'Rust Belt Gothic': lead writer Scott Benson unpacks the art that inspired Night in the Woods

From Flannery O’Connor to Richard Scarry and Symphony of the Night, we talk with animator/writer/Twitterman Scott Benson about what makes everyone's favorite new indie adventure game tick.

When I came home to Cleveland, Ohio, after finishing college, I had a whole lot of nothing to do in the summer and so I ended up writing a bunch of crappy poetry. I’d mostly forgotten about it until I played Infinite Fall’s Night in the Woods, which takes place in the fictional, run-down hamlet of Possum Springs, a former mining town that has fallen on hard times since the industries that once gave it life moved on. When protagonist Mae Borowski arrives in town, she’s surrounded by all kinds of signifiers that immediately resonated with me: The call of a train as it passes by in the distance, the shell of an abandoned factory, a town center replete with war memorial statues and shuttered storefronts, and others.

What Night in the Woods captures--in a way that no other game I’ve played before has--is the duality of these places, the tension between the vibrant, animated life that still exists there and the long shadow of the prosperous past that no longer provides but which can’t really be escaped.

I called up Scott Benson, animator, dialogue-writer, and one third of Night in the Woods’ dev team Infinite Fall, to ask him how the game came to capture the feeling of coming home--for me and so many others.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

ZAM: So you’ve identified Night in the Woods in previous interviews as “Rust Belt Gothic.” Would you mind unpacking that term for me a little bit?

Scott Benson: A lot of our influence comes from older Gothic literature, older ghost stories and that kind of thing, and particularly for me, Southern Gothic stuff. Like, Flannery O’Connor is a really huge influence. So Gothic literature is about this past that’s kind of gone, and the spell of order, this kind of organizing force, is gone. So you’ll have castles or mansions in Gothic literature, but everyone is gone, or there’s like a [Edgar Allen Poe's] “Fall of the House of Usher” situation going on, and now what has taken its place is this emptiness, this kind of spirit of the past that you can’t get rid of or you have to confront, and is victimizing younger people in the present.

And you’ve got the same thing with Southern Gothic, but it’s the post-bellum South, and that organizing force, unless it was something like the church, was really… bad. O’Connor was hella Catholic, and so she was always looking for God in those situations that you might look at and go, “this is just decline and decay” [and she would] find this life in them. But she also wouldn’t pull punches on the gory details, and people would not have happy endings, necessarily.

All of us on the team [Infinite Fall] were Christians at one point, and we were involved with churches and stuff, and now none of us believe in God anymore. So at least for [fellow developer] Bethany and me in particular, we’re sensitized to this idea that there’s this organizing force that is kind of absent now, [and we try to] find grace in those spaces.

"Whereas the older Gothic is the decline of these hierarchical systems of lords, castles, manors... Rust Belt Gothic [is about] economics."

When we were putting together the themes of the game, the kind of stories that we wanted to tell, and the kind of feelings that we wanted to delve into... I wondered-- was there such a thing as “Rust Belt Gothic?” Because I felt like that’s what we were doing here, taking those influences and applying them to places where Bethany was born and raised, and where I’ve lived for like seventeen years. So I Googled it and it turned out that there were a couple of people talking about the idea, but really only a handful were talking about it in the tradition of Gothic and Southern Gothic.

So after that I was just like, “screw it, we can claim that title, ‘cause this is what we’re doing.” Whereas the older Gothic is the decline of these hierarchical systems of lords, castles, manors, monarchs, and stuff (and to a degree the church as the nineteenth century drew to a close), Rust Belt Gothic [is about] economics. It’s extremely materialist, at least in our view of it. In the hands of someone who just found that aesthetic interesting, it could be horrible; it could just be a lot of ruin porn. “They had jobs, and then they didn’t, and now everyone’s depressed.” But I think that in the hands of people who are from there, or who have lived there for a long time and have a love for it, you can get a lot of fun stuff with it.

So when you first started developing Night in the Woods, the Rust Belt was sort of… off the national radar in terms of general culture. And it’s sort of been thrust into the limelight over the last year or so. How do you feel about the political climate and the culture’s perspective of poor, rural America shifting so much in between the start of development and the game’s release?

