes and it didn’t need to be ridiculous to get them across. And the ending was ridiculous. And confusing. And features no meaningful choices in a game that thrives on its meaningful choices. Also all of the carefully drawn characters act very oddly during the ending, including Gregg having a crossbow out of nowhere (maybe it appears earlier if you do stuff with him, I was team Bea all the way) and the writing is significantly worse and more confused than in the rest of the game. Was Aunt Mallcop in on it and that’s why she didn’t find anything investigating and why she never appears after the cave-in? Who knows. The game loses all interest in the stories it was telling in order to do all this stupid stuff. The existence of the Cthulhu monster also invalidates the importance of the lives of the actual characters, since people are being murdered and fed to an ancient evil. Who the hell cares that Bea never got to go to college when there’s a literal Cthulhu living under the town? Maybe the game wants to say we NEED to care anyway, but I didn't. The existential threat is much more important than the emotional growth of the characters. Also, presumably, there are like a dozen important men from town missing and SOMEONE’S going to notice so the game doesn’t so much resolve its story as turn it into a much BIGGER story and then promptly abandon it (and acknowledging that by saying “pizza and beer are enough for now!” is definitely not satisfying.) The whole thing just left me annoyed and disappointed after I felt like I was playing a masterpiece, and I don’t know how the people who wrote a character like Mae Borowski thought that this was the right way to end the game. It feels like a twist for the sake of a twist; if they wanted to do something supernatural they could have done something much less jarring with the ghost story the game seems to be telling.
The fact that Night in the Woods botches the landing doesn’t take away from the good, even great, elements. It is still a beautiful game, Possum Springs is still a wonderful place to visit, and that soundtrack is one of the best I’ve ever heard. It is also a game that handles very mature themes very well, and I sincerely hope that future games learn from how Night in the Woods tells its story, at least until the end.
Some good games can be really ruined by a bad ending or a story that proves ultimately incoherent, but Night in the Woods is not such a game. For one thing it is longer than most games in this style; I think I probably put in about 10 hours (doing lots of side stuff and probably 2 hours playing Demontower, the game within a game). For another it’s fairly modular, broken into acts and chapters, and some of those self-contained stories are just gems.
You also cannot ruin beautiful art and great music through bad storytelling.
But if Night in the Woods had chosen to stick to the things it was doing so well and had wrapped up in a way I found satisfying I would probably count it as one of my favorite games of all time. As it is I consider it a flawed masterpiece; aesthetically beautiful and a strong step forward for video game storytelling, but with a big glaring issue that makes the whole package less compelling than the elements that make it up.