Author’s Note: this review of Night In The Woods discusses allegations of assault made against one of its creators. These allegations broke after my first two playthroughs of the game were concluded, and the emotional impact of the game already established. I considered whether to cut the review entirely, not wanting to promote the work of this developer. After careful deliberation, and in light of the accused being immediately fired from Infinite Fall, I have decided to move forward in reviewing Night In The Woods, in support of the other team members of Infinite Fall, whose work on this excellent game should not be allowed to be brought down by another person’s actions.
Dania lay on the couch in her apartment.
I need to delete Twitter, she thought to herself. She knew she wouldn’t.
It had been another trip through the news of the hour: calamities happening in plain sight that people refused to acknowledge, forcing the planet and country into an unstable and increasingly uncertain future.
She sighed, a deep exhalation that tried to remove all the stress from her lungs. But the tension, naturally, remained.
Neither Gwen or Eleanor had shown any sign of lingering tension, aside from the occasional burst of anger over singular news stories. The encroaching dread that encompassed Dania was harder to pin down, difficult to discuss without sounding hysterical. She considered getting off the couch, but her body wouldn’t follow. She pitied herself for being stuck in this hole –– then silently chastised herself for giving in to pity.
What can I do? Dania rolled the question around in her mind, but found no answer that wasn’t minuscule in scale. What do I do if I can’t do anything about it?
– – – – –
“I just wish there was a touch more satisfaction regarding the twists in the second half,” Eleanor said, considering the soft resolution at the finale of Night In The Woods. “Is that fair?”
“Perhaps a little bit,” Gwen considered. “Taking Mae as the protagonist, and measuring the story by how it represents her growth and development, the game’s pacing and plotting seems fine. The plot elements that, technically, have little to do with her emotional journey can be open-ended without the game feeling unfinished.”
“Maybe,” Eleanor said. “So much of the game feels like you’re not accomplishing a whole lot. Every now and then, they throw in an achievement for completing a seemingly random objective. I went out of my way to talk with every character, click on every actionable item in the game, and some of them seemed like they went nowhere.”
“Which ending did you get?” asked Gwen.
“There are multiple endings?” Eleanor replied, shocked.
“To a degree,” Gwen said. “The conclusion is the same, but a lot of the discussions, especially in Chapter 4, depend on which character you spent the most time with in the earlier chapters. But I don’t know which one you did.”
“I got the achievement for talking with Gregg the most,” Eleanor answered. “We built the trash son.”
“Ah, got it.” Gwen recalled her first playthrough –– the wide-reaching exploration elements of Possum Springs, the game’s economically destitute Rust Belt setting, demanded repeat visits. “My first run, I got the Bea route. Did you go to her house and meet her dad?”
“Never,” Eleanor said. “We went to the mall once. After I did the ghost searches with Gregg and Angus in Chapter 3, it wouldn’t let me talk with Beatrice again.”
“I believe after a certain number of meetings it locks you into one friendship alignment,” Gwen concluded. “Lori and Germ notwithstanding.”
“Is Lori the mouse who loves horror movies?”
– – – – –
There were parts of Night In The Woods that made Dania feel terrible, despite her adoration of the story. The most painful moment in the game hadn’t been the implied gore or the tragedy in Angus’ backstory. It was Mae’s conversation with Bea –– a college dropout lecturing a woman who had gotten stuck in her hometown, running the family business.
“A lot of times folks can’t just choose to do whatever you decree to be the right thing,” Bea lashed out.
“You always have a choice,” Mae responded.
“Choose what? Honestly, tell me.”
“You can just leave! I dunno.”
“You want to come in here and say, ‘oh yeah, just ditch your dad, who is getting old, and can barely get off the couch half the time.'”
“It’s just not right, is what I’m saying.”
“Yeah, it isn’t. The whole effing world isn’t right.”
The key theme holding Night In The Woods together had been abandonment –– Mae being forgotten by her parents at the train stop, the rest of the world leaving Possum Springs to rot after their resources dried up, the sins of the past erasing any hope of a future for those living in the present.
– – – – –
“I adore the Gen Z angst interwoven into the narrative,” Gwen commented. “That search for promised meaning when the journey can feel so meaningless.”
“The dialogue nails that dry, nihilistic tone,” said Eleanor. “I love that Mae and Gregg’s common back-and-forth refrain is hoping that the other will die horribly. ‘I hope you get hit by a bus.’ ‘I hope the bus is on fire and burns off your jacket.’ ‘I hope you get hit into a pit with a shark at the bottom.'”
