Night In The Woods – The Switch Island Review
I am not one to harp on about stories in video games. I don’t like a story at the expense of gameplay, and I’m quickly bored during cut scenes. And yet, I fell hard for Night In The Woods, a game that’s basically all narrative. I was even compelled to complete it. So, what in green gables happened?
With lots of positive reviews, repeated mentions and its charming aesthetic, I became conflicted. I’d read that there aren’t any puzzles to speak of, that you just wander around chatting to people, which is generally my least favourite aspect of point and click adventure games (this isn’t one). But, intrigued, I loaded it up on @DannyWard2707’s Switch at EGX2018 (right before changing all of his profile pics to DK – snigger, giggle) and found myself entranced. The game has you starting in a train station. Mae, the protagonist; a whimsical, slightly dorky-looking cat is standing at the station, and she’s alone, and the station is empty, and no-one’s there to collect her, and it’s evening. It’s instantly a nervy, compelling situation. I wanted to help and unravel Mae’s story; how had this happened? There wasn’t a long cut scene, I didn’t have to click through twenty minutes of text, everything was explained in a few words, in clever mise-en-scène. Damn, I wanted to play more. A month or so later, I bought it.
And, I found out that you do just walk around chatting to people; that genuinely is most of the game. But instead of being tiresome, it’s great. I think it works because the writing is tight, impactful and emotionally engaging. There’s no extraneous exposition or interminable conversations with NPCs you’ve no history with. In other games, I’m loathe to speak to anyone, to click on too many objects for details, but here I looked forward to it. Which is handy, because that’s what you have to do to progress. The game does a stellar job of keeping you interested in the life of Mae, her home town Possum Springs and its darker underbelly (no spoilers here). Added to that, you never hear a character say the same thing twice. In other games, even ones with great writing like Monkey Island, if you keep talking to a character they will invariably parrot the same line back at you, over and over. In Night In The Woods, I can’t recall that ever occurring. If a character is selectable, they have something new to say. If an object is clickable, Mae has new insight into it. The aggravation of clicking through dialogue you’ve already read just never crops up.
And there’s freedom. You can choose where you go, who you speak with. The game doesn’t sign-post how it wants you to move through it. You’re alone with your choices. And sometimes, but not always, you can also make dialogue choices. If you want to be a cat and jump around on rooftops, bounce on telegraph wires, sure you can do that. If you want to chat with Greg first – your friend at the convenience store – go right ahead. Whilst the game has a thread, it doesn’t direct you to pull it.
Glance at the graphics and this looks like a cutesy platformer game. However, Night In The Woods deals with big adult themes – loss, neglect, decline, friendship, mental health, disappointment etc. Like a fable, it’s dealing with big stuff through animals. Unlike a fable, it’s not on the nose with any particular moral or agenda. It’s more like a complex novel with side characters, and conversations and a plot that coalesces. It’s also like a novel in that you might not agree with some of the protagonist’s choices; their actions, you notice, wouldn’t be yours. And yet, unlike in a novel, you feel here as if you can help, as if your choices can make Mae a better person, can fix this fading town. And you start to wonder, can you?
The graphics are gorgeous throughout – chunky and colourful. There are these little touches that define certain characters (Greg’s arms thing), certain places (the bridge). And seasons shift, so the town looks different as you live there longer. And situations arise that feel unscripted and one-off, a bit like the first play of the three days in Majora’s Mask or in an Animal Crossing game. I found I developed a huge fondness for certain characters, even though they’re simply drawn (perhaps because of).
The game has a loop of sorts, especially in the first half. Once you’re done roaming and chatting in the town, you return to your home and go to bed. When you wake, a new day is set, and NPCs now have new things to say, and things have shifted. I’m not clear on what triggers the resets, which is a huge part of the charm. You don’t know that you have to speak with person X and then go to bed and then speak with person Y to progress. It’s all more subtle than that.
Being able to move around a lot like a platformer helps as well. Mae even has a triple jump like Mario. It feels good, and not sluggish. Which helped in keeping me engaged. There are a few separate sequences that are more platform-y too, which I’m not 100% on; they feel slightly out of place. Also, I wasn’t a huge fan of the rhythm gameplay at Mae’s band’s practise sessions. But, tastes will vary for these sections.
If there are negatives, they are few. It’s sometimes frustrating to get back to a part of town you’d like to go to just to catch up with a character. It’s not a huge place, but there’s a loading screen between each section, so it all adds up. Some shortcuts wouldn’t have gone amiss. The only other minor weird annoyance is the game’s loading screen itself. You just get Mae’s face close-up, with no clue that the game is loading. It almost looks like a crash.
Night In The Woods took me around 8 hours to complete. I could’ve played it for 20. I think 5-10 hours will be about right for most play-throughs. And I’ll say it now because I have to. I love Mae and her friends and Possum Springs. In a real heartfelt way. That this game could do this to me was quite a surprise, and I won’t say I’ve completely shifted in my scepticism of video game stories, but it certainly has nudged me to keep an open mind. I just hope Mae’s OK.