Mae is young, sad and angry. She quit college a while ago then skulked back to Possum Springs, the dead-end mining town she grew up in.
Now she is living with her parents again, hanging out with the old crowd, doing the same pointless crap. Mae feels like she's just watching life slip by without her. But somehow she can't let go of this place.
Mae is also a cat.
This is Night in the Woods, a beautifully illustrated adventure game that combines a cast of anthropomorphic animals with a witty, heartfelt script that could have come straight from a Sundance-winning indie movie. The player controls Mae as she explores the dour hometown setting, trudging through cafes, parks, and shops, meeting disaffected characters, discovering little personal quests, and jumping on to the roofs and power lines – much to the frustration of her worried parents and crotchety neighbours. It works as a cute and engaging narrative platformer, but it also uses genre conventions to explore deeper issues.
Because, really, A Night in the Woods is a game about being sad and angry.
How the coder met the artist
The project came about last summer, when coder and musician Alec Holowka met artist Scott Benson on Twitter. Holowka liked Benson's work, and Benson had been toying with making a game for a while; a collaboration was quickly proposed. "We were batting ideas around," says Holowka. "I was about to turn 30 and that was a really big deal for me. It's a whole new chapter – I felt like I was that bit closer to my inevitable demise. We were talking about this and we we're both dealing with depression in different ways – it was something we could bond over. That feeds into the game a lot."
For his part Benson had just left the ministry after losing his faith; he was having to construct a fresh view on the world and his place in it. "Everyone has to go through something like that: 'how do I find meaning for me?'" he says. "There's a lot of that in Night in the Woods. We joked a few months ago, that this is a game about the inevitability of death … and pizza parties. Mae is 20 and growing out of being a teenager. She doesn't know what's going to happen: the town is dying, all her friends are moving away. Even as a 32-year-old I identify with that – the future is so uncertain. You have to understand when to let go of things."
The duo brought in writer Bethany Hockenberry, who grew up in a place very similar to Possum Springs. A lot of the game, at least judging by the E3 demo, is about exploring, drinking it in, talking to people. Mea's old teacher, a bird named Mrs Quelchy, is hanging out in an underground coffee shop, seemingly avoiding her job. "Get out of this town as soon as you can," she implores. Another character, Bea, has had to leave college because her mum died and her father can't cope – someone has to run the family business. Mae's best friend Gregg has climbed up on a roof and got stuck because he's a fox and shouldn't really be climbing on roofs. He's planning on leaving town without her, and she's terrified of life without him.
But they goof about anyway. There's a great scene where they go to the doughnut store; the camera switches and gives you control of Mae's paws as she grabs and eats doughnut after doughnut, her limbs becoming ever more shaky and difficult to control. "I think I can see birth and death and all the things," she says.
The humour over the sadness
There is a wryness about everything, a sense of absurdity that is of course, underlined by the use of animal characters. The child-like beauty and warm humour of it helps to make the melancholic themes more palatable. "A lot of art games hit you over the head with what they're about," says Holowka. "I don't think that really works. You have to sneak up on it. There's been a slew of games that have basically said, 'here is the meaning!' You don't have to telegraph it - I think we've manged to avoid that so far."
But there certainly is a weight of sadness here, and it is dealt with frankly. "When the game begins, Mae wonders what it would be like to burn down the house with her still in it," says Holowka. "A lot of people have said, 'woah, that's really dark', but then games are full of people blasting each other in the face with machine guns. We've become accustomed to a certain level of violence and cynicism - if this hits people, that's good. We've all had the experience of lying in our bedroom being really bored, thinking, oh seriously, fuck everything."
The game won't just be a straightforward tale of angst and self-discovery though. There seems to be a rumour of something hiding out in the woods, something that could destroy the town. Holowka won't reveal what it is, but hints that the danger is perhaps more figurative than physical. "It represents that sense of impending doom," he says. "The game is broken up into four acts and later, a mystery develops, but really we're using the threat as a concept to get the characters to do different things, to see how they react. It's not going to turn into an action game."
One thing is certain – Night in the Woods is picking up a lot of positivity. It was successfully funded through a Kickstarter appeal last autumn, and was one of the gems of this year's E3 exhibition, receiving an 'Editor's Choice' award from influential US site Polygon.
Benson was unsure of how his rather idiosyncratic first game would be received, but Holowka, who has already worked on several games including the critically acclaimed Towerfall, was more confident. "I've gone through that whole cycle of making things I really care about and feeling, like, maybe it's good, but also thinking, 'oh what if it's a horrible piece of shit and everyone hates it?'" he says. "Judging by the response to our Kickstarter, though, we felt Night in the Woods was going to be something people would like. I'm sure there are some people who think 'argh, this is hipster garbage', but to us it feels honest."
There's no release date yet – Holowka is saying "2015-ish". We do know there will be PC and PlayStation 4 versions. Right now, it seems the team is experimenting with supporting the Vita, either with a full conversion of the game, or as an optional second screen to hold Mae's journal, which she adds to throughout the adventure.
There is something in this game that feels natural and real. The snappy dialogue, the archetypal themes, that sense we all have when we're teenagers – of being scared and lost, of not knowing how to process those emotions. The first truly adult lesson most of us learn is that you have to take your own pain seriously. And then you have to live. Maybe Night in the Woods is about that.
"You know there's an end coming; life is a finite thing," says Benson. "The question is, what do you do with the time that you have? Well... let's laugh, let's just do the best we can."
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