Night in the Woods and the Death of Small Town America
At the end of everything, hold onto anything
2017's indie darling Night in the Woods isn't a particularly dark game. Instead, it's a coming-of-age tale about twenty-year-old Mae Borowski once she returns home to her small town of Possum Springs after dropping out of college. Described by its developers as "narrative-first," it's much less an adventure game and more of a "hanging out" simulator with the story being pushed forward depending on which one of your childhood friends you decide to spend time with that day.
At first glance, the message Night in the Woods wants to give its players is one of cherishing those that are close to you, but just under the surface, writers Scott Benson and Bethanay Hockenberry weave a tale of trauma, cosmic horror, class struggle, and how corporate America devours our poorest communities.
The game opens with Mae at the only bus stop in town, realizing that her parents forgot to pick her up, forcing her to walk home. She comes across abandoned shopping carts, garbage, rotting logs, and a long-since deserted park named after the local shut-down sawmill, Sawmill Park. Along the way, and throughout the rest of the game, Mae makes wry comments about her surroundings, noting how the forest animals have reclaimed the playground at the park. This, subtly, is a trend that happens throughout the entire game. There are several instances where you find critters that could be noted as "pests" or "parasites," like rats, inhabiting the abandoned shells of former small-town America staples, such as a parade float.
The following day, you're given a chance to explore the town in earnest while looking for Mae's best friend, Gregg. Before heading out, Mae and her mother discuss the perpetual construction in the streets, and Mae makes a subtle note in her journal about how her dad looks older, despite Mae only being gone for two years.
Gregg works across town in a chain convenience store called Snack Falcon, and it's in these exploration sequences where the background storytelling shines. Possum Springs is a small rust belt town painted in the colors of autumn, accompanied by the soothing soundtrack of construction and cars rushing by. You meet encounter several characters in the beginning exploration sequence, most notably Selmers, an out of work poet with dreams of living by the beach, Casey (in the form of a missing poster), Mae and Gregg's trouble-making friend from high school, and Danny, a young man that graduated a few years before Mae.
Danny stands on his front porch smoking a cigarette, seeming despondent in response to Mae's chipper attitude. He explains that he lost his job recently.
"They say that construction's always hiring. But it's not. In fact, it's often laying off guys named Dan."
Mae gives him a typical game-protagonist pep talk, telling him not to give up, that surely someone in town is hiring, to which Dan wryly replies that when someone dies, maybe he can have their job. He says his work resume is a "zombie resume" due to the years-long gaps in his employment, explaining that it's dead but somehow still walking.
As you venture past groups of adults talking amongst themselves about employment prospects (or, more accurately, employment prospect in the form of Ham Panther, an in-universe Walmart stand-in that pays minimum wage but at least offers hours) and shut-down small businesses, you finally come across Snack Falcon, a shiny new convenience store plastered with advertisements for lotto tickets and back to school deals. Despite the newness of it all, the place is empty save for Gregg, and business is, in fact, so slow that when given the opportunity, Gregg leaves mid-shift to go to band practice with Mae at an abandoned birthday party venue.
As you spend more time with your group of childhood friends, you begin to learn more about them and their struggles growing up and existing in a small town that's nothing more than a skeleton of its former self. Gregg and his boyfriend Angus struggle with being the only queer couple in town and devote almost all of their free time to working dead-end retail jobs in hopes of putting away enough money to move somewhere bigger and more accepting, both of them experiencing abuse at the hands of their caretakers growing up. Bea is in charge of her family's small hardware store and seems to be wise beyond her years in the worst way possible, hardened by the world before she even had the chance to turn twenty-two.
Gregg describes himself as "parking lot trash" and grew up with his uncle after his parents surrendered custody of him. He spent his time working on his uncle's farm, herding sheep until a handful got out of their pen. Several made it to the highway and were immediately hit by a semi-truck, but one escaped. Gregg explains that his uncle beat him when he went back home, but he did get a tattoo of the singular sheep that escaped the farm to motivate himself to escape Possum Springs.
Angus grew up in a similarly hostile environment with parents that beat him and a mother that would often lock him in closets and withhold food from him. This made him lose faith in any god and develop a love for science instead. Despite his skills with a computer, he works at the local video rental store and shares an extremely run-down apartment with his partner.
Bea and Mae's relationship is considerably more strained than the rest of the groups'. Bae holds animosity towards Mae that Mae can't understand until it's forced out one night after a party where Mae gets drunk and humiliates herself. While Bea drives Mae home from said party, Mae tries to confront her former best friend, asking why she hates her so much, and Bae confesses that she's angry that Mae wasted her opportunity to get out of Possum Springs and go to college. She tells Mae in no uncertain terms that she would kill someone for that chance. She would push Mae out of her moving car for that chance.
Bea's mother died of cancer while she was in high school, and since then, her father has completely shut down, forcing her to act as both caretaker to her father and owner of her father's hardware store, the Ol' Pickaxe.
