Night in the Woods (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Night in the Woods (2017)

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We are the generation of trauma and Youtube.  Your path through this hell may be different - but I see you.  I see you when you post a dog or kitten video that gives you life, or rage against another person dying too young because the richest nation in the world can't see fit to take care of any of us.  How anyone can have an imagination, or hope for the future, is almost beyond me these days.  My country has been at war my entire adult life, the public school systems that were supposed to protect me failed, I gradually wasted away to self-hatred working in insurance for over a decade, and now struggle to make even minimum wage writing these words.  This is what I know, this is what I do, and I can't find a spot in this world able to accept and support that.

Night in the Woods sees us.  It sees us in our pain and our optimism.  It offers small glimpses into my kind of hell, the one of endless calls and corporate metrics where something as deadly as smoking serves as a momentary break where I was free to dream.  You might not see them, or stop to listen to them, but that's okay.  I've got my peace to work toward and the seemingly futile efforts of one background character to find happiness outside their micromanaged professional world might not be where you want to stop.  But I had to - I had to stop and listen, read, simply exist in the moment where at least this one character was slowly able to work themselves up and out of their hell.I played through Night in the Woods in one sitting because I wanted to stop and embrace everyone's story.  Its world is so familiar with characters sharing compliments that conceal daggers in an uncomfortably accurate simulation of Midwest Nice, the hometown leaders bickering among themselves about which broken relic to an earlier generation's dreams needs to be maintained, and families who love but worry love isn't going to be enough to live through the week.  Where do I start finding hope in a world so accurate to my own?

With Mae, and Mae's jump.  Her face in the resting and walk cycles is frozen in the kind of frown we've come to expect from the grumpier cats on the internet.  But when she jumps her limbs go free and the frown on her face turns to delight as she comes back down to earth.  Her smile disappears, but I can bring it right back by jumping again.  So I jumped everywhere I had the option to, which led me to find platforms that started unexpected stories, and gave me the opportunity to guide Mae in making a lasting change to Possum Springs.  The generation of miracle rats I helped her bring into existence may be an annoyance - but so what?  This world might not care and be hostile to life but that doesn't mean I, or Mae, have to be.So I jump, helping Mae make her mark on the canvass of Possum Springs, no matter how temporary.  Cars remain sturdy, mailboxes shift slightly out of place, but it all returns to its default state.  Her movements, like the mini games, are a welcome break from the stagnant present.  Even at their most self-destructive, like when Mae and her fox friend Gregg have an ill-advised knife fight, it's a way of keeping their loved ones grounded to one another.  It might seem unhealthy to you but it makes loving sense in my heart.  For those too poor to get matching tattoos, the pain of two willing partners using their bodies as drawing paper is temporary catharsis, and making it a violent game version of Atari's Swordfight is Night in the Woods' way of letting us know this pain is a two-way street.

Mae and the band share their feelings in comic book text then retreat to the beautiful simplicity of the mini games when the world is too much.  There's basic environmental puzzle solving, complete with rigid limbs, that recalls the earliest adventure games like King's Quest.  At one point, Mae runs around with a bludgeoning tool that she can swing around in Ninja Gaiden-styled destruction.  The most touching involves the character Mae hangs out with the least, the reserved Angus, as the two play connect-the-dots with the stars as Angus cautiously gives the story behind his pain and the camera pans between each avatar of the night that Angus finds the strength to speak through.Night in the Woods' aesthetic suits the peace of its simple gameplay.  The anthropomorphized characters bring to mind the graphic novels of Jason (also known as John Arne Sæterøy), who combined stoic animals with ground-level relationship problems in absurd situations like an assassin arguing with his girlfriend after he takes on the task of killing Adolf Hitler.  The characters of Night in the Woods are less uniform, leaving me to get lost in Mae's pupils as they widen or narrow to reflect  her emotions, or Gregg's excitement as his eyes change shape in contrast to his sharply drawn frame.  Their design suits at another reality of our unfair world as no one is capable of sharing the traits of their "real life" animal counterparts.  Mae never lands on her feet in moments of duress, Bea hardly shares an alligator's predatory skill, Gregg rarely comes up with something sly, and so on.

Yet, there's heart in their shortcomings.  I felt achingly close to Angus, who just needs to replace "home" with "school" and "science" with "film" to match my backstory.  Mae and Bea share economic hardships that work to break them mentally and spiritually.  Then there's Gregg, who accepts he's been consigned to the disposable labor pool of the United States, but still finds the energy to get the band together.  Each one of them, in spite of the world's efforts, finds a way to keep their dignity through their struggles.Developer Infinite Fall has enough material for more stories in this one world as a late game trip to the library confirms the mountain of tragedy and loss in Possum Springs.  Without the potentially supernatural obstacle or simple distractions in their path I could have wallowed in it.  Focusing on a conspiracy plot isn't silly when the alternative involves the band realizing the near overwhelming trauma permeating their lives.  It's something I wish more people understood in my day-to-day routine.

Infinite Fall did something difficult and rare with Night in the Woods.  They refused pessimism while accepting that the forces behind our pain aren't going away with one act of heroism.  Mae is not immature, she's in flux with a society that can't treat her with respect as a child or an adult, and rebels against an economy more interested in preserving monuments to the dead instead of easing the pain of the living.  I let myself be present with Night in the Woods, stopping to take in the sight of Mae and her miracle rats or listening to the instruments of her dreams.

I started broken, and I finished better.  For now, that's enough.

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Posted by Andrew

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  1. I loved this piece! You are the first person i’ve read who seems to view Mae as an actual being with struggles instead of a checklist of minor broken laws.

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