“Angus’ monologue during the star search is particularly beautiful,” Gwen said. She took out her phone. “What was the line he said at the end of it? I wrote it down, it was so powerful.”
“My favorite quote is from the teacher on the rooftop, with the constellations,” Eleanor said. “All stories really happen because hearing them happened to you.”
“When was that?” Gwen asked. “That’s beautiful.”
“It’s on the last constellation, during the epilogue.”
“Ah, I think I skipped a few,” she admitted. “Gotta go back a third time.”
“Who made the game?” Eleanor asked, already pulling her phone out to look. “Have they made other games as well?”
“Infinite Fall is basically three people,” Gwen said. “Bethany Hockenberry and Scott Benson are the writers, the ones actually from the Rust Belt. Scott did the animation as well –– I remember the first time I controlled Mae, and saw how smoothly her mobile animation was, I was shocked. Not to mention the parallax scrolling that gives the game world this sense of scale that can’t be matched.”
“And Alec Holowka?” asked Eleanor, staring at the phone.
“Alec? Is that the third creator?”
“Yeah,” Eleanor said. “The one who as accused of multiple counts of sexual assault three months ago?”
Gwen said nothing.
“And who died shortly after?” Eleanor looked up at Gwen.
Neither said anything for a bit.
“He did the game coding, and the music,” Eleanor added.
“But not the story.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, that’s good.”
Another silence settled.
Gwen looked at her phone. She had the scene with Angus and Mae pulled up. It was one of many to address larger, existential themes in the game –– the final chapter dove with no restraint into the purpose of suffering. But Angus, the cute boyfriend bear in a trilby, had expressed the game’s humanist tilt most poetically.
“Do you believe in anything at all?” asked Mae.
“I believe in a universe that doesn’t care,” Angus replied. “And people who do.”
Eleanor laughed, reflexively, when Gwen read this. Then silence resettled in the room.
– – – – –
Night In The Woods had come at the right time, Dania realized. If she had found it right when it was released, in early 2017, her perspective on the world wouldn’t have so closely aligned with the game’s own. Now, with Possum Springs’ characteristic decay seemingly occurring in real time, on a global scale…Dania could feel the tether between her and the town’s residents. Their collective worry for a future promised but never delivered –– and the rising fear that, perhaps, it would never come.
She, like Gwen and Eleanor, hadn’t learned about the accusations against Holowka until her playthrough of the game was complete. It angered her more than anything in the game had. Of all the stories to be tainted by the actions of its creator, why this one? This story that had so deeply touched her, so helped her to contextualize her own dread about the future? Her own sense of justice instructed her to reject the game outright.
As she lay on her bed, turning the game’s story and characters over in her mind, she found that she simply couldn’t.
That the game could encapsulate its underlying tension within such a touching, light-hearted human storyline was a testament to the excellent work of writers Hockenberry and Benson, more than others on the team. Small details littered the game, each a window into the town’s personality. Selmers, a poet of tiny but impactful musings; the history of the Deep Hollow Hollerers, the folk band that score Mae’s dreams; the closing of the restaurant Pastabilities –– Mae’s favorite –– only to be replaced in the game’s epilogue by a new tenant. Could she burn all these details? These truths that struck such resonant chords of empathy?
Dania had begun taking the game apart, peeling back each element to find its author. Holowka hadn’t worked on the script, so any quotes from the game seemed untainted. The art style –– Mary Blair with the sinister tone of a shadow play –– was entirely Benson, so imagery from the game was okay to enjoy. But Holowka was the sole credited composer of the game’s score. The hauntingly ambient atmosphere of the game, which Dania had used more than once as music to study by, needed to be tossed out.
There had been many works of art she had abstained from in the two years since public accountability against abusers had begun moving in full force: the discography of Drake, the TV show “House of Cards,” and –– in light of Mario Batali –– all cinnamon rolls. So how could Night In The Woods, experienced so soon before its creator’s sins were aired, have made such an indelible impression on Dania, enough to wish the game was safe from its own creator’s influence?
She didn’t know. She wondered whether Gwen or Eleanor knew about the accusations. She wondered how they would respond to them.
Despite everything that happened since, though, Dania could hold on to the experience she had playing the game. Perhaps there were no answers to be found in the game’s story –– but there was joy to be found in the narratives it encouraged you to create for yourself. The ending came fast, but she was sad to see it go, and that clearly meant it had mattered.
“You have a way of making doom sound like a lot of fun, Maeday,” Bea quipped, late in the game.
Dania wasn’t sure she could agree. But she hoped one day she would.
Image Source: Infinite Fall / Finji