Night in the Woods effortlessly captures humanity through its cartoon animal cast

Night in the Woods is a game about choices. Not necessarily the huge life-altering choices, but the seemingly mundane decisions we make every day that ultimately define our relationships and shape who we are. Like 2016’s The Witness, Night in the Woods sets a high bar for all the other indie games coming out this year. With its gorgeous art style, lovable characters, hilarious dialogue, hummable music, and gut-wrenching story, Night in the Woods is a thoughtful visual novel tailor-made for the disillusioned millennial in all of us.

Set in the anthropomorphic animal-filled town of Possum Springs, you play as Mae Borowski, a 20-year-old cat returning home after dropping out of college. The game plays out over a couple months where you spend your days exploring Possum Springs, tightroping across its telephone wires, exchanging witty banter with its colorful characters, and discovering its secrets. In some ways, the rural mining town is just how she remembers it while some aspects are completely different. The same is true for its animal residents.

Night in the Woods is great at normalizing and humanizing the townsfolk from the one gay couple, to the homeless, to the uneducated. Character traits that are often exaggerated and mocked in other stories are treated as a single detail of a well-rounded character. Mae, who was known for being a vandal in high school, is accepted by most of her fellow residents despite her troubled history and personality quirks.

I took special note of how the game handles religion. Mae’s mother is devout in her faith and works at the church during the week, while Mae’s father hasn’t attended in years. Mae is trying to figure out what she believes throughout the game while the pastor herself admits she has moments of doubt. Both the religious and non-religious are treated as caring and intelligent people. The developers take special care not to demonize any point of view and actually does a great job of highlighting the positive aspects of each person who was given a religion-filled backstory. And thankfully, nary a robed possum hanging from a crucifix in sight.

The game is smart about developing a routine with you and then giving you free reign to break it. For instance, the first couple days your mom will call you over into the kitchen as you’re leaving for the day to talk to her. After this, you know you can find her every morning with her button nose in a book if you want to say hello. It is a relationship worth investing in, but you’re a busy kitty with a lot of nothing to do, so nobody would judge you for heading straight out of the house.

I mistakenly assumed I could do everything in the game before the credits rolled. For instance, there’s the classic video game trope of showing the player an inaccessible area at the beginning of the game as a way to say “At some point, your character will develop to a degree where you can gain entrance to this locked place.” When I finally caught on to what decisions I needed to make to unlock this part of the story there weren’t enough days left in the game to trigger it.

That’s when I realized that the game offers you dozens more story threads than you are able to complete in a single playthrough. In this way, Night in the Woods paints a beautiful picture of the intentionality of adult life. Relationships must be pruned and attended to. There’s always a worthwhile moment on the other side of your efforts, but you have to put in the work. Night in the Woods takes no issue with you swimming halfway across the river and then ending before you reach the shore.

The folks at Infinite Fall have crafted such a lovely world that I myself would want to live in. The stylized 2D art is implemented to dazzling effect. The soft gradients, the way the autumn leaves gently rustle in the translucent orange trees, the warm sunlight that shines out from the horizon and dances across Mae’s face–dozens of these small but precisely crafted details make the world feel alive. The designers’ use of color, contrast, and leading lines are employed to the level of a professional animation studio. So much care went into the art direction of the game that it’s a shame that the character’s themselves aren’t more emotive. It is hard to connect when a character is sobbing but wearing the same smile they do in every scene.

Night in the Woods effortlessly manages to be the most relatable and funny game I’ve ever played. It is accessible yet deep, playful yet thoughtful, cynical yet hopeful. It tackles the life lessons we must all learn whether it’s Mae’s pursuit of self-forgiveness, Gregg’s struggle to grow up, or perhaps Bea’s realization that there can be genuine happy moments in the face of tragedy. The subdued music scoring the 10-hour adventure is fitting for the podunk setting and angsty cast of characters. While the main story, a mystery enacted by Mae and her friends finding a severed arm outside of the local diner, may be the weakest part of the game, there is pure magic to be found elsewhere if you’re willing to invest in the community around you, much like real life. Unfortunately, real life isn’t half as adorable.

Hear more of our thoughts on the latest episode of Trust Sircle!

Written by Marcus Garrett

Marcus created Top Shelf Gaming to celebrate the awesome things about the video game industry while challenging the areas of the video game community that could be improved. He loves playing guitar and eating tacos, but never at the same time.

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