Monday, February 5

Review: Night in the Woods [Nintendo Switch eShop]

There’s something both scary and fascinating about games that break away from the norm to deliver something you can more directly relate to. To some games should just be entertainment and having them get “too real” can be a red flag, but the reward of sticking with these sorts of experiences is that they can be instructive about the struggles real people face or can even reveal insight for people who are living with similar challenges. While its gameplay that is a bit all over the map, including elements of adventure, a variety of mini-games, and some light platforming, the real meat of Night in the Woods is its spot-on portrayal of the struggles of a young adult, depression, and life in a small town.

In the game you’ll play as Mae, who has returned home to her small town of Possum Springs after deciding to drop out of college. In the early game as you walk the town and talk to the various people you run into the mystery of why she dropped out of college is joined by questions about Mae’s past and some serious incidents as well. As you interact with your parents and friends it is clear Mae has some issues with how she sees herself and a tendency towards self-destructive behavior but at the same time I found it hard not to be rooting for her and wanting to understand her better.

For the most part the times that are the most revealing in terms of understanding Mae are in her interactions with her best friends Bea and Gregg. Once the game gets rolling you’ll need to choose who to hang out with, the hyper-responsible Bea or the walking manifestation of the id, Gregg. The time that you spend with them, whether “fixing” an old lady’s furnace or getting into a knife fight mini game, tends to be very revealing about both Mae’s friends and herself. Bea, with a bit of a chip on her shoulder, who Mae aggravates with her immaturity but who also could use some of that wonder in her life; Gregg, who seems to understand his own self-destructive nature but who also can’t seem to help himself. The mix of these key flawed characters, their very authentic interactions with one another, and the whole tone of the somewhat depressed and changing landscape of the town Mae grew up in all served to suck me in to see where it all goes and where things end up.

In terms of raw gameplay Night in the Woods is a bit of a mixed bag but truthfully isn’t the focus. There are some strange and fun distractions along the way, often with mini games to play, my favorites being Mae’s copy of Demontower on her laptop (Level 5 is freaking HARD) and stealing pretzels to feed my rat babies. I would guess that the story would likely progress without seeking out what’s happening in every corner and with every person but I was afraid of what I might miss and taking the time to find new areas and talk to the same people every day is often what made the game so rich. Even the limited things the two guys who are perpetually outside the bar, over time, told their own sort of inferred story and, for me living around a small town, there is a degree of reality to it all I really appreciated.

I think the decision point with a game like Night in the Woods revolves around how much reality you want in your games. If you’re looking purely for an escape, to turn your mind off and simply enjoy yourself, Night in the Woods very much won’t be for you… at all. If, instead, you view games through the lens of entertainment that can also have something to say or to reveal to you about people who may be living very different lives than you I would absolutely say you should check it out. I don’t know that I’ve ever played a game with characters that remind me so much of my own children, some of their struggles, and how sometimes people’s traits being positives or negatives can be very heavily driven by perspective and context. I can’t think of any game I’ve played in quite some time that made me reflect on as many things as Night in the Woods has, and if you’re open to the experience I’d highly recommend it.

Score: 8.5

  • Fascinatingly flawed characters
  • An all-too-real reflection of life with depression
  • Character interactions feel very authentic in a way I’ve rarely seen in a game

  • If you’re looking to escape reality it is very much not that sort of experience
  • Some of the platforming elements, at times, can be aggravating

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