Game Review: 'Night in the Woods'
Night in the Woods (trailer) is an adventure game by Infinite Fall, a joint venture between game designer Alec Holowka, co-writer Bethany Hockenberry and animator Scott Benson. Kickstarted in October 2013 in the hopes of getting $50,000 USD, it not only reached its goal within 26 hours, it raised over $200,000 within a month!
This was probably helped by Howolka's credibility from making Aquaria in 2007 with Derek Yu. Although Night in the Woods (NITW for short) took longer to develop than initially expected, it was released in February 2017 to very positive reviews.
I liked this game a lot, and the tricky part with this review is that the less you know about the story, the better. It takes place in Possum Springs, a mid-sized (possibly Rust Belt) town with a struggling economy. You play a 20-year-old cat named Mae who's dropped out of college and returned home, trying to deal with (or avoid) some personal issues. Then a couple of… worrying things start to happen.
On the one hand, Mae wants to hang on to her rebellious teenage years. On the other, she wants to be recognized as an adult by other adults. In truth, she is neither; walking (and running and jumping) in her own liminal state as she approaches adulthood. After being away for two years and not staying in touch, some of the changes in town catch her off-guard. Her friends have a mix of reactions to her return. They're much further ahead in terms of maturity, and Mae's carefree attitude inadvertently creates tension.
The game plays out over about 14 days during the autumn as Mae travels around town and hangs out with people. Little details change from day to day, and new areas gradually open up that Mae can explore. This includes rooftops - Mae is particularly adept at walking along telephone pole wires. The visual design of this game is superb, smooth lines and simple shapes with subtle changes in color and tone creating a really engaging atmosphere.
The character designs are on the cartoony side, large heads with big eyes on small bodies with thin, noodly arms and legs, which works. After NITW came out, you might have noticed furry fans having their fursonas redesigned in a similar artstyle. And the game's characters are all animals! This feels largely symbolic, since I'm not sure their species are ever referred to in-game. Given that Mae is a cat, it's also a bit weird that there are regular pet cats around town. Every single grocery or convenience store seems to have an animal-based name.
Where this game really shines is with its storytelling. Although this makes it somewhat linear, there are different options to explore at a number of points, so you get a little replayability out of it. Depending on your actions, the ending remains basically the same with only minor cosmetic differences, however I didn't mind this at all. As the game progresses, the tone gets… dark. It also ventures into the supernatural - or does it? In many respects it keeps you guessing. (Though I think the supernatural is happening, based on some small details.)
The dialogue is great and feels very realistic. Definitely turn on the text animation. While some games offer dialogue choices for the player's preferences (friendly, gruff, snarky, etc.), in NITW all of Mae's dialogue choices sound like things she would be likely to say. Usually you get two or three options. This is even offered during the game's opening text, although it's not made especially clear if you're playing for the first time.
The characters are really well-written! On many occasions you get the chance to hang out with Mae's gay and rebellious fox friend Gregg (he's pretty popular with a lot of furries), or with Mae's more distanced crocodile friend Bea, whose weary attitude isn't as fun but has more depth. Sometimes you'll be talking to someone, you'll make a dialogue choice and this will activate a short side-adventure, or it'll initialize events that will bring the day to a close.
The most frequent complaint is that the game only has one save slot, and it constantly auto-saves. So if you regret making a dialogue choice or ended a day before you'd finished exploring, you have to play the game over again. This is particularly aggravating if you're quite a ways into it. There are also numerous mini-games, some timed, so it's no surprise that people have tried to figure out how to work around the saving issue. The mini-games range from the familiar (like Guitar Hero) to the unexpected; some are easy, some are difficult. There's even an optional game-within-a-game called Demontower, a roguelike with shades of Hyper Light Drifter.
If you're a completionist or want all the Steam achievements, be prepared to put in a lot of extra time; you'll likely have to save-and-replay some of the mini-games. Mae doodles in a notebook that she carries with her, and a new drawing might only get added if you climb to a particular spot on a particular day and look around. As the exploration area gets larger, it takes longer to look everywhere. If you're not good at platform jumping, it's not too challenging. I'm a clutz and I managed.
I definitely need to mention that if you're suffering from depression, there are characters in this game who are dealing with some heavy stuff, in case that's a trigger for you. There's an ongoing question of how one can hold on to happiness when day-to-day life frequently sucks. On the bright side, you sometimes get to smash things with a baseball bat. At one point, Mae has a crisis of faith (not that she had much to begin with) - While there are a few characters of faith in the game, there are one or two skeptics who are a bit more outspoken. The in-game religion is not described, but its saints and mythology are certainly different. A sign of some thoughtful world-building.
Overall, it's really difficult to describe how everything in NITW comes together, how its traits combine and make it work so well. Like how the music adds to the game's atmosphere - it's not stuff I'd listen to in a car, but put together with the great visual style, it really enhances the mood. I also love how the story is paced out, and how all the characters feel so relatable. A testament to its success is that there's been quite a lot of fan art, both inside and outside furry fandom, ranging from the cartoony to realistic to in-between, including human versions.
Bottom-line: If you're ok with low-action, occasional mini-games, engaging characters and a well-developed story that gets dark, you should definitely give this a try. For a second opinion, my co-editor Sonious posted his thoughts about it on YouTube.
Gamers! Has anyone played The First Tree yet, or other things with furry appeal? Send Flayrah a review!