NOTE: There may be spoilers.
You guys, I just finished Night in the Woods. Holy crap, you guys. Holy crap. This game. SO GOOD! I have so many things to say. I don't even know where to start. But here I go anyway.
As with my Firewatch review, I need to start with the less-than-pleasant aspects of the game. They'll be quick, I promise. I really want to get to the good stuff!
Two things stood out as technical faults in the game. I played the game on the XBOX One, by the way.
First, there were an ASS-TON of loading screens. Walk five feet in any direction — BOOM. Loading screen. Transition screens might've been acceptable at such frequencies, but loading screens (which typically lasted 3 to 5 seconds) were extremely annoying. A few seconds may not sound like a lot, but when you multiply it by an ass-ton, you get 3 to 5 ass-tons of seconds wasted in loading time. Personally, I've never made a commercial-scale game, so I'm not fully aware of all of the technical difficulties of asset loading, but other games have definitely figured out this problem and have designed fluid transitions between large level set pieces and/or between scenes.
Second, there were some audio glitchings. It was hard to tell if these occurred because of some aesthetic choice to slow the music down, or because the engine's performance was suffering under some heavy load. I'm pretty sure it was the former, since I never noticed any performance hits on Mae's responsiveness. There were a couple of places at the edge of town where the music (played by a MIDI engine rather than as audio files?) was slowed down and faded out. At those times, the audio started glitching, clipping, and stuttering.
Aside from those two things, the game ran really smoothly, and I never encountered any other bugs. Kudos to the developers!
NITW is a game about choice and exploration. I've only played it once through, so I don't know how many variations in story there are, but my choices in dialogue and in how and where and when I explored the town clearly affected the shape of the plot. Like many games, NITW had "sidequests," but that term seems inadequate to describe the actual experiences of those parts of the game. In other games, sidequests are typically disconnected from the main plot line. This allows them to be optional for the player, who may not discover them, but it also makes them feel cheap, since they have no effect on the central story. But NITW's sidequests felt more like plot lines waiting to be discovered. They weren't easily or quickly wrapped up, and they instead ran alongside the main plot line for many days, frequently interacting with it by seamlessly weaving in new dialogue options and providing new places to explore.
Speaking of exploration, I, through Mae, explored the town in typical platformer fashion. In the first day or so of the game, it seemed like I'd only be spending my time walking back and forth through the town. But after a day or so, Mae was given the freedom to jump up on power lines and roofs, which quite literally opened up a whole new dimension of adventure.
My goal, as Mae, was to uncover the mysterious goings-on in Possum Springs, to spend time with my friends, and to figure out how to grow up. I did this by moving around town, talking to people, exploring locked or abandoned buildings, roaming out into the fields and woods, and getting involved in town affairs. As I talked to people, I was able to shape the story by choosing among dialogue options. Time also flowed forward in a normal way, so my choices about how to spend my time also shaped the story. For example, the annual Harfest (a Halloween festival) took place on a very definite date, and I arrived in Possum Springs about a week before that. The clock didn't realistically tick by during the day, but the date definitely did change every day. This meant that some events (like meeting certain people or talking to them about particular topics) were only available on certain days.
This style of choice-making seemed really effective to me. It forced me to think about how to spend time with my friends, for example. One night, both Gregg and Beatrice wanted to hang out, and I had to choose which one to hang out with. I ended up choosing Beatrice, and I wondered ever after what would've happened if I'd gone with Gregg. I'll say a bit more about this in the conclusion.
As far as aesthetics go, NITW is gorgeous. Possum Springs was such a beautiful little vignette of fall in a small town, full of vibrant colors and movement and life (which was ironic, given the story). The leaves rustled on the trees. Citizens walked by, or puttered by in cars or motorized wheelchairs. Little animals — birds, squirrels, cats — scurried or flew by on their various little errands. Dead leaves scattered on the pavement as I passed. And the characters were so cute! Even the dialogue bubbles and font fit perfectly with the overall style, which I'd call "children's story book."
