As a queer communist with a wealth of mental health struggles (and a cat avatar on twitter no less) and a bunch of furry friends, Night in the Woods presented a very easy world for me to dive into, at times one that felt scientifically designed specifically to appeal to me combining as it does the small town spiritual horror of Twin Peaks and Kentucky Route Zero with the eldritch ideological nightmares of Bloodborne, some of my most cherished pieces of media ever. Bizarrely I’d somehow not heard of it at all right up until it’s release, the Kickstarter campaign and the long period of excited hype it garnered completely passed me by. As a result the game was a wonderful surprise that just fell into my life with no prior knowledge or expectations. I’m happy to say that it is honestly one of the best games I’ve ever played owing in large part to how close to home so much of its narrative hits for me.
Night in the Woods is the story of a young woman-cat (or catgirl if you will) slipping through the cracks of society. It’s a story of being lost and confused, the feeling of simply existing in a world that doesn’t seem to want you, the anxiety of emptiness and the fight or flight response that comes from encountering the wider world. However Night in the Woods isn’t content with simply meandering around aestheticising this feeling, the game draws us into Mae’s world both in her surroundings and internal landscape as she flees her university for the relative familiar comforts of her hometown she begins to find the two merging until it starts to become clear that the sinister anxieties imposing down upon her have their own manifest existence too.
That isn’t to say that the game isn’t interested in the meandering pointlessness of a life lived this way, the game’s slow burn and attachment to the little daily rituals, check-ins on friends who have more going on than you and just finding yourself living day-after-day trying to find something to do stuck in a town that wasn’t made for you and no longer seems to exist for anybody really is wonderfully realised. I’ve used some pretty negative language to describe the general experience of inhabiting Mae through her days but it is this feeling that the whole game is built on and makes it work so well. As a person with an incredibly similar life story to that of Mae’s the experience of drifting between friends trying to catch them at moments between work, flitting around parties and drinking because there was nothing else to do even if the next day was going to be a haze of anxious half-remembered things you probably did wrong or secrets you shouldn’t have told. I’ve made a life off of hanging out in shitty places I hate just to be around people that make me feel just that little bit more human, I lived as a jobless high school drop out spending all my waking hours at my friends house doing absolutely nothing and having no idea what I was meant to do now. Mae, like me felt the experience just knowing that you are living through your own closing chapters, that life already left you behind and all you can do now is just keep on waiting for it to remember to come take you away.
After managing to drag myself to university and subsequently locking myself in my room barely leaving for even food until I was forced to return to my parents home I spent years on end feeling as though that was it, this was the last chapter of my life and later still I came to feel as though even death had forgotten me, that I’d just sort of faded away into the background of existence. As even my social life fell away and I became ever more closed off and apocalyptic it seemed as though I’d just cease to be, if nobody knew about me and I never had any interaction with society what was I but an empty vessel made up of all these physical components with no emotional or cultural existence. Disassociating from my own body and mind, slowly rendering myself a blank slate didn’t just rob my own existence of soul but everything around me, in Mae’s brutal depiction of her mental landscape reducing the world and the people in it to “just shapes” I saw a reflection of myself I’ve never before seen in media.
Mae you see has herself just returned to a world of comforting familiarity bringing with her an impossible hope that that at the very least can sustain her. She finds a different place to the one in her memory, a town gone through further ravages of capitalist expropriation and business expansion, one where all the people of her own age have moved on leaving only a few behind. She, like me, finds herself trapped in a place that allows her to feel temporarily free from the crushing expectations of reality, where her old comfort rituals can sort of still operate but not really, soothed by the presence of that one real good old friend who is still around to hang out. She dodges questions from parents and friends alike about what she is even doing here, she’d gone beyond, she’d gotten into higher education, reached the cities and the people, she’d spent the family savings on it. Mae’s life for a brief period is a rollercoaster of the kind of excitable mundanity one can make in a small town like Possum Springs intermingled with the visceral emotional baggage that also hides just under the surface of people who just by nature of existing as human beings are bigger than the plans this society has made for them.
