Night in the Woods Review

By Mark Delaney, 1 year ago
The coming of age story is a tried and true genre in books, television, and movies, but it's not often we see a coming of age tale told in video games. That's partly because we don't often play as kids or young adults in games, instead weighing our options among a pool of gruff and rebellious space marines or adventuring 30-somethings with troves of firearms. If there's any place where a coming of age tale could work in this medium, it's the adventure genre with the budget and sensibilities of indie game design. We've seen it at least once before. Finji's Night in the Woods opens with all the indications of a coming of age story, but then surprises by rejecting the norms of the genre and going in its own unique way. Night in the Woods is the anti-coming of age story, and it's better for it.

Developed by Infinite Fall and published by FinjiDeveloped by Infinite Fall and published by Finji

Mae Borowski is a 20 year old on the outskirts of her hometown of Possum Springs. Abruptly dropping out of college for reasons about which she isn't immediately forthcoming, Mae makes the trek to her parents' home after they forget to pick her up. It's quickly evident that Possum Springs is a dead end town, the kind that its residents are either desperate to escape or all too comfortable to remain in. The cocktail of economic collapse, routine-oriented townies, and a chasm between the young and the old will taste familiar for many players, and this is Night in the Woods' best attribute. Mae is the protagonist, but Possum Springs is truly the main character.

You'll meet dozens of characters over the course of the eight hour game and the story is faithful to all of them. Every single townsperson is well characterized and you'll grow to understand each of them, why they believe in Possum Springs even after the highway built outside of town stopped bringing traffic through, why they're panicked and anxious to leave but can't yet pull the trigger, why they couldn't go to college, why they sit on their porch writing poetry, why they go digging for treasures among others' trash, and why they live in the woods. Everyone is alive with unique motivations, and it's so remarkably well written that you are acquainted with all of them in just a few hours.

The game is told in days and you'll always end a day by returning to your bed and going to sleep. Each morning, a little bit more of Possum Springs is available to you. Although you'll have certain mandatory activities, like going to band practice and playing a Guitar Hero-like mini-game, you can put them off for as long as you'd like to meet more people, catch up with old friends, and find a plethora of secrets around the town. Finding many of these secrets requires you get used to the light platforming aspect of the game, but it's simple and not at all meant to impede players. This is an adventure game above all else. It sells itself on its story merits and in most ways it's a success.

Possum Springs is a town that swallows the lives of all who reside therePossum Springs is a town that swallows the lives of all who reside there

Night in the Woods impressively deals with topics like mental health, economic hardship, and early adulthood through the big glowing eyes of Mae by remaining true to the character. She's smart but not exceptionally smart. She's friendly but selfish. She's often adventurous but always unsure. As the protagonist in a game that does well to characterize even those with whom you only spend a few moments, she naturally feels the most understood of all. It's not possible to discuss elegantly the nature of her mental state because she doesn't understand it herself. There's plenty about the world she doesn't know yet, due to both her age and her upbringing in the small, literal dead end town. This gives the whole experience an authenticity in its narrative even as the townspeople are designed as anthropomorphized animals in a world where Mae's constantly jumping around on power lines.

This is what helps present the game as the anti-coming of age story. Mae isn't epiphanic about her returning home as a college dropout. Her introduction is deliberately familiar. You're meant to wonder what her grand life lesson will be, but even as the story goes off the deep end in the final act, her lessons aren't so grand. She doesn't have a renewed outlook on life. She does some growing up in the two weeks we're with her, but that's just a short time and the game doesn't lose sight of that. She's 20 years old, the awkward in-between where 16-year-olds call you "lady" and 40-year-olds call you "girl." She has plenty more to see after the credits roll and we're left to wonder what's next for her, not because she's just undergone a massive transformation, but because she's a real person we come to know.

For some likely combination of budgetary and artistic reasons, there's no voice acting in the game. Instead, you're left to read the hundreds of speech bubbles yourself over the course of the game. In its place, however, is an exceptional original score that helps evoke the game's autumn mood. In literature, autumn means dying, so it's appropriate that the game's beautiful mix of browns, reds, and yellows is still inescapably tied to the gradual decline of the seasons, just like anyone in Possum Springs can't escape the downtrodden lives they're leading.

Night in the Woods excels at discussing tough subjects with the authentic inelegance of young adultsNight in the Woods excels at discussing tough subjects with the authentic inelegance of young adults

Following the game's achievement list goes a long way to make Night in the Woods more memorable. Many achievements are tied to doing activities that are easily missed. Some of them even require you do certain things across several different days before the achievements pop. It's fair to say if you think Night in the Woods is a game you'll like, you'll like it even more because of the achievements, and not necessarily because of the gamerscore you'll collect along the way. There's just so much more to see this way, more characters that may otherwise be easily overlooked. If you want to complete the list, you'll need to finish the game no fewer than four times. There literally just aren't enough hours in the day to do all the game asks of you, so playing through a few times is a requirement, but subsequent playthroughs won't need to be as long as you'll knock out much of the list in the first playthrough. It's by no means a difficult list if you have the 20 or so hours that are needed.

This game was featured in our Best Xbox Adventure Games Available in 2018 article. Why not check it out to see what else made the cut?

Summary

Night in the Woods is a refreshing take on the adventure genre. With unique visuals and an all too realistic setting, the game will appeal to anyone who enjoys storytelling on a level more human than the usual fare seen in the medium. The town of Possum Springs will be a depressingly familiar one for any who grew up in small American towns where complacency with hardship is in the water, and it's a credit to the game's writers that every single resident of the troubled town feels real. Even if you didn't live in such a setting, the game's subversion of coming of age tropes make for a special story. It does sell itself out a bit at the end to drive home its central theme, but the rest of it is visually, audibly, and narratively memorable.
4 / 5
Night In The Woods
Positives
  • Memorable and well characterized cast of townspeople
  • Unique 2D art style
  • Charming original music
  • A setting full of secrets to discover via platforming
Negatives
  • Ending goes off the deep end
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent nine hours in Possum Springs, partly at band practice and mostly having a quarter-life crisis. He collected 18 of 31 achievements for 435 Gamerscore. An Xbox One review code was provided by the ID@Xbox team for the purpose of this review.
Please read our Review and Ethics Statement for more information.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is the host of the community game club TA Playlist. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his family. He almost never writes in the third person.