It’s, uh, it’s been weird. The politics of the game became more overt as we went. They were always there, even from our original Kickstarter thing, talking about jobs having left and that kind of thing, it was always around. It got a little more overt over time because we felt like, yeah, we can’t engage with these places that we’re from and these people that we know and people that we’ve been that make up a lot of the people in the game, we can’t really do that justice without engaging with these material, political, social issues. We just can’t do it. Otherwise, even if you’re from there, it feels like you’re just a tourist.

"The politics of the game became more overt as we went [because] we can't really engage with these places that we're from... without engaging with these material, political, social issues."

But we also didn’t want to make a game that was, like, an explainer. We wanted to make myths and stories about these people and these places… and us, to a degree. That was way more meaningful, and I feel like it often gets pushed aside because people want exposés. They want something that they can share so that they can go, “Oh, I learned so much from this.” If people learn from it, that’s cool, but we’re not making it to teach people.

And everything that I’ve just said is why the last year of press was so incredibly annoying. About the Rust Belt. Because it’d just be like “Hi, I’m the correspondent for the Washington Post, I live in some neighborhood in Washington D.C., and I’m regularly on Twitter complaining about leftists in my mentions or talking about hobnobbing with congressional staffers and lamenting gentrification in Washington even though I’m the one living in these houses. I took a weekend trip out to Youngstown, Ohio and really got a feel for the place. They’re all depressed factory workers who are all, somehow, middle-aged white men in American flag t-shirts.”

It was hunting for this stereotype that was just not accurate. This whole area is super diverse, there are different areas that are nothing like each other, there’s so much activism, there are queer people and people of color… People generally don’t work in manufacturing around here, and haven’t for decades. Everyone works at hospitals, or in service industries, or in construction or they’re just doing industrial work. They’re doing a lot of other stuff. So there’s all that employment that’s left because of the collapse of manufacturing, but all these media stories make it seem as though everyone’s sitting outside of the factory all bummed until someone like Trump comes along.

I keep thinking about things that were in the game that immediately resonated with me as being like, “Well, I’ve never seen that in a videogame but that’s very representative of where I come from.” There’s that moment where Mae and Bea take that trip to the mall, and the mall is just a wasteland… I know at least three different malls that went through that transition from being really active and a cool place to go and hang out to being just a total ghost town.

Yeah. It’s weird. Again, it’s the loss of that organizing force. At some point, this just stopped being something and is now on this decline. And what it’s becoming we don’t really know, other than that we want to get away from it. At the end of that scene, [Mae and Bea say] “Let’s never come here ever again.” But still they go into that place and goof off, and they steal something, and they’re playing around with the fountain… In this really outlandish way, they’re going and kind of making a life in this place and bringing life into it.

I think that’s a thing with the game, that people want it to be this nihilistic, depressing… The real life “everybody’s depressed and on opiates and stuff,” and like yeah, that does exist, but at the same time that’s just life here. People grow up and have little league teams and birthdays. They get married, have kids, and ride bikes down the street. Everyone isn’t just sitting there all glum. It was important to us to represent that life that is there, that’s not just defined by these booms and busts.

Benson cites children's illustrator Richard Scarry among his art's influences. Benson cites children's illustrator Richard Scarry among his art's influences.

I wanted to ask about some of the other influences on the game, and because I have a son who is coming up on two years old, I feel on his behalf I have to ask about the Richard Scarry influence.

Oh yeah! Richard Scarry’s awesome. I also grew up on Richard Scarry books. I loved them, I love the towns--I’m really interested in towns and communities. I think that all of us were interested in that. Like, the best parts of RPGs are when you get to a town. Like the old Final Fantasy games. Final Fantasy VI was a big influence on us because of its towns--these towns you’d get to and they have their own character, and they were interesting and there were people running around and living their own lives in fun ways.

