It can be difficult to find time to finish a video game, especially if you only have a few hours a week to play. In our new biweekly column Short Play we suggest video games that can be started and finished in a weekend, and since it’s a long weekend in the US this one is a little longer than normal.
Night in the Woods is the story of Mae, a 20-year-old college sophomore, returning home for the first time in almost two years after deciding to drop out of school. It was originally released last February on PC and PlayStation 4, after a successful Kickstarter in 2013. I picked it up recently when the enhanced version, called Night in the Woods: Weird Autumn, came to the Switch earlier this month. At a time when there is constant news of 20-somethings making very bad decisions, playing it forced me to think about what an adult is — perhaps more so than its creators intended.
The game is a mix of some point-and-click adventure game elements (exploration with some light puzzle solving) with a side scrolling platformer. Mae moves around the town by running through the streets, walking on power lines, and jumping along rooftops. You can talk to Mae’s neighbors, friends, and family as you explore, learning more about them and their story along the way.
Possum Springs is where Mae spent most of her life. Because of this, exploring feels natural because while the town was once familiar, it has become very foreign to her in the nearly two years she’s been away. The mining and manufacturing jobs have all dried up, local shops that were once institutions are closed replaced with national corporate retailers. So it not only narratively makes sense, but it nicely serves to introduce the town to players who don’t have that same connection to the place that Mae does. As you explore you also start to get a better sense of who Mae is, and how she used to fit into this place. You also learn that the space she once occupied doesn’t seem to exist anymore.
Her friends and family have been adapting to these changes. Her mom works reception at the local church, while her dad lost his factory job but now works the deli counter at the big chain supermarket. Her friends now all have jobs, plans for the future, and responsibilities. These are things Mae completely lacks.
There’s a running gag in the game where people call Mae a “kid.” In one instance, she takes offense, pointing out that she’s 20 years old. The person only reaffirms that she is, in fact, a “kid.” One of Mae’s friends does this as well, despite being two months younger than her. While it’s intended as a joke, it actually speaks a fairly deep truth about Mae. It’s not just that these people don’t see her as an adult — it’s that she’s not one.
Being an adult isn’t just something you become, or something you stay as once you reach that point. Rather I think the point the game is trying to make, and one that I find myself agreeing with, is that it’s a state of being responsible for yourself. It’s an understanding that the actions you take have repercussions on yourself, the people around you, and potentially your community as well. Mae is constantly interacting with people in the town who made choices, not because it’s exactly what they wanted, but because it was what needed to be done. They owned the responsibility of that decision.
Mae, on the other hand, is running away from that responsibility, just as she ran away from college. Ironically, the place she ran to was one where she’ll have to become an adult sooner than if she had stayed in school. The game isn’t completely judgmental or sympathetic to Mae; there’s an understanding that she’s working through some things. If the game took place over a longer period of time than the week or two that passes in game, I could see it being less understanding and more encouraging to take responsibility.
Night in the Woods is a good reminder that the transition into adulthood, into being responsible, isn’t the same for everyone. And it requires a certain amount of sympathy and understanding from adults — but that doesn’t mean not holding people accountable even if they won’t.