**SPOILER WARNING: Major moments in the story of Night in The Woods and Life is Strange will be mentioned here. If you have any plans to play the former or the latter… or both, then heed the warning that certain parts of the story will be mentioned.**
“You never know what’s good until you miss it.” That’s a decent mantra.
No matter how reserved you believe you are in life, every single person on the planet has made a reckless and bold decision at least once. Usually, that one decision is what decides your outlook for you, be it to continue being reckless or to just stay conservative with how you approach challenges. I was the former and messed up superbly, which is probably why I had my eye on Night In The Woods for some time.
Today’s life lesson comes from Infinite Fall, a Canadian studio who bought their pet project to Kickstarter around the year of 2014. It was wildly successful, gaining 4x the amount of money it needed, and in early 2017, the game was complete, while at the same time being met with rave reviews. We’re reviewing the Weird Autumn edition, as that’s the one with a bit more content and the version that’s the norm now, okay?
You play as Mae Borowski, 20-year-old college dropout who returns to her home in Possum Springs, where the elated reaction of her superiors and old friends is “Oh no.” Upon her return, she notices spooky happenings and starts having strange dreams that seem to seep into her real life. With this, she attempts to convince her friends to join in her cohorts, and maybe vandalize a few things while they’re at it. All while this is happening, Mae can’t seem to stop making a complete asshat of herself.
Let’s jump right into the main hole of the issue: This is not an approachable title. This is an extremely niche game, designed to appeal to a crowd that isn’t really hardcore gaymerzzz. When playing through it, the dialogue, mannerisms and a lot of the character design comes down to some form of Tumblr aesthetic and feel, and that’s something I’ve never really been a part of. I do, however, like a good ol’ narrative romp, which is why I came to this title in the first place, and well… it’s something.
Infinite Fall was dedicated to making this more of a narrative-adventure than an actual game. Despite that, it feels like they were afraid that the player still needed something to break up the monotony of constantly embarrassing yourself, which is why the game has a few minigames attached. Those minigames are specifically a Guitar Hero knock-off and a 2-D roguelike which are easily accessible early on.
These games on their own work fine, but once you’ve played them, you don’t really want to again. Like the roguelike, dubbed “Demontower“, which is essentially a dungeon crawler that captivates you for all of 5 minutes before you can’t really seem to commit yourself to it and move on. The Guitar Hero knock-off fares slightly better, but that’s due to the fact that sometimes, you HAVE to play it.
On their own, they’re serviceable, and if you don’t want to play them? Well, you still have the entirety of Possum Springs to explore, and by that, I mean, you crawl around looking for something that doesn’t progress the story. You have this town in your hands, and a bunch of people to interact with, and this is where the game is supposed to shine.
Well, no, where it’s supposed to shine is the story, because it is a “narrative-ADVENTURE”, so it needs something to pull you in. There’s a really good murder mystery for the most part, where Mae and co. attempt to figure out where former friends and random people have been disappearing, all the while finding themselves. However, all of this gets disassembled near the end to focus on all the characters.
Before I say anything though, I will say that the world-building is remarkable. Possum Springs is a brilliant town to wander through, and they’ve captured this semi-rural feel well. The games takes place in autumn, and it makes it that much more of a comfy treat, as leaves, fog and the vibrant orange colours surround the world. Paired with the folky music, the atmosphere retains a soft energy.
The cast is an eclectic bunch, you’ve got an energetic little pup called Gregg, there’s Bea, a goth chick who sheds crocodile tears with a permanent cigarette in her mouth, and Angus, a big lovable bear who plays straight-man to the actions of Gregg and Mae. These 4 dominate most of the play-through, with it being two teams of raunchy anim- Actually, let’s stop with the animal puns because this niggles me a bit.
As you’ll see in screenshots, you and the world are host to a bunch of anthropomorphic animals, instead of humans. However, there are also actual real-life animals all over the place, like squirrels, cats, and dogs. It’s such a negligent thing to think about, but whenever I see actual animals in the game, it just creeps me out, and then I make up my own insane theories.
Maybe animals and humans cross-bred, and after a while, it was the humans that were cut off, left to be a forgotten species? Maybe there was a massive war, and anthropomorphic animals took over Earth, rendering all human life extinct? Maybe it was a genetic experiment gone wrong, and after a while, the mutati- Okay, I’ll stop, I’m sorry.
Other highlights include Germ, the upfront hooligan, Selmers, an up-n-coming poet, amateur stargazer Mr. Chazokov, and Pastor K, a new leader of the local church. All of these examples will also be bringing something to the table, for Mae to react to. I say “for Mae to react to” since the quirkiness of the characters never came across to me, and I just wanted to continue the mystery set in stone by the writers.
What Infinite Fall are trying to do is the “focus on the people, not the story” mission that made Twin Peaks such a viable hit. It’s a perfect strategy, especially when you’re not confident that the player wouldn’t get, or actually like, the narrative in the first place. In order to evaluate the success of this, I’m going to compare Night in The Woods to another title that I’m sure has already been talked to death about before: Life is Strange.
