Night in the Woods made me believe in love at first sight.
The highly stylized adventure game opens up with something akin to Firewatch‘s own Choose Your Own Adventure-style block of text, but it does so in a far more…sardonic fashion. The very first line gripped me with its elegant, perfect efficiency. “In the year Granddad died.”
I knew then that the game had me. It’s dry, it’s weird, and it’s evocative. And that pretty much describes the entirety of my time with Night in the Woods, the debut game from Infinite Fall (which is really a portmanteau of individual developers Alec Holowka and Scott Benson’s handles) that has been floating around since its successful Kickstarter campaign in late 2013.
It tells the story of a cat-girl named Mae returning from college to her hometown only to find that, while some things stay the same, others have definitely, irrevocably, and eerily changed. Her homecoming starts, in fact, far from the ideal. Her parents have left her abandoned at the bus station of Possum Springs, forcing her to wander through a decrepit playground and wasteland gulch only to end up in at the feet of her policeman aunt.
As heartily and readily as I fell for the game itself, I similarly took a shine to Mae. Even in this strangely dire yet comforting situation of being home but not quite home, she’s sharp yet whimsical, nostalgic with just a shade of cynicism. She is in many ways what I subconsciously seek to find in others simply because I can’t affect the same in myself—loving deeply but not easily, caustic yet warm and welcoming.
It’s easy to love everyone in this game, even those that you shouldn’t. They are hyper-focused realizations of personalities, a step beyond what games normally offer (which is to say a talking collection of quirks and plot devices). I love the way Mae’s best friend Gregg reacts to overwhelming news by waving his arms and yelling, a representation of his gleaming perspective on life. I can’t get over how Mae’s dad only ever tells dad jokes, an indulgence he earns by indulging his Mae’s own oddities and proclivity for shenanigans.
And my gosh are there are lot of shenanigans. This world is full—damn near overflowing, really—with stuff. At any given moment, you could be tasked with playing bass in a band, physically move your paw around a cork board to swat at a ball of yarn, or even play an incredibly robust and infuriatingly challenging dungeon crawler (created as a stretch goal for the game by Canabalt creator Adam Saltsman). And judging by the trailer, there’s also sword fighting and hunting and more on the docket.
All those things aren’t just a distraction. They lend an unexpected depth to the game. In the same way you find yourself doing things you wouldn’t guess on a daily basis, that exact sense of surprise and exploration exists in this game. It works hard to make you believe every aspect of its setting, which is, on face value, categorically absurd.
Oh yeah, did I mention everyone is an anthropomorphic animal? I kind of glossed over that with “cat-girl,” huh. It’s super weird, but it gives the world just the right kind of detachment from reality, which in turn gives a contrast through proximity for what really hits home. Like, if these cats and foxes and alligators go through the same things as you or I, what’s to say any amount of this isn’t real?
The absurdity, however, can’t be understated. It’s very much a Richard Scarry kind of world where it doesn’t have to make sense if it exists because, well, too late—it already does. Like how are there just little critter squirrels crawling around trees when there is also a squirrel person right on the street? Well, does it really matter? (Not even a little bit.)
I feel like I’ve still got a lot of game to go, though honestly I have no goddamn clue. All I know for sure is that I really, really, really like this game so far, and I think you will, too. Go and play Night in the Woods. It’s out now for the PlayStation 4, PC, macOS, and Linux.