During my second year of college, I was browsing video game playthroughs on YouTube. It was spring semester exam week and I was trying to find something to get me through the 20-something pages I needed to write. I stumbled upon a series of videos on a game called Night in the Woods. The art style looked cute and quirky, and it seemed like something that would keep my mind from completely being numbed by the monotony of academic essays. I clicked on the playlist.
What started as some pleasant background noise to keep me focused became a distraction in and of itself. Instead of focusing on the essays I needed to write, I was drawn in by the existential crises of an anthropomorphic cat. I resolved to buy it and play it myself on my Nintendo Switch — once my essays were done, of course.
A few weeks later, I was in the car with my parents, driving to Colonial Williamsburg. I loaded up Night in the Woods and began to play. Honestly, if you’re going to play this, a road trip with some headphones on is probably the best time. It nails the feel of the game.
You play as the main character, who is a 20-year-old anthropomorphic cat named Mae Borowski. Mae just dropped out of her second year of college. She’s moved back to her small dying midwestern town of Possum Springs, and she’s trying to cope with the emotional struggles that she’s faced since middle school. Meanwhile, Mae reunites with her old friends, Bea the alligator, Gregg the fox, and Gregg’s boyfriend Angus the bear. Another friend, Casey, has mysteriously gone missing. As she wanders through the town of Possum Springs, she starts to deal with her own existential issues and the mystery behind some strange happenings in the town.
The sense of intimacy in the game is created by the art style. Each of the endearingly cartoonish characters was designed with some sort of anthropomorphic vertebrate. Their eyes are big, and though their mouths don’t always move when dialogue bubbles pop up, they nod their heads or wiggle their ears as they speak. The dialogue, though, conveys real human sentiments that make up for the lack of voice acting. Whenever Mae was talking with her mother, for example, the conversations reminded me of interactions with my own mom — all the same questions about school happenings, mental health, and romantic interests.
There are also little details in the background characters that change as time passes. At the beginning of the game, there’s a pregnant raccoon walking down Main Street. By the end, she’s pushing a baby stroller down the street; all signs of a baby bump are gone. It’s the little details like that which make the world feel so real.
It’s hard to capture the exact wistfulness and existentialism of Night in the Woods. If you have the time, play it. For a less time-consuming experience, listen to the soundtrack on YouTube while studying. It makes for great background music and captures the game’s purpose, thoughtfulness, and existential themes.