And I think that Richard Scarry taps into that, and was an early influence on me in that way, because… You know. It’s “Busytown.” It was so interested in the workings of a society, of a community. There’s the “Everyone is a Worker” book, that just details all of these jobs that people have, and why they’re important. There’s something about that that’s always appealed to me. The way that he would use animals... They were cute, but--particularly the early stuff he did--they weren’t cute cute, they weren’t twee. They had weird faces, and they were always staring bug-eyed at the viewer with an open jaw and this kind of catatonic stare.

You can see that all over Night in the Woods. The catatonic stare. Mae, the lead character, does that through 90% of the game.

So yeah, Richard Scarry was a big influence in the way he used animal characters to portray a diversity of people. And I love the big town drawings that he would do, where everyone’s off bustling around and doing stuff... We wanted that in Night in the Woods, where you want to run around a little bit and get into people’s lives and see what they’re up to over the course of the game. You can sort of run your finger along the town and point to something and then figure out what it is and want to go talk to it. Richard Scarry is a big formative influence for me both artistically and in the feel of his work.

It’s interesting that you bring up Final Fantasy; I was going to ask about that. At one point on Twitter, you listed a bunch of games that were influences, and some of them were obvious, like: it’s obvious where you can see the connection between Kentucky Route Zero or Gone Home. But I was going to ask about FFVI, and… is there any way in which we see Dark Souls or Symphony of the Night in Night in the Woods?

Yeah! Dark Souls was a big influence in the sense of having content that you can miss easily. Like, people will be in certain places some days and in other places on other days, and you just have to go around and catch it. And you can miss things. In our previous game, Lost Constellation, which is a supplemental game, that was a big aspect. There’s a back corner of that game that a lot of people completely missed, where you can go see the Forest God and you can go find out what happened to an earlier character. And there’s something that’s super gratifying about that. There’s something great about a world that does not need you to move all of its levers. One of the fun things about those games is they feel like the world’s going on, like other people have their own agency.

"There are so many ideas, so many throwaway things that are antithetical to the kind of hyper-disciplined, minimalist, everything-in-its-place design that's hip right now... The Apple product version of game design."

Symphony of the Night [is] probably the most generous game I’ve ever played. It’s a game that just gives and gives and gives. There are so many ideas, so many throwaway things that are antithetical to the kind of hyper-disciplined, minimalist, everything-in-its-place design that’s hip right now. The Jonathan Blow [Braid; The Witness] school of design. Nothing out of place, nothing more than you need. The Apple product version of game design. Which is fine, I love a lot of games like that, don’t get me wrong.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Konami, 1997). Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Konami, 1997).

But Symphony of the Night is this big, shaggy thing. You can get these boots, and the description of them is just “Makes you look taller.” And all they do is make your character one pixel taller. That’s it. And there are capes that do various things that are all just cosmetic and weird, and there are all these different enemies that have all these super-detailed animations, and all these different environments. There’s just so much to it. That game just keeps giving and giving and giving until it’s completely dry at the end, and you’re just like “What else could you possibly have done?” The inverted castle! You redo the whole castle again with weirder, harder, grosser enemies. It’s awesome, there’s nothing that I can compare it to. There’s no other game that I can compare it to that is that packed full of stuff. And that’s a thing that we kind of wanted to do, we wanted to be a hyper-generous game that gives and gives and gives.

And it nearly killed us, like, health-wise. I’m not even joking. In the last week [leading up to release], we were still working 24 hours a day. I had been working 20, 22-hour days for weeks [by then], and I walked into the kitchen and passed out and fell on my head, I whacked my forehead on the floor. And thankfully I didn’t die, or something. I was out for a while until my cat woke me up. And so, like, yeah, that could have killed me if I had fallen slightly different, I was lucky that didn’t happen. I think I had, like, a mild concussion.

Well, I’m glad that finishing your game did not kill you, Scott.

It would have made it, like, a weird cult classic though, immediately, overnight. Like, “this game killed its developer.” There’s something to that. So while I’m glad I didn’t die, I’m sad that it doesn’t have the curse, or like weird elegiac thing.  

That would’ve been the most Gothic possible thing to have happened.

Night in the Woods is out now on Steam, PSN, Humble, itchio and GoG. Scott Benson can be found on Twitter at @bombsfall or at bombsfall.com.