Night in the Woods is a video game about strange in-between spaces: between youth and adulthood, between a rose-tinted past and an uncertain future.
Released in 2017, it feels especially resonant in a time of COVID-19. Its themes of underemployment, decaying cities and youth disenfranchisement, combined with a mood of uncertainty about the future, presciently capture this moment.
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Life is Strange, Night in the Woods, and Oxenfree form sort of a holy triangle of “young woman returns to a place from her childhood, has a complicated growing-up adventure, and has to fight a frightening supernatural force” game stories. They have common ground not just in their themes but in their wonderfully gothic small-town settings, all three of which serve as fantastic landscapes not just for the player to explore, but to heighten the tension and atmosphere and make the characters’ journey more vivid. Each protagonist is in a liminal time of their lives, caught between childhood and adulthood—Alex of Oxenfree and Max of Life is Strange being in their final year of high school, Mae of Night in the Woods being in her early twenties—and what better way to reflect this unsettling in-between-ness than placing these characters in an equally unsettling setting, where the past and the future symbolically collide alongside night terrors that are decidedly more literal?
A lot of love and work has gone into creating three-dimensional settings for these stories, places with history, complexities, and an effective dark undercurrent… almost making Arcadia Bay, Possum Springs, and Edwards Island main characters in their own right alongside the heroes navigating them. So what makes these settings work? What exactly makes them so spooky? And what makes them such good arenas for these stories about the terrors of growing up to take place? Continue reading
Coming up with a solid mythology, belief system, or set of traditions and folklore, is a key part of a lot of fantastical worldbuilding—making stories to go within the story, if you will, to make the world feel more fleshed out. After all, it’s human nature to tell stories, and any group of humans will inevitably come with their own folklore, be they creation myths or cautionary tales. But the tricky thing with stories, especially ancient ones passed down by word of mouth, is that even though they’re presented as historical fact, they may not be as true as they once were. Or, in the case of the in-universe folklore I’m talking about in this post, they might contain more truth than the characters hearing them first realised—throwing the nature of the stories into question, and making the world they’re in much stranger, richer, and more mysterious for the reader engaging with them.
Spoilers for the end of Night in the Woods beyond this point! Continue reading
You first meet the protagonist of Night in the Woods, 20-year-old Mae Borowski, when she arrives at her hometown’s bus station after dropping out of college. She remarks that the bus station is probably the newest and fanciest building in the town of Possum Springs, all the better to give people coming through the best first impression possible. However, we soon see that the bus station, with its shiny floors and glorious sunny mural advertising prosperous life in Possum Springs, is just a façade, and as soon as Mae arrives in the town proper, we see that it’s crumbling inside and out.
As Mae explores her childhood home, the game’s use of color, landscape design, character dialogue and atmospheric music all help to build a rich, vivid, sensory picture of this once-great but slowly dying coal town, injecting so much personality that the setting almost feels like a character. Which not only makes it a fantastic backdrop for the unfolding story, but a neat metaphor for what’s going on with Mae herself. And… also a little bit of something deeper and darker.
Head to Lady Geek Girl for the full post! (big plot spoilers don’t kick in until after the video clip)