Underneath my yellow skin

Night in the Woods, part one: A first playthrough

chillin' with my homies!
GREGG RULZ OK

Over a year ago, I heard of an indie game called, Night in the Woods, and I didn’t know much about it except it starred a black girl cat who had a sassy attitude, kinda like me. I watched a Let’s Play of the first hour, then I stopped because I knew I’d be playing it one day. I liked the snarky tone of the game, plus there’s a mystery involved, and it seemed like it would be right up my alley. I kept putting it off, however, as I was afraid it wouldn’t live up to my expectations. Then, a few weeks ago, it was on sale on Steam, and I was between games, so I bought it.

I started playing, and I was immediately frustrated with the first gaming section. I’m playing as Mae Borowski, the aforementioned cat, who’s 20 and dropped out of college. She’s on her way back home and walking through the woods to get there. I explored the area and was immediately stuck. I couldn’t go anywhere, so I knew I had to do something on screen in order to progress. The problem is, there wasn’t anything other than a creaky log. In watching playthroughs after finishing the game, the streamers all immediately understood what they had to do, but I didn’t. You probably know what it is just by reading what I wrote. I had to keep jumping on the log until it broke, and then it pushed up other logs (or something) so I could make progress.

I will say, my complaint about my first playthrough* was all the game parts. The platforming bits. The DDR mini-game (I keep calling it that, but it’s more like Guitar Band or Rock Hero**). I was spectacularly terrible at the latter, so much so, I completely electrocuted the characters for Pumpkin Head Guy. Anyway, the parts I like were wandering around town and talking to different characters. Which, thankfully, is roughly eighty percent of the game.

I love Mae unabashedly, even when I want to shake her for being mean/embarrassing/awkward. I can empathize with her to an uncomfortable degree. Even before knowing why she dropped out of college, I felt a kinship with her. She’s intelligent, but not always comfortable with other people. She’s awkward, fat (in her own eyes) and has a low self-esteem. She’s also warm and caring, but she doesn’t always know how to express it properly.

She can also climb across power lines, but I didn’t fully realize that until my second playthrough. I’ll get to that in a minute.

The first night, we run into her aunt who appears to be the only cop in Possum Springs. Mae calls her Aunt Mall Cop, but her real name is Molly. Then, we meet pops who is momentarily flummoxed by Mae’s arrival (her parents thought it was going to be the next night), but quickly recovers. Then, it’s bedtime, or in my case, practice the bass time. Man, I sucked at that so bad. I got better with practice, but I’ve never played those kind of games and my reactions are slow, so it’s frustrating for me. Fortunately, there are only two or three times you have to do it in game (two if you suck really bad at it, three if you don’t).

The rest of the characters felt immediately relatable. Gregg is her hyperactive best friend who is into doing crimes. He’s a fox, and it’s implied that he’s bipolar, but it’s never explicitly stated. He’s living with his boyfriend, a big, gentle geeky bear named Angus.  The drummer of the group (“It’s a laptop, Bea.” “It sure is, Mae. It sure is.”) is a weary, worn-down alligator named Bea. She’s goth from head to toe, wearing all black, an ankh, and smoking a fake cigarette all the time inside (and sometimes outside, I think, alternating with a real one).

a sleepy little town, but it's home.
Possum Springs as a whole.

When I first meet Bea, she’s kind of a bitch to me. I don’t know why, but I’m curious to find out. That’s the strength of the game. All the characters seem real, and while you may not always love what they do or say, you can understand them. At least I can.  Related to this is that the game can go from pathos to hilarity on the drop of a dime, and it’s not jarring at all. It’s much like how in real life, you might be in the middle of laughing about something when the sad side hits you, and you’re suddenly sobbing. Or is that just me?

I was enjoying my time in Possum Springs tremendously when the mystery really kicked in about halfway through. I’m going to keep it as spoiler-free as possible because you really need to experience it yourself, but I can’t talk about my feelings for the game without at least mentioning it. During my first playthrough, I wasn’t really into the big mystery. It felt tacked on and as if it didn’t really belong in the story. I’m honestly not saying it as a diss to the mystery, but more as a comment on how strong the characterization was and how immersed I was in the town and its characters.

I have to say, the game is gorgeous. The studio is Infinite Fall, consisting of Alec Holowka, the founder, game designer, coder, and music guy, Scott Benson, the animator/illustrator, and Beth Hockenberry, the story writer and Scott’s wife. The visual style is not hyperrealistic in the least, and I think the game is better for it. The characters are anthropomorphic, and the colors are rich, lush, and inviting. The music is incredible, and it’s the first time I bought the soundtrack for a game. I love everything about the environment of the game, and I can’t rave enough about it.

At the end of my first playthrough, I was satisfied with my time with the game. I preferred the first half of the game more than the second, in part because I found the denouement to be heavy-handed and overdone. I still liked hanging with my buds, especially Angus, but I found the more the game focused on the big bad, the less interested I was. I preferred spending time with the characters and trying to puzzle out their motivations for being the way they were. Why was Mae so moody and self-destructive at times? Why was Gregg so up and down? Why was Bea so tired and grumpy? Why was Angus so solid and yet so dependent on Gregg? That’s where the interest was for me, and any time I had to deviate to spend time on the mystery, I was a tad resentful.

