I’m back to talk more about Night in the Woods. Here is part one. This time, I want to focus a bit more on the meta and on my third playthrough. Warning, there will be spoilers. I’ll try to keep it story-spoiler-free as much as I can, but I really need to get into it, which I can’t without giving some stuff away.
First, I need to talk about Mae Borowski, the main character. She’s a young (20), angry and scared black cat who tends to blurt out embarrassing or mean things when she feels threatened–which is often. She’s snarky and sassy the rest of the time, and sometimes, she’s both. She’s dropped out of college and returned to the small town in which she was born–Possum Springs. In the beginning, she’s portrayed as a bratty but endearing young woman who’s aimless and doesn’t have any purpose in life. She’s lucky she has a home to return to, and she sleeps away the day in the attic of her parents’ home–that they may not own for much longer, but more on that in a bit.
Normally, she’s the kind of character I wouldn’t like at all. But, there’s something about her that spoke to me. Probably because I *was* her when I was that age, though with a bit more social grace. I hated college and felt like an alien. I had trouble fitting in, and if I thought dropping out was a possibility, I would have heavily considered it. I only went to college because it was expected of me, and I still wish I had taken a year off after I had finished high school. For Mae, there is the added pressure of being the first Borowski to go to college, as her mom is quick to point out in the middle of a fight they have.
There is so much pathos in this game. It’s set in a dying Rust Belt town, and the depression surrounding the town is almost another character. It’s in every scene of the game, and it’s a constant reminder that many of the small towns in America are dying out. The only pizza place in town closes a few days after Mae returns home. There’s a character, Danny, who, while hilarious, is representative of the lack of livability in some of these towns. He can’t hold a job to save his life, and while some of it is his attitude, more of it is because the jobs simply aren’t there. There are the two NPCs who stand next to a bar all day long, and they only talk about one thing–The Smelters, who are the local sportsball team, I’m assuming. Then, one of the characters get a job in another city, and the two have to say goodbye. It’s sad, even though you don’t know anything else about them.
OK. Let’s talk about the gameplay, as it were. This is one of the few things I didn’t like in this game. One, it feels artificial in what is mostly an animated visual novel (and I say this as a compliment, though I normally don’t like visual novels), and it felt as if it was added to pad the game. After Mae makes an ass of herself at a party (in front of her ex, no less!), she starts to have nightmares/weird dreams that are gorgeous-looking and sounding (as is the whole game), but feels very game-y. I didn’t mind doing it once, but by the fourth or fifth time, I was just impatient to get through it. It doesn’t help that I have a terrible sense of space, so I couldn’t find where I needed to be very quickly.
The band practice sections were really hard for me, especially Pumpkin Head Guy, and I eventually gave up on that one. I didn’t like the platforming, but mostly because it’s pretty imprecise. That is one of the problems with a game that isn’t a platformer trying to do platforming AND I AM LOOKING AT YOU, DARK SOULS! I would have been just fine with cutting out all the gaming sections, but I can see why they are in the game. I guess. Honestly, I don’t. I don’t think I would cut out all the dreams, but paring it back would have helped my impatient feeling.
Back to Mae. My favorite thing about her is that she’s bi, but the game doesn’t make a big deal out of it. Early in the game, you find out she has an ex-boyfriend, Cole. Then, much later in the game, Mae says (about her dream date) that she doesn’t care if it’s a boy or a girl. And, if you pick a certain choice, you find out that she embarrassed herself in front of a cute girl. I don’t think I can express why this felt so good to me. Not just that she was bi, although that was so fucking cool, too, but because it was no big deal. Like, Gregg and Angus are gay, and Bea is straight, so why the hell shouldn’t Mae be bi? There’s another part where Gregg talked about he and Angus being the only queers in town, and Mae says, “I’m here!” Now, if you haven’t done the other bits that reveal she’s bi, it could simply be her telling Gregg she’s got his back. If you’ve done the scenes, however, it adds a resonance that tugs at the heartstrings. Mine, at least.
By the second playthrough, I was totally #TeamMae. I wanted her to succeed, so any time she did something that was self-destructive, I was simultaneously impatient with her and ached for her. I wanted so badly for her to be OK, but it was clear she wasn’t. One of the theories I’ve heard about the big bad mystery is that it’s an allegory for what’s happening with the town itself and with Mae herself. Once I viewed the story through that lens, I was able to let go of most of my frustration with the mystery aspect. I really liked the idea that much of it was an allegory for what Mae is going through, and it’s clear she’s not OK in the head. She suffers from depression, anxiety, and has dissociative episodes. It’s heartbreaking to watch her do what she can to destroy herself, and yet, it’s heartwarming to see how she succeeds despite herself.
I have to say, though, she would not be nearly as strong as a character without her three buddies backing her up. Gregg, a very hyper fox who is waaay into doing crimes. He’s implied to be bipolar, though it’s never explicitly said, and he’s ‘working’ at the Snack Falcon to be able to get the hell out of Possum Springs. By working, I mean breaking shit out back, allowing others to steal from the store, and stealing stuff himself. He also leaves whenever he wants, and there’s never any customers in the store. He’s tough, but he’s also big-hearted, and he’s loyal to a fault. GREGG RULZ OK?!?
