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Drop out: A Night in the Woods review

Some experiences are universal.

No matter how they’re relayed – be it through actual live actors or anthropomorphic cats – if you’ve been there, you’ll relate to it. I dropped out of university (twice) and avoided moving back in with my family as much as possible. So when Mae Borowski, drop-out heroine of A Night in the Woods first returns to her sleepy hometown of Possum Springs only to find no-one is there to welcome her back, I knew I was going to be in for a bumpy ride.

It’s hard for me to categorise A Night In The Woods. It’s got bits of BoJack Horseman, Life is Strange, and Animal Crossing with a small touch of Welcome to Night Vale swirling through its DNA. It’s at once hopelessly bleak, and uniquely witty. You’ll be navigating awkward conversations with your parents, making a complete dick of yourself at a party in the woods, and confronting potentially cosmic horrors. And this is all as a 2D cartoon cat and her friends who wouldn’t look out of place on Cartoon Network.

The art style is faultless, somehow delivering tons of detail and expression in a disarmingly minimal way.

Excellent dialogue and sublime, nuanced animation hold the plot aloft as it wanders, lazily, from day to day. The game takes place throughout autumn and as a result has this fantastically warm, golden-red glow to it, leaves crunching underfoot as you stroll by a dog complaining about how monotonous her telesales job is. Even the background characters, despite mostly standing in the same place every day, go through believable motions. The dog hates her job. There’s a possum you pass most days who goes through various stages of pregnancy. Mae’s father can always be found lounging in front of the TV after a hard day working at the local supermarket, and her mum is in the kitchen every morning as you leave to go about your business. A Night in the Woods excels in catching you by surprise after lulling you into these lifelike routines. Your morning small-talk with your mother disrupted by her bringing up just how disappointed in you she is for dropping out. Awkwardly bringing up a friend’s dead mother during a drunken car journey. Sure, there’s the ghost story lurking in the background, acting as the thread that ties an otherwise loose arrangement of band practice, meaningful conversations, and petty theft together, but the truly spooky thing about Mae’s meander through Possum Springs is how well it replicates that day-to-day feeling of social difficulty and existential dread.

Just when you think you know where you’re at with a character, they’ll throw you a curveball, completely changing the way you view them, for better, or for worse. Mae’s dad, for example, seems like he could be the stereotypical hardworking American father, putting food on the table, cracking terrible jokes, and then Mae drunkenly declares at a party that he had to stop drinking because his alcoholism posed a danger to her and her mother. Describing more without spoiling some extremely tender moments would be really difficult, so I won’t go any further – but consider that A Night in the Woods does real life drama justice. There’s not always build-up or preamble. Sometimes you get blindsided leaving the house one morning and it changes your life forever. Sometimes people go through hell without speaking a single word to anyone about it. It’s bleak, at times – that can’t be ignored. But much like BoJack Horseman before it, it uses razor sharp wit to deliver gut punching commentary on human nature and the society that fosters it. The experience is so immersive, so encompassing, that A Night in the Woods transcends all the promises it makes and then some, drawing you into the wonderful, weird world of Mae Borowski and friends more like some magical enchanted book than quirky Steam game.

Of course, this is a game, and not a comic (although it’d be perfect for that) and so there are some adventure-lite elements. Mae’s feline agility lends itself neatly to some short but sweet exploration, bouncing around rooftops and teetering along power lines. These segments – usually in the form of trippy, Night Vale-esque dream sequences – never outstay their welcome. Most of the time they break up the heavy (in both amount and emotional weight) dialogue with casual platforming and problem solving. They’re never challenging, but testing your dexterity isn’t what Infinite Fall set out to do. Showcasing some one-of-a-kind animation and inspired scoring, and making you think a little bit in the process. Controls are functional enough for what they need to do – although occasionally not quite as precise as it feels like they should be – and every environment is a joy to explore. The pacing is just right – comedy, tragedy, quiet reflection, and balls-to-the-wall weird shit all in just the right amounts to be effective. This is a treasured, precious story.

A Night in the Woods feels way more human and relatable than a game about a cat who’s just dropped out of college has any damn right to be. I cannot stress enough the quality of Infinite Fall‘s creation. It won’t be to everybody’s taste. But in so many ways, this game represents everything that exemplifies indie gaming. It is one of the greatest achievements in both storytelling and animation the market has ever seen, marrying together its various inspirations and mechanics in incredible ways.

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about Portal 2, explaining what I believed, as someone who has been playing games for 20 years, qualified games as ‘perfect’. I’d like to humbly submit A Night in the Woods to that category.

THE TL;DR:

  • On the surface, a quirky, charming indie game that has you climbing around rooftops and making social faux pas as a college drop out. Beneath that, a wonderful, richly emotional commentary on human nature and mental health.
  • Excellent, witty dialogue and fantastic animation bring Possum Springs and its inhabitants to life to a level rarely achieved.
  • By the time the credits roll around, you’ll feel like Mae, Bea, Gregg and co are family. Each character has expertly crafted motivations and histories.
  • A testament to what gaming in general can achieve as a storytelling medium. One of a kind in every way.

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