Life is Strange may not have applied the same strategy towards their own game, but it was more of a character study, and I’m not exactly going to make Max Caufield and Mae Borowski duke it out for a victory. What I am going to do, however, is something nobody would have expected… explain why Life is Strange does a better job of telling a story.
Consistency is the name of the man on a mission for the success of Life is Strange. Dontnod brings the same themes and motivations to each character, and nothing is ever out of the ordinary for these characters and their personalities. Max wants to succeed and mingle with her old best friend, Chloe wants her friend back and will venture to the ends of the earth for an answer, and Jefferson is a fuckin’ freak looking for perfection in photography.
In Night in The Woods, characters flip-flop between different ideas and dreams, aside from Mae and Bea, who are arguably the main focal points for the entire game. While that might be acceptable due to their main character tag, it still needs a strong supporting cast, and it mostly isn’t there. The other two maintaining a presence in the story is Angus and Gregg, who is in a relationship with each other.
Angus mostly keeps to himself, whereas Gregg is in the same mindset as Mae, anarchy, and destruction etc. Opposites attract is the saying, but another reason why I don’t buy their chemistry is due to the awful way exposition and dialogue is carried out in some sequences. Bea’s big beef with Mae results from Mae forgetting the fact that Bea lost her mother, after a long battle with cancer, angrily belittling Mae for her forgetfulness. All the while, Mae responds to it like she just remembered that she left the stove on at home.
While Mae might have been intoxicated during this altercation, what I’m trying to say is that it’s not believable, whether you’re drunk or not. Nobody would dare structure their argument like that, unless they were stupid, selfish shits, whereas Bea is arguably the most selfless party member, showing how she does everything for her father because that’s the hand she was dealt. Angus also has one of these moments, where he just lays out his entire life story in front of Mae, despite the fact that they both acknowledge they have next to nothing, in terms of a friendship.
Life is Strange also had this issue, mainly in the attempt to save Kate’s life on top of the roof, and it was also not to the same effect. Nothing changes in Night in The Woods, whether you choose the most outlandish or reserved option, Bea and the squad are still going to help you with your issues. Mae could jump into Bea’s house, and claim that she was the cause of her mother’s death, and Bea would still accept Mae’s invites to hang out.
I hate this stupid bait-and-switch shit that writers pull, whenever they’re too fucking lazy to create an over-arching “actions have consequences!” mechanic. You might as well create an animated series if you’re not going to commit to these narrative turns in the story progression. It’s why people don’t rate Telltale games anymore, because you’re just playing through half-baked fan-fiction that doesn’t care whether you approach it with a ruthless or angelic edge. It’s all going to end the same way.
Yeah, all narrative-adventure games do that, but not to the extent of Night in The Woods. In The Walking Dead, you can choose whether Clementine leaves you like a lifeless walker, or that ends your life. In Life is Strange, you can choose your closest friend over the life you wanted or vice versa. Here, what do we get? A choice between progressing the story with a fox or a crocodile? Reaaaaaaaaaaally?
“Oh, but it’s about depression! It’s about mental health, and the way it affects you! It’s not about the world, it’s deeper than that!” No. None of the dialogue implies that it’s trying to educate you about ways you can find and use coping mechanisms, it’s watching a human-sized cat screw up her life bit by bit. The lack of a meaningful message also comes down to a lot of things, like the fact that there’s no voice acting or the fact that since everything is on a 2-D profile shot, emotion is a lot harder to convey in animation.
When the ending comes around, you never get a sense that the actions were because of you, since the dialogue is so one-sided and one-tone. To prove this theory, I played the game again, and instead of being collected in dialogue, I went in as brash as possible and was a dick to everyone, and nothing changed. Here we are, in the exact same spot, still practicing our crap songs in a garage.
There’s no life lesson of reality in this, or “welcome to the real world, it sucks, live with it” theme that the game is accepting. It seems content in saying “I’m sure your friends will keep looking after your sorry ass, while you sit there, and become a failure in your parents’ eyes!” I already tell myself this while I play games in the first place, why the FUCK do I need anthropomorphic animals telling me this as well?
After all that, there’s also a sense that the game was rushed, which is incredible when you think about it. 4/5ths of the game is bumbling around Possum Springs until the last hour of the game comes around, and it’s wrapped up quicker than a coke fiend trying to get his gifts shipped out for Christmas. When it comes down to it, I think this is another tragic case of Kickstarter developers not realizing the scale of their own game.
For what it’s worth, please don’t come away from this, thinking that Night in The Woods is a complete write-off because it most certainly isn’t. My main issue comes from it being a game for a different audience, mainly people who thought Life is Strange was the be all/end all for episodic adventures, and people who still use Tumblr. If you are one of those types of people or both, by all means, go ahead. This game will make your day. As for me?
There’s a lot of faffin’ around, with characters I don’t like, with minigames that aren’t mechanically sound, with a story that takes 5 hours to happen, in a world that I actually find quite comfortable, if bloated. Mae and co. might bring a lot of humanity to the table, but a lot of it comes off with a lack of real weight to words. Despite the attempt at emotion, when it all ends? You won’t know what to think. I still don’t, honestly.
A title that promises ambition and change, yet comes off as the rest of the litter in the genre.