As a Nintendo-first player, I was excited when Night in the Woods hit the Switch at the start of the month. This story-driven game made waves last year, and I hadn’t found a chance to play it yet. I picked it up on Switch launch day, pulled in by the fascinating artwork and the promise of an impactful story.
A few days later, the game was over, and my reaction was… mixed. The story was captivating and meaningful, as advertised. However, there were numerous times throughout my playthrough when I almost forgot I was playing a video game. In this case, that’s not a good thing. As often as Night in the Woods made me laugh or contemplate, it just as frequently left me feeling trapped and boxed in.
I didn’t write this because I think people care about my personal game experience in itself. Instead, I believe Night in the Woods can teach us several lessons about storytelling in a gaming medium, some good and some bad.
Our own Shelby Royal wrote a great review of Night in the Woods last year. If you haven’t played the game, or even if you have, I suggest looking over her review before reading my more in-depth opinions below.
No matter the medium, every good narrative needs solid characters to drive it home. In order to capture interest, these characters must show qualities the consumer either aspires to or already relates with. Night in the Woods leans heavily on the latter.
I have never played a game quite as quintessentially “millennial” as Night in the Woods. Every quip, every animation, every beleaguered observation in this game perfectly depicts the world-weary, twenty-something memelords of my generation. Despite appearing like animals, the main characters could not be more human.
The main cast (Mae, Gregg, Bea, and Angus) are impressively relatable. They work minimum wage jobs, drop out of college, and live with a little while dreaming of a lot. But it’s more than what they do that draws players to them, it’s how they do it. There is such a believable combination of cynicism, friendship, anxiety, and desperate hope represented in Night in the Woods that I easily lost myself in the characters’ plights.
But these personified animals aren’t just characters. They’re video game characters. By nature, the gaming medium can lend unique qualities to the presentation and development of a story’s characters that no other type of entertainment can match.
In Night in the Woods, as with any video game story, the player is integral in its progression, rather than simply a passive observer. You see characters develop because you choose to talk to them. You learn information and experience side stories because you seek them out for yourself, not simply because that’s the next scene in a movie or the next page of a book.
Gregg reengages in a life of petty crime because your character inspires him to do so. Bea tries out petty crime because you drive her toward it (there’s a lot of petty crime in this game). But characters also exist when you’re not around, messaging you unprompted and making life decisions without your knowledge.
The unique nature of video game characters is seen in much smaller ways, too. Gregg can wave his arms in an infinite loop as he says something, allowing players to take in the hilarious scene for as long as they want. No animated film could accomplish that.
Still, the most crucial aspect of any game’s story is the player character, the character with the most potential for separation from other forms of storytelling. Sadly, Night in the Woods fails to take advantage of this potential.
The differences between video games and other storytelling avenues boil down to one central distinction: the power of choice.
In a book, film, or comic, whatever happens is set in stone. You are a passive observer, an outsider. In a game, and only in a game, you can have the ability to influence the fictional world, to feel as if this is truly your story. That is, if the game lets you.
Night in the Woods presents the illusion of choice, but there is nothing substantive to back it up. The dialogue, while often hilarious and effective, pretty much goes the same way no matter what option you select. I cannot remember how many times I picked one dialogue choice only to see the other option worked into the next sentence against my will.
Players can discover interesting side stories by choosing to explore certain areas, but this is nothing more than a superficial yes/no choice. Do I want to experience more content or not? Not exactly a fulfilling amount of freedom.
At times you can choose to hang out with, say, Gregg, at the expense of spending time with Bea. This choice influences who helps you out later in the game, but ultimately, the plot marches on as if nothing was altered.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes a game has a single story it wants to tell, and that can work just fine. Indeed, Night in the Woods has a great plot in its own right, seamlessly blending everyday life with vague Lovecraftian horror.
However, games that successfully present a singular plotline usually have some other compelling elements to compensate for their linearity. For example, Life is Strange offers much less control over the broad strokes of its story than it would seem. But that game also offers a fascinating rewind mechanic that basically canonizes savescumming. Oxenfree, while offering great freedom in dialogue, still steers players along the same basic path. But here you also get a cool radio mechanic that places the flow of information in the player’s hands.
Other than a couple interesting minigames, Night in the Woods offers no real gameplay elements to distract from the railroading nature of the story. You can… walk on the same telephone wire… that you’ve been walking on over and over again each day… I guess?
Those two other linear story-based titles boast one other crucial advantage over Night in the Woods: a likable main character.
When character and choice collide
Mae the cat, a twenty-year-old college dropout, is the vessel through which players interact with the world of Night in the Woods. Except really, you’re the vessel, because Mae does whatever the heck she wants.
Mae is a lazy, disillusioned, anxiety-ridden ball of emotion. In other words, she’s extremely relatable to real people her age. In the beginning of the game, her selfish attitude and woe-is-me reactions are acceptable and even humorous. But as the game progresses, these qualities never change. If anything, they get worse. When coupled with the previously established lack of control that Night in the Woods allows its players, Mae can become very annoying very fast.
I cannot recount how many times I burned in frustration and watched helplessly as Mae made terrible decisions against my will. Either dialogue “choices” would lead to the same terrible conclusion, or the game would simply refuse to progress until I let Mae do whatever ill-advised thing she wanted to do.
Warning: spoilers of side content ahead
Using me as a vessel, Mae made friends with a side character who eventually made subtle references that he was going to kill himself. He told Mae to deliver a message to the local pastor the next day, a message I clearly interpreted as a suicide note. But I was not in control. Mae was, and Mae is an oblivious ditz.
I intentionally went to the church, begging the gaming gods for a way to prevent this catastrophe. Mae is allowed to speak to the pastor at this time, but there is NO OPTION to warn the pastor of the impending suicide. I immediately turned the Switch off and didn’t return until the next day.
An unlikeable main character can be excusable if written that way for a particular purpose. A lack of player control over a story-based game can also be excusable if another element compensates. However, when a terrible player character and an absence of choice grace the same game at the same time, things can get rough.
What have we learned?
Video games present a beautiful and unique method for storytelling. Players can be active agents in the world, enacting their will upon the writer’s overarching story.
Though a good story in its own way, Night in the Woods does not capitalize on the medium. Almost every enjoyable aspect of this game could be conveyed in an animated film or television series.
Other story-driven games find special ways to tie their plot to the medium in which it’s presented. Undertale is perhaps the best example, as key story elements are tied directly to gameplay, to the point where a movie version would simply fail to make sense. Not every game has to be quite so next-level in its relationship between gameplay and story, but it felt like Night in the Woods didn’t even try.
I had great and disappointing experiences throughout my time with Night in the Woods on the Nintendo Switch. I don’t regret buying it at its $20 price point. Pick it up and try it for yourself. Maybe the story will overshadow the shortcomings for you. For me? I’m still not sure.