Bea is…tired. That’s the defining factor about her. She’s a goth crocodile who wears an ankh around her neck and smokes a fake cigarette inside (sometimes outside, but alternating with a real one. She always has a cig in her mouth. She doesn’t smoke when she drives, though). I only knows it’s fake because of a dialogue I had with her during one of our scenes together. Her parents own the local hardware store called the Ol’ Pickaxe. Her mom died when she (Bea) was in her senior year in high school, and her father had a complete breakdown. Bea had dreamed of going to college, but she had to stay and run the store while her father sits on the couch and does exactly nothing all day long. During my second playthrough, I went home with Bea, and it was wrenching, but real. Bea is two months younger than Mae, but feels ten years older. She’s worn-out and depressed, sarcastic and snarky, but she also is a caring person, which she usually doesn’t show.
Angus is a big, cuddly, geeky atheist bear who is Gregg’s boyfriend. Angus is the quiet one, and he’s harder to get to know because of it. Also, you don’t get to hang out with him as much as you do the others, so when given the opportunity, I jumped. In the process, I learned about his horrible childhood in a scene that made me cry. Not only because I could relate to it, but because it was written so touchingly. He’s the glue of the group, and he’s Gregg’s rock, but he has his breaking point, too. When he reaches it, well, let’s say it gets ugly up in here.
I’ve watched several playthroughs of the game now, and I still don’t care for the overarching mystery. It no longer bothers me, though, as I accept it as the price of admission. All the things that irritated me in my first playthrough, I just shrug off now because they’re not important. I understand why some people hated the mystery and the ending of the game (again, I wasn’t pleased with it on my first playthrough), but I’ve managed to get past it. I really hate to be that gal insisting that you have to play it at least twice to get the most out of it, but, well, it’s true. It wasn’t until my third playthrough that I firmly fell in love with the game and moved it to the top of my games list*. Had I just stopped after my first playthrough, I would have liked the game and recommended it, but I wouldn’t have been 100% about it. I would have made many caveats and qualifiers, and the negatives would have weighed more heavily into my calculation. Now, after the third playthrough, I can wholeheartedly recommend it. I would still make some caveats and qualifiers, but I’m much more enthusiastic about the game than I was after my first playthrough.
Can we talk about the incredible design of the game? I’m not talking about level-making or anything like that, but the fact that there are so many scenes that you may never see while playing the game. Part of it is because you have to make choices that lock out other options (such as hanging with Bea or Gregg at the end of each day). Also, you can only do two of the three options for the big mystery, which means you have to bypass one choice. In addition, however, there are scenes that unlock with certain other events, scenes that are tucked away beyond previous boundaries, scenes that unlock only after you talk to certain characters several times, and speaking of characters….In my first playthrough, I talked to Selmers every day because she was easy to find. I talked to her neighbor frequently because he was out in the open as well. I talked to Lori M, a teenage rebel mouse like twice, but that was it. I found a character, Rosa, in the tunnels that only one of four streamers I watched found, and I talked to my neighbors, Fisherman Jones, Aunt Mall Cop, and Germ Warfare (Jeremy Warton) a few times as well.
I thought I was being thorough, but it was only the tip of the iceberg. Now be spoilers, so you are forewarned. I’m going to talk about hidden NPCs, and if you don’t want to know about it, skip from here:
Once I realized I could travel by power lines, that opened up a whole new world to me. I visited Mr. Chazokov with his telescope on a rooftop. He wasn’t new to me, but I hadn’t pursued his questline before. I found the church in which my mom works, and I got to know Pastor K and Bruce fairly well. In this same area, I ran into three teen goths who have a questline I never managed to unlock, much less finish. If I do another playthrough, I’m going to look up how to do their questline so I can tick off that box. I also ran into Gregg’s cousin, Jen and talked quite a while with her as well.
I met a boy scout or something looking for a place to buy supplies. I found out I could go past the Clik Clak and ran into Germ Warfare there. I described my second playthrough with him in the last post and how it deepened my understanding of him. I’ll get to the third playthrough in a bit. While hanging with Germ, he introduced me to many crusties (teens who have been kicked out from their homes and travel by trains), one of whom is named Angel. I thought Germ was just a strange little crow who hung out with Gregg and listened to the buddies do their band practice. By the time I finished my third playthrough, he rocketed up my list of favorite characters.
I’m running long again, and I haven’t even touched the third playthrough. I’ll have to end this here and write a third post on the topic. Which seems apt given that it’ll mostly be about the third playthrough. ‘Til then, here’s the song that makes me cry every time, and it’s from a scene that also makes me cry every time. It’s called Gregg’s Woods. Enjoy.
*Just below Soulsborne games because, well, yeah.