What makes something a game? According to Webster’s dictionary, a video game is “any of various interactive games played using a specialized electronic gaming device.” If true, then anything we pop into our consoles, computers, phones, and televisions is classified as a “game.” To me, however, a game has to be more than that. To simply state that something interactive is automatically a game seems like a broad statement. I have been playing Night In The Woods for days, and I have concluded that this is not a game in the traditional sense. What we have here is a semi-immersive interactive story in which players get to step into the shoes of the main protagonist, and as a fly on the wall, see how the story unfolds. Depending on your expectations, this is either going to be a satisfying experience or a mild letdown.
Night In The Woods centers around Mae Borowski, a recent college dropout who has returned home to the mining town of Possum Springs. Human-like animals, toiling away at their oftentimes dull lives, populate the crumbling town that Mae returns to. Mae herself is a cat, and her best friends are a bear, a gator, and a fox. As participants in her story, we watch as Mae attempts to put her life together, constantly trying to hold on to the past, even as all her friends have seemingly grown up without her. Mae’s departure from school combined with her mysterious past haunt her throughout the story, leaving us at home to explore this new world and piece together what it all means.
I am officially classifying this as an interactive story. Ninety percent of the time, you advance the text bubbles during conversations or advance self-monologues Mae has with inanimate objects. There are some occasional “platforming” elements where Mae has to jump up on tables, wires, ledges, or cars, but zero skill is required,and it’s not a big part of the experience. The entire story is separated into three chapters, and follows Mae as she reconnects with friends and gets into trouble along the way. Throughout her journey Mae will make sketches of her surroundings in a journal, something we eventually learn is required by her therapist.
Strange things are happening in Possum Springs, and Mae and the gang are caught in the middle. Night In The Woods is a kind of choose your own adventure where you get to occasionally pick what Mae says and asks, as well as determine who she hangs out with and what zany antics occur. In one instance, I chose to hang out with her friend Bae, so we went to the mall and shoplifted. The next day, I wanted to chill with her best friend Greg, so we ended up having a weird knife fight in the woods. I have always been a fan of choose your own adventure style storytelling, as it adds a tremendous amount of depth to the experience.
At first glance, Night In The Woods feels like it was possibly meant for younger kids, with an animation style that reminds me of a cross between South Park and Blue’s Clues. It’s highly stylized, yet an art choice generally geared towards a younger demographic. Everything from the simplistic play mechanics, to the art style, and whimsical musical score screams kid’s game, but this is definitely not for kids. Most of the characters we follow are teenagers or very early twenty-somethings, and they use foul language, drink to excess, puke, talk about sex and drugs, shoplift, and more. Mae’s best friend is gay, there is a party in the woods with binge drinking, and at one point, a severed arm is found on the sidewalk.
Mae takes to her bed at the end of each day, usually after chatting with one of her parents. As soon she falls asleep, Mae finds herself in some exceptionally vivid dreams (or nightmares), in which she must find specific people or things before she can wake up. Making sense of these dreams falls on her and you the player, but it’s clear something is definitely amiss in our new cat protagonist’s head.
There are a few mini-games throughout Night In The Woods which I found highly entertaining. In Mae’s room, she has a laptop you can turn on and chat with Greg and Bae, or have some fun playing an 8-bit hack and slash video game. Next to Mae’s bed is an electric guitar that players can pick up and rock out with. The interface is similar to that of Rock Band, requiring you to hit the correct sequence of buttons at the right time. Mae and her friends are also in a band, and you can participate in a similar Rock Band inspired jam session as well. These mini experiences aren’t necessary, but they do add more substance.
One weird thing I feel I must mention was how odd it seemed when Mae and Bae were talking about hunting and how it was okay to kill because“they’re just animals.” There is something slightly disturbing about a bunch of anthropomorphic creatures talking about how it’s okay to kill other woodland creatures. Perhaps it was an inside joke or the developers were trying to make a statement, but the whole conversation exchange creeped me out a little.
The storyline and characters you meet throughout the experience are fantastic, and I often found myself eager to learn more of Mae’s backstory. For those who want a fun story with kooky characters in a choose your own adventure style format, then definitely pick this up. If you’re looking for a more traditional video game, I suggest looking at one of the many other platformers the Switch has to offer.
Disclaimer: The publisher provided a download code for this review.