This theme of trauma and insecurity of one's place in a small town is a thread that runs through every single character you come across. Selmers, the poet with dreams of something bigger, is a recovering opioid addict that was fired from her job at Ham Panther's pharmacy for stealing prescription painkillers. This, paired with some jail time, resulted in her unemployment. While she used to be married, her husband left her soon after he got a job at a local prison and met a new girl on his commutes there.
She has since moved back in with her parents and joined a local poetry group. Her most famous poem, "There's No Reception in Possum Springs," was referenced in Penelope Scott's song Rät, which describes the feeling of helpless despair one could feel when looking at the current state of the job and housing market, especially for those in lower-income communities.
Replace my job with an app replace my dreams of a house and a yard
With a couch in the basement
"The future is yours!"
Forced 24-7 entrepreneurs
I just want a paycheck and my own life
I'm on the couch in the basement they're in the house and the yard
Some night I will catch a bus out to the west coast
And burn their silicon city to the ground
Mae and her family also carry the stress and existential dread of watching your small town be consumed by larger companies and better jobs elsewhere. As the game progresses, you learn that Mae is mentally ill and suffers prominently from dissociation and depersonalization. These symptoms often manifest in violent outbursts, and it's implied that these struggles are what made her drop out of school in the first place. Of course, there were consequences to her dropping out. Mae's parents both worked to cover the cost of her tuition, and despite that, her family was still faced with the genuine threat of losing their house. Her father continues to work long hours at Ham Panther, lamenting to Mae the guilt he feels at his wife still having to pick up a job to carry the slack despite how much he works.
At one point in time, Possum Springs had many mining jobs and a strong union, but it's implied that the physical labor and stress made Mae's father, a man who, for all intents and purposes, is a loving father and husband, turn to alcohol. Mae describes her father during this time as frightening.
For those of us who either grew up in poverty, grew up in a small town or both, you probably see someone you know in at least one of these characters.
The opioid crisis that Selmers fell victim to absolutely ravaged lower-income communities- it's almost impossible to bring up without also bringing up the socioeconomic disparities that enabled it to happen. Gregg and Angus' desire to live somewhere that would give them a chance at life echoes the goals of many queer youth growing up in America's small towns, specifically with Gregg's desire to be something more than the environment he grew up in, if only because of his partner. What's most tragically real about these characters is Bea's inability to grieve her mother because financial responsibilities come first, leaving her feeling trapped in Possum Springs with no real way to escape it.
And then, there's Casey. Poor, poor Casey. Casey is the worst-case scenario for anyone growing up in a small town pushed to its absolute extreme. First seen on the missing poster at the beginning of the game and later mentioned in passing by Mae and her friends, Casey is absent for the entirety of the game. Mae asks where he is once and is told that he hopped a train without telling anyone and left Possum Springs.
There are small instances of supernatural occurrences peppered throughout the game, be it either from Mae's increasingly distressing dreams that do nothing but exacerbate symptoms of her mental illness, the occasional sighting of hooded figures, or the severed arm found early in the story. As the game nears the climax, the truth of these occurrences and of Casey's fate comes out.
Mae and friends discover a secret society that exists under Possum Springs, one that is desperate to rekindle the old glory the town once had. The secret society- though it would be more accurate to call them the cult- had been plucking people they considered "lesser" members of society, be it the elderly, homeless, or even children. Anyone that can't be used to better the town is sacrificed to a god the cult believes will bring prosperity back to the town. One of the cult's recent sacrifices was their friend Casey, who the cult claims was a lost cause anyway. According to the cult, Casey came from a background of poverty and was cooking meth. They decided that no one would miss him if he died, and he probably would've died in a cooking explosion.
That's a lot to unpack, but it perfectly nails every single theme of poverty the game wanted to bring up. Casey, at nineteen years old, was deemed not to be a functioning member of society because of his impoverished upbringing, and even if the cult's allegations of him cooking meth were true, they single-handedly never gave him the chance to grow up and become something more than that. It really does seem as though no matter what choices Casey made in his life, it seems that no matter what, he would've still been deemed as a lesser member of society and sacrificed for the greater good. Who's to say none of the cast could've been next?
Night in the Woods doesn't end triumphantly, as most things in real life usually don't. Although it was more of a freak accident than a purposeful victory, the cult seems to vanquished, but it doesn't supply the closure that Mae and her friends desperately need. Instead, the game ends with our characters not being able to do more than look around and wonder, "What do I do now?"
Night in the Woods doesn't try to fix the issue of America's small towns that were once the country's backbone becoming nothing more than afterthoughts in modern society, nor does it need to. It's a thematically dense game with too many things to say to compound them into a straightforward closing paragraph, but what it does masterfully is capture the image of a dying lower-middle America and all of the struggles that come with it. (Minus the cult things, if you're lucky.)
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