Friday, June 15, 2018

Night in the Woods (2017)

The first thing about Night in the is that I played through it, then immediately played through it again. That is NOT something I would normally do--not something I'd ever do, really--with a longish story game. But I was just that captivated.

You control Mae Borowski, who, for reasons that remain unclear throughout most of the game, has just dropped out of college and returned to the town where she grew up, Possum Springs, a decaying midwestern industrial town. You wander around town and chat with your friends and family and strangers, over the course of a few weeks, as Autumn progresses. And that is mostly it. Oh, and as you'll have gathered, all the characters are highly stylized anthropomorphic animals.

Let's take a moment to appreciate how absolutely gorgeous this game is. I really like the fact that more and more, we're not judging how games look based on the hardware's processing power. You don't need a particularly powerful machine to run Night in the Woods (although, as the aspect ratio of these screens may make obvious, I played the Switch port), but it's impossible to imagine how you could make it look better. The creators simply had an artistic vision, and fulfilled it. That is all.

Its beauty notwithstanding, the biggest strength of Night in the Woods is the quality of the writing, and the interactions between the characters. Two! Two biggest strengths! Which I guess is as it should be, given how story-centric it is. Mae has two main friends: the first is Gregg, who still has an adolescent mentality that's at odds with his desire to build a serious, substantial life with his boyfriend, Angus (and I love how understated the game is about sexuality--blink and you'll miss the fact that Mae herself is bisexual). Their "too bad you didn't..."/"oh yeah well too bad YOU didn't..." playful oneupsmanship is SO true to life, and also funny.

Then there's Bea, forced to take on far more responsibility than she should after her mother's death from cancer and her father's breakdown. At various intervals, you get to decide whether you'll hang out of an evening with Gregg or Bea, and you get to experience different scenes accordingly (that's a big reason I replayed it--I really wanted to see all the scenes). And these are GREAT. Let me tell you, when the characters have arguments, it's the most painful thing you can imagine; you just want everyone to be friends again. But, to be clear, although it's not all fun and games, it's definitely a LOT of fun and games. The dialogue and scenarios can be HELLA funny.

If there's one criticism I would level at it, it's that the scenes with Bea are just...better. You're probably going to want to stick with Bea or Gregg throughout the entire game, just to see their entire story arcs, but the conflicts just feel so much more resonant with Bea (who is intensely jealous of Mae for having gotten to go to college while she remains trapped in this dead-end life, and resentful towards her for dropping out). With Gregg...there really isn't much of an organic conflict. His final cut-scene does make up for it to some degree (even if it never quite makes his relationship with Angus make sense), but still. Don't get me wrong; they're fun and worth seeing. But if you're only going to play once, I know what I'd do.

So yeah anyway. Thematically, the game is also really strong: about decay and nostalgia and longing and the deep need for connections. It's really good stuff, and while it's not political in a dogmatic or hectoring way, its politics aren't exactly secret: it's very much pro-labor, pro-union, and opposed to the pernicious forces of capitalism that poison our world.

The only significant criticism I have is. Well...after my second play-through, I'm actually kind of ambivalent about the extent to which this is a criticism per se, but: one of the many things the game is about is mental illness, with Mae's state deteriorating as it progresses. She has strange visions, and there are intimations of weird things happening in the town. And this is all fine! Great, even. But the thing is, in my opinion, things need to stay ambiguous. But...the climax of the game drags this ambiguity out into the unambiguous real world (I hope you appreciate my intentional vagueness), and it is jarring. It's not that it's not thematically relevant! It just feels very jarring and out-of-place to me, and it's a tribute to the game that, for my money, it succeeds in spite of that.

The game also has mini-games, which are a bit of a mixed bag: they're all pretty simple, some are fun, some not so much. Mae's dream sequences where she has to find four ghost musicians are kind of the most frustrating and tedious thing in the game, though highly thematically relevant. And while it's impressive that the developers stuck a whole rogue-lite game on Mae's computer, I found it pretty dull (fortunately, it's also totally optional). On the other hand, man, I love that guitar-playing minigame. The songs are great, and I wish there were more of them and more chances to play.

This is a very sweet and compassionate game. I SO do not want to have that dumbass "are games ART?" argument again, but what I will say is that it's hard to imagine this story working in a different medium. Or maybe it would, but it wouldn't be the same story. Mae's daily routine, her daily interactions with the same people, would feel weird and jerky in any other medium, but you'd lose a lot if you lost them.

Any other criticism I have here would be on the order of "why isn't there MORE?!?" I want to spend more time with these characters in this world, dammit. I know it's not a reasonable thing to ask, but still. Night in the Woods has quickly become one of my all-time favorite anythings. I think I may be permanently spoiled for games that DON'T star stylized anthropomorphic animals.


Blogger Pan Miluś pontificated to the effect that...

Well there are making "The Witcher 3" so maybe after they read this article they make some last second change to turn Gerald into anthropomorphic wombat.

So you would recomend this game to me as a fan of old fashioned point and click adventure games? :)

6:58 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. pontificated to the effect that...

Well, it doesn't really have puzzles in the way that you'd expect from Sierra or Lucasarts-type things. As I say, there are some decent minigames and some not-so-great ones, but none of them really play THAT big a role in the game. It's all about the story. I'd recommend it in general, but not necessarily on the basis of resemblance to what we oft think of as adventure games.

I do like that Witcher concept, though.

9:10 PM  
Blogger Pan Miluś pontificated to the effect that...

Well, puzzels aside Characters and the way story developes is a big part for me in a adventrue game (an good adventure game can be ruined if dialog and characters are stiff and the story is generic no matter how great the puzzles can be) so I can give this a fair try :)

5:03 PM  
Blogger Pan Miluś pontificated to the effect that...

Thanks :)

5:03 PM  

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