The music was good, though nothing to write home about. But the overall sound design was fantastic. The sound effects perfectly matched the vibrancy of the town and its colors and movement. They were flawlessly layered, and enlivened with beautiful effects. For example, the underground tram station echoed with the clatterings and hissings of a cook making pretzels and pierogis; Mae's dreams were filled with deep rumbles and startling "unlocking" (?) sounds as she passed underneath darkened lampposts; the hustle and bustle of the street faded away as she climbed to the highest roofs in the town.
Finally, the style of the dialogue was absolutely pitch-perfect and fantastic. It was laugh-out-loud funny, bitterly sad, sharp as a knife, utterly poetic, heart-breakingly beautiful, and fantastically whimsical. It contained some of the most insightful stuff I've read in recent memory!
Although I said at the outset that there might be spoilers, I actually don't want to ruin the story for you, if possible. Broadly, though, here's what happened. A girl named Mae Borowski went off to college but dropped out during her sophomore year and came home to Possum Springs. She couldn't seem to get her life together or grow up; everything about adulthood repulsed her. She preferred to break stuff, or commit petty crimes, or go to parties, or play computer games, or hang out with her high school friends. She wasn't without her merits, of course — she would talk to anyone about anything, and she was a fiercely loyal friend — but most of the people in her town saw her for what she lacked. They mostly remembered her for the trouble she caused in her high school years. So, Mae moved back home in hopes of escaping certain problems at college (the details of which are explored as the story unfolds), but she instead found a whole new set of problems in Possum Springs. The town had been slowly declining for decades, though Mae had been oblivious to that fact for most of her life. But the town's decline had started to cast deep, dark shadows over all of the inhabitants. Early in the game, for example, Mae and her friends found a severed arm in the street on an otherwise beautiful fall day, a gruesome foreshadowing of the darkness that would eventually consume Mae's entire life. To be clear, the game was virtually never gory, but it did discuss very the adult themes of violence, mental illness, the depths to which people would sink in order to preserve their livelihoods and their ways of life, and the hatred that flyover-country Americans in a small, midwest town felt for their government, who not only abandoned them to their decaying local economy but who actively killed them when push came to shove. And binding up these larger plot pieces were the threads of forgiveness, growth, and redemption between Mae and her friends and family. The characters were all astoundingly three-dimensional and mature (in the sense of having been well-developed as characters, not necessarily as having grown up into fully functional adults).
As the story progressed, it became increasingly unclear whether Mae was losing her mind or whether something really sinister was lurking on the borders of the town, or even in the heart of the town itself. Things like the severed arm, vandalism on famous town landmarks, and reports of missing people combined with Mae's general depressive, dysfunctional state and her parents' financial troubles all began to break her down mentally and emotionally. Mae began to have bizarre dreams, some of which seemed to bleed over into her waking life (if, in fact, she was awake and cogent and not actually hallucinating). She also began to see a creepy figures stalking in the shadows in certain lonely parts of town.
In short, and without giving any more away, it was a story of a girl struggling to find her place in her town and in its history and in her family, and her town's place in the world, and the world's place in the universe. The story was not afraid to discuss themes as small as tacos and as grandiose as faith, doubt, and the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. And what's even more amazing is that none of it felt shoehorned in or kludged together; instead, every little piece had its place in the great mosaic of the story.
Sometimes, I feel a kind of skepticism about games. Like, I wonder whether they're as effective as books at conveying messages or encouraging empathy or pulling readers into valuable experiences. But what I've realized in playing this game is that, yes, they can do all of those things just as well as books. And here's why. We learn lessons in life, but life is slow (relative to games and books), and often the lessons we learn and the significant experiences we have are diluted by long stretches of mundanity as we go to work or pay bills or go to the gym or watch TV or do any number of other boring, routine things. But games, like books, purposefully remove much of that mundanity and instead give us a concentrated dose of life's interesting moments in a short amount of time. And the frugality, the concision, of the story in a game also allows the player to see the effects of their choices more clearly and immediately. And NITW sure does make you think hard about the choices you make.
Not all games are so well made, of course. There's plenty of trash out there in the medium; in fact, perhaps the vast majority is trash. But every once in a while, there are diamonds in the rough like NITW that definitely create experiences worth having. While playing this game, I teared up at times, and laughed out loud at times. It's definitely going on my favorite games list. Man. What a game. Go play it.