Once I finished the game, I thought to myself, “That was a good game overall. I’m glad I played it, and I really liked the characters. It was fourteen dollars well spent.” Then, I watched Errant Signal’s video on Night in the Woods, and I saw scenes I never saw in my playthrough. I thought to myself, “What the hell? How did I miss all this?” I thought I was pretty thorough, even though I didn’t fully realize all the mechanics at work, and I missed so much.

Chris said that the game really benefited from a second playthrough, and I couldn’t get that out of my mind. All those things in his video that I hadn’t found in my own playthrough. WTF? So I did what any person with OCD traits would do–I started a new playthrough. There are many reasons that’s a good idea, not just to see scenes I’d missed, but because there are other options I wasn’t able to choose. One of the many conceits in this game is that you have to choose if you want to spend time with Bea or Gregg at the end of the day (mostly. Sometimes, it’s everyone), and that influences the end of the game. In my first playthrough, I chose to spend most of my time with Bea, but during my second–I have to note that during my first playthrough, I thought it would be cool to play as Bea. I got to do that for five minutes, which was actually weird. During my second playthrough, I chose Gregg more than Bea, and so I got to play as him for five minutes during the second half.

*Spoilers spoilers spoilers*

From here on out, there will be some spoilers. Not necessarily about the storyline, but about gameplay and/or other mechanics. Let’s continue.

Whom you choose to hang with in the first half changes who takes the lead as your best friend in the second half. If you choose Bea, then she’s the one you joke with the most/lean on the most in the second half. She’s the one you share your feelings with, and she’s the one who holds you as you sob. If you chose Gregg, then it’s him in that role. It’s an interesting choice, and I really like that choices you make early on affect the latter part of the game. My only quibble is that I couldn’t choose Angus and make him my bestie, but that’s more because I want to learn more about Angus than I did during my three playthroughs.

During my second playthrough, I found out I was able to go further left and right than I previously thought possible. One of the ingenious things about this game is that you have to keep doing the same thing day after day to eventually reap the rewards. One example. In the beginning, you could only go as far as the Clik Clak on the left. It’s the diner outside of which you find an arm. Oh, didn’t I mention that? It’s because it’s not really that important, even though it’s intriguing. Anyway, for the first four or five days, you can’t go past that to the left. Then, after the option to do an event with Gregg at the closed Food Donkey–by the way, I love the names for the places in this game. My favorite is Ham Panther–you can go past the Clik Clak to the closed Food Donkey and slightly beyond. There’s construction to the right side, and that eventually opens as well. The problem is, after trying to go to these areas several days in a row, I kind of forgot they were there and never visited them again.

i'm just a kitty and her bat.
Crazy-ass dreams, yo!

Opening them up, opens up a lot of scenes. A lot. Also, realizing I can traverse by the power lines all over towns opens up a lot of shit as well. I can’t tell you how many NPCs I ran into that I didn’t see in the first playthrough. Most of them were one-offs, but it was still amazing. There’s also another area, the church area, that I completely missed my first time around, and there’s a lot there as well. There’s a scene near the end of the game that includes some of the NPCs you run into throughout the game, and in my first playthrough, there was only Selmers, the neighborhood poet and Pastor K because she’s always in the scene, and I had no idea who she was because I never ran into her during my playthrough. When I ran into her for the first time during my second playthrough, I thought, “Oh! That’s who she is. It makes sense!”

There’s a character named Germ Warfare (Jeremy Warton) who is my first playthrough was a very tangential character. He’s a friend of Gregg’s, and he hangs out to watch us band practice. Near the end, he’s at Gregg’s apartment playing a video game, and he helps get us out of a well (don’t ask) during the middle of the night. He’s a goofy character, but not much more–or so I thought. During my second playthrough, I had a few scenes with him, including one where we hang out in the middle of a parking lot where he waxes poetic about socioeconomic issues. He also introduces me to crusties (train-hopping youth), and he’s fleshed out a bit. He becomes more intriguing to me, and I was glad to learn more about him. In my third playthrough, well, I’ll get to that in a minute.

In my second playthrough, the new scenes and NPCs I discovered fleshed out the story that was pretty bare-bones the first time around. One conceit is that Mae has a journal she writes in (to repress her anger, as per Dr. Hank, the local GP who doubles as a counselor but really shouldn’t), so you can tell when you’ve missed something–though I didn’t realize that until well into my first playthrough. There are hilarious bits in the journal, and it helps keep straight events and characters. What amazes me is how if you miss a bunch of shit, you still get a story, and it makes cohesive sense by the end of the game. If you find other stuff that fleshes out the story, you still get the bare-bones story as well, and the other stuff is fitted around it. There are dialogues that can be a few sentences long or several sentences long depending on what you find earlier, and it makes sense either way. It’s amazing how the game is designed to constrict and expand around what you find throughout it.

This is getting long, and I haven’t even touched on my third playthrough or the more meta things I have to say about the game. I’m going to wrap it up here and revisit the game in the near future because I have so much more to say.

 

 

 

 

*I ended up doing three total playthroughs.

**Yes, I know it’s Guitar Hero and Rock Band.

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