I first wrote this story in 2018, and after the years that have followed, I could certainly use a trip back to this virtual place that I hold so dear. If you're in need of a break where summers don't end, old friends are everywhere, and everything still sucks, just a bit less, it might be a good time for you to try Night in the Woods.
There’s a particular street that comes to mind when I think of my favorite places.
It’s not an especially busy street, but it goes on for quite a while, and on it lies more wistfulness per square foot than I’ve ever experienced anywhere else. I feel more nostalgic for it than I do for my own hometown. Even its name feels like a carefree nap in the warm sunshine: Maple Street.
And it can be found just a few minutes away from wherever you are right this moment. Because it’s in Possum Springs, the sleepy hamlet from 2017’s Night in the Woods, that made me realize the potential of the adventure game genre.
For the unfamiliar, players take on the role of distressed twenty-year-old Mae Borowski. She happens to be a black cat with a healthy sense of melancholy and self-described “nightmare eyes.” Mae has just returned back home after an unnamed incident that involved suddenly dropping out of college. She does what many of that age living with their parents without bills or responsibilities would do: sleep late and hang out with friends. Over 50% of Night in the Woods consists simply of waking up, exploring around town, and eventually finding an available friend to socialize with.
Despite the simplicity of that recipe, the game feels emotionally gargantuan. Its story resonates with me more than almost any other piece of media I can recall ever consuming. Over and over again I found myself relating personally to themes of depression, anxiety, existential crisis, finding purpose, and general uncertainty with life. And don’t even get me started on the surprisingly deep lore, with tales of old gods and mythical legends that play a fairly important role in the latter end of the game. Many works explore this material, but few manage to hit this particular sweet spot between knowing cliche and genuine sincerity. And I happen to think a major component in that formula for success is a vibrant backdrop.
"By using simplified art, music, movement, and dialogue, the player is free to fill in the gaps with their own imagination"
There are some spookier moments set in more abstract places, but almost the entire set of locations found in Night in the Woods fall on this one main path along Maple Street. The road traces gently up and down a hillside, from a sleepy residential neighborhood all the way through a modest town square, before eventually trailing off into a dense tree line. It has a rich and storied history, and the markings of past lives can be seen all around. Its best days have been behind it for decades. To call it a bustling thoroughfare would be a lie, but it does have a definite sense of population, of feeling more alive than the quiet of its path would suggest.
Every time I recall being there–and yes, it does often feel as though I’ve actually physically visited–it’s always mid-autumn. If it’s daytime, the sun is somehow perpetually an hour or two from setting. A tranquil orange glow tints everything in sight. The people you see aren’t jumping with joy, but they are at peace. They are content enough with their time, and they know they can do what needs to be done. They can stop occasionally and admire the small beauty in the everyday sights they normally take for granted. They are well, all things considered.
At night, the lights downtown inhale the crisp wind and exhale a shimmer usually found only in enormous, loud cities. The kind of glimmering light that beckons the tired and overworked residents outdoors, into the night, into the nooks and crannies where they might find a reason to unwind. Or wind back up. There’s a sense of possibility, that the night is young, and we can make it ours.
This place is a refuge for me, and many others like me. I came as a jaded tourist, and I left at the end of Night in the Woods as a devoted citizen.
Never before have I felt so spiritually attached to the world of a videogame. I was briefly obsessed with the untamed rustics of Skyrim many years ago. I’ve also had a few dreams about trekking through the blocky wilderness of Minecraft, thrilled by the unknowable possibilities of danger or sanctuary that might lie just beyond the horizon. I felt, much like the naivete of an adolescent relationship, that I had experienced true love for the atmosphere of a video game world.
But none of it ever felt real. I never connected to the people or the feeble, cardboard stand-up stories they were given. No matter how much fun I had, or how compelling the dialogue could be, in the back of my mind, they were all just loops of code executing at predetermined times.
It’s funny to me now that it seemed to take only a few simple shapes and a few lines of text for me to fall completely, madly in love.
"The people you see aren’t jumping with joy, but they are at peace...they can stop occasionally and admire the small beauty in the everyday sights they normally take for granted. They are well, all things considered"
Fans of Night in the Woods are a relatively small but passionately zealous group. The main story of the game is estimated to take just around 8.5 hours to complete, and yet the amount of fanart and fervor still circulating today inspired by the humble indie title is staggering. And I totally get it. If I were artistically inclined at all, I’d be right there with them. But the fact that such a tiny game can have such a long-lasting impact on players is really something to be studied.
For now, I settle for daydreaming about my fictional life in Possum Springs, imagining the existential conversations I’d have with the familiar cast of characters, and the long, sunlit walks I’d take day after day. Living for nothing but the comfort of being in the moment, and the rejuvenating chill of the autumn air.
Night in the Woods is really a standout example of how to craft a vivid and enduring game. By using simplified art, music, movement, and dialogue, the player is free to fill in the gaps with their own imagination. And no game engine — no matter how realistic the graphics, or how detailed the sounds — can ever match the wonderful creativity of the human mind.
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