Night in the Woods preview
Mae, Night in the Woods’ protagonist, is pretty relatable. She’s a college dropout who goes home to her rustbelt town to try and rekindle some relationships with friends, only to find that things have moved on without her. She’s seemingly carefree and outgoing, but baseless and unmotivated. Sure, she’s a cat, but she and about the world she lives in are very familiar.
Scott Benson, co-designer and co-writer on the game, created Mae based on people he and colleague Bethany Hockenberry grew up with. Mae’s hometown, called Possum Springs, is also based on recognizable aspects from their childhoods as both of them grew up in small Pennsylvania towns.
“It's trying to tell stories about those people, people that I know, in areas that are very much an amalgam of places we've lived in,” Benson said at the game’s PAX East booth. “We're both interested in local history and regional history and that's the ... stuff that doesn't get talked about, but it's the core of people's lives.”
Night in the Woods is a slice-of-life exploration game from Infinite Fall, a team of three independent artists who came together almost on a whim through Twitter. Alec Holowka, a developer, got in touch with Benson, an animator. And Hockenberry, who also helps with writing, but has a background in fiber arts (she makes felt plushes). This nontraditional group successfully Kickstarted the game, raising over 400 percent of their initial $60,000 goal and are on track for a fall 2016 release date.
At first, the game seems like cute and childlike. The cast is all anthropomorphic (because Benson says he can’t draw humans), and the colors are bright and autumnal. The buildings and rooms are simplistic, with touches of detail that add bits of history to each scene. It’s small and quiet, but it is reminiscent of that Americana.
This was important to the small team, which wanted to tell a story that was off the beaten path and that would appeal to people from rural areas.
“So few games tell stories about people that are off the highway basically in a way that dignifies them as human,” Benson said, citing the television show Twin Peaks and a number of horror games that didn’t seek to tell these kinds of tales, but rather use the setting as a backdrop for something sinister. Night in the Woods, from its demo available at PAX, didn’t show any signs of that, although, as the official website says, she’ll be going “into the dark on the other side.”
“We can tell stories that are mythologizing our actual lives and not going somewhere else to find that,” he continued. “Let's start with who we are and where we come from, where we live, and the people we know and make mythologies.”
The game wastes no time in introducing you to its main character and creating that backstory. Mae is easy to read, especially when the demo opens to her struggling to get out of bed in the morning. She hops on her computer, checks her messages, and immediately defines herself as a nuclear trash fire (I nodded quite a bit to myself every time I opened her journal to see the doodle she drew to depict this accurate description). She struggles to have a conversation with her mother about the people she once knew and other town gossip. She meets up with friends for band practice, and then goes to the mall with Bea, a crocodile who runs a store in town, and isn’t buying into Mae’s idea of fun at the mall. The demo features a lot of meandering and wasting time. You climb on phone wires, talk to your neighbors about invigorating topics such as grass, and attempt to shoplift from a Hot Topic stand-in. It all seems like nonsense, but it’s the kind that reads accurately like a boring Sunday afternoon in the suburbs. It sets up a setting so eerily similar that you can almost guess what’s coming next.
While my demo was abruptly ended by a game-breaking bug that had Holowka scrambling to create a new build right on the show floor, it still left an impression. There were a few other games with similar titles (using “woods” in the title is common in 2016 apparently), but Night in the Woods is able to grab the attention, if only to figure out what the “dark side” of this town is and if Mae is able to get her life together.
Carli Velocci is the editor of her webzine Postmortem Mag, and is a culture and technology writer seen at Paste Magazine, Motherboard, the Boston Globe, and anywhere else brave enough to publish her. You can read more of her work on herwebsite or follow her on Twitter @velocciraptor.