What happens at night, in the woods?
Not as much of interest as you’d imagine. The tracks run right by them, at the edge of town, but not a lot of trains go on that route anymore. The rail company’s been privatized; whichever of the thirty-eight smaller companies inherited this stretch of tracks doesn’t consider it of particular importance. It only really goes to a few neighboring towns, ones that used to have factories and coal mines and paper mills. The buildings are still standing, anyway, their yards full of rusting machinery whose purpose is utterly mysterious to anyone under the age of forty.
I suppose there must be animals; there’s definitely birds, and everyone knows someone who’s been startled by a boar rummaging through the trash. Sometimes teens have parties, but you’d always rather wait until someone’s parents are out of town, because how many times can you listen to Piotrek playing Whisky and assorted sea shanties on his guitar by the fire, instead of real music from a laptop?
You could call Night in the Woods very American, and in a sense you’d be right. The game is set in a very specific sort of place, one of those dying post-industrial Midwestern towns, but just through being honest in its specificity, and deeply engaged with the lives of the people who live there, it becomes relatable outside of that context. The vaguely Protestant church may be unfamiliar to me, but being young and lost and adrift in the wake of deindustrialization, seeing a town bled dry of whatever resources and profit it could have generated, and then abandoned as all that extracted wealth imperceptibly moves somewhere halfway across the world to find a better rate of return on investment – that resonates just as much in Upper Silesia as it does in Pennsylvania or Michigan or upstate New York, and probably in countless other places around the world.
And of course, in the woods at night, there’s monsters.
It’s incredibly satisfying to me to see first Bloodborne, and now Night in the Woods take the themes of Lovecraft-inspired cosmic horror and flip them on their heads – satisfying both from an abstractly theoretical point of view, and a personal one. Lovecraft’s horror stories are built on the fear of the alien, the foreign and the unknown, better known as xenophobia. It’s fruitless to try and compartmentalize their tropes, to separate the vast alien beings from outer space (spooky and cool) and the vicious racism (nasty, we don’t do that anymore). The fear of the former, in traditional Lovecraftianism, follows from the fear of the latter – of something Other, similar enough to nice, decent, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant humans, but fundamentally different and hostile in essence.
When I decided, some years ago, that videogames must be somehow constitutionally incapable of telling engaging, human, politically conscious stories, I fell in with a crowd of “theory” people, eternally stuck in the glory days of post-structuralism, Tel Quel and May 1968, despite all being my age or younger. I’m sure they still live there now, wandering some spectral Parisian streets they’ve never been to, checking for sand under every cobblestone. A brief fad among that group was to theorize capitalism as a Lovecraftian monstrosity, overwhelming and inscrutable. In doing so, despite all their lofty verbiage and wit, they almost completely failed to criticize the reactionary politics of the source texts; in doing so, they doomed themselves to repeat them. There was a brief proliferation of fairly vile articles and blog posts that claimed some sort of “leftism” while displaying open disgust at poor people, comparing them to the deformed, mutated villagers of Lovecraftian New England, or that coded the supposed inhuman horror of Capital as monstrous, consuming, irrational femininity. Wherever this track of thought may have taken them – and I can imagine well enough what that place might look like – I have no desire to follow.
The point of all that is: I grew up with videogames. I love them. I don’t want to give them up just because they’re not perceived as serious or sophisticated enough. Seeing the supposedly serious and sophisticated people bumble down the forest path and into the open arms of some reactionary darkness, while the “unserious” entertainment form produces an incisive and easily understandable dissection of the relationship between fascism and cosmic horror – and embeds it in a story that is fun, warm, honest and genuine – gives me a spiteful, vindictive sort of joy.
There are only two kinds of monsters in Night in the Woods. There’s the awful void at the center of things, the hole in the world whose presence makes Mae dissociate, gives her migraines and anxieties, makes her suppress her emotions and eventually lash out in anger – and there’s the people who worship and feed it. The emptiness has both a physical location – down in the abandoned mine, inextricably linked to Possum Springs’s economic decline – and a presence in the mind, creeping into dreams, draining hopes, multiplying fears. There’s no need to belabor the point; the effects of capitalism on the body, the mind and the community are interlinked and devastating.
There’s no need to dwell on the “death cult of conservative uncles”, either; they are at once horrifying and pathetic, bound to meaningless, violent rituals to try and appease a thing they don’t understand, but that seems to have absolute power over the town’s fortunes. By day they live among us; by night they put on their robes and hoods. It doesn’t get much plainer.
Because the game is so good, so kind to its characters, and so thoughtful, it was sometimes difficult to play through. Because it connects to so many of my beliefs and experiences, it becomes painful to note the points of divergence. In Possum Springs, the church and the nonspecifically Unitarian pastor are a basically good, if ineffectual presence; to me, Christianity is the main pillar of Polish reactionary nationalism, and an enthusiastic enforcer of bigotry, cruelty and obedience. Mae’s parents are tired, but patient and understanding; mine reacted to me dating the wrong person with threats, lies and escalation (they turned out to be right, eventually, though for the completely wrong reasons). Perhaps worst of all, Mae uses the plural form “pierogies”, which, while widely used and completely valid in American English, is infuriating to a speaker of Polish.
I do love that game though. I wouldn’t bother saying any of this if I didn’t.
I’ve not actually been to the woods since I moved back here. There isn’t much reason to, unless you enjoy mosquito bites and the occasional broken beer bottle; besides, it’s hard for me to go outside at all sometimes. It’s a bit of a walk past the last bus stop, down the steep sloping road that goes down to the tracks, past the last bar and the last all-night liquor store. Still, it’s comforting to think of all the other places out there that are almost precisely but not exactly like this, all the other liquor stores and bus stops and closed-down mines, and all of the other nobodies stuck in nowhere towns.