Early on the plot communicates to us that it is a murder mystery, but this falls away quickly to make way for a focus on the problems of Mae’s friends, young people trapped in a nowhere town, not allowed to grow beyond it, tethered down by the decisions of a market system that’s never once benefited people like them. The real plot is the heartfelt dreams of it’s subjects and the systems of power that hold them down, be it family, capitalism or the homophobia entailed so often by both. Night in the Woods doesn’t tell us about these things as contained stories with easy beginnings and endings, Angus briefly alludes to problems with his parents which any given queer reader can fill in the blanks of with ease, Bea resents Mae’s attempts to intrude upon her problems as though her righteous anger at their existence means anything to the forces keeping them in place. The murder along with the disappearance of one of Mae’s old friends open the game, serving to set up a larger mystery, what is going on in this town and this society that causes these sort of lives at all? It instils a sense of unease, that things are going on behind the scenes we do not know about, that we are surrounded by death and forces we cannot comprehend that underpin the quiet mundanity of life. This sense is there throughout every scene of the game, through all the humour and the joyful hangouts the palpable sense that something is just wrong cannot be escaped. This is compounded and given life in the changing backdrop of the town, businesses go under and emerge, huge supermarket chains around which everyone’s livelihoods are based die off and leave huge corpses as people are routed to a competitor, the sense that a higher force is directing things to some inscrutable cause that isn’t to the benefit of anybody actually inhabiting the place is everywhere.
The past is important to the town, we are taken through historical re-enactments (reimagined for excitement for a modern audience), the town is full of memorials, characters all seem to be aware of some violent act in Mae’s past and won’t let her forget it. The town council is obsessed with preserving the historical character of the place, they rail at teens defacing an old labour mural while simultaneously trying to appeal to a modern multinational capitalism that barely knows their town exists. Their desperation and their attachment to the towns mythologised history and old values leads them to running the homeless out of town, to asking the tired “Aunt Mallcop” to murder the teens responsible for the defacement and ultimately committing to an ideology that believes the good fortune of capital’s attention will return to them if they just give off the aesthetic of being a nice well-to-do neighbourhood with no place for those who don’t belong in civilised society. Possum Springs is haunted by ghosts, it’s residents cannot escape it’s history and find themselves possessed by a past that refuses to die.
To Mae though, in her immediate life none of this matters, this town is a surreal break from her new world of rich attractive college kids she can’t measure up to. Her days are fun distractions where time can be wasted smashing stuff, laying around talking by the train tracks and hanging out with rats. To some Mae is an asshole herself (and certainly in some scenes doesn’t know how to hold her tongue or understand intentions don’t always equate to output), she is seen as a layabout wilfully wasting her parent’s money for no reason other than not feeling like being at university anymore, preferring to fuck around with her friends and sleep. There is however a lot more going on with Mae (and indeed the game isn’t interested in condemning her in this manner), she, like everyone else in town is haunted. Between her daily struggles and hangouts Mae finds herself plagued by bizarre dreams where she is visited by spectral musicians in surreal landscapes, a train made of houses barrelling to some unknown end and a town as a shipwreck among them. Her initial dream places her back at her university gleefully smashing up the place with a bat, later calling a connection to her ultimate dropping out as she describes looking one day and seeing the statue she smashes in her dream as being once again “just shapes” and how terrified that made her. This violent rejection of that world and the re-emergence of her previous disassociation that led into it appear to call something to her, something represented at first by the ghostly band haunting her mind’s vision of the town and later as a representation of god itself.
Much is made of the deep union history of the town and it later transpires that these musicians were in fact a band attached to the town’s historical labour movements, a memory of resistance in a terrifying and oppressive world attaching itself to Mae’s mind as she sleeps. It is the echoes of a culture her grandparents belonged to returning to her in a form she doesn’t fully understand, Mae knows something is wrong in the world and it is something much larger than herself. The dreams eventually take her to meet a god which matches her previously stated (player-chosen) understanding of what god even is. God knows all and has been and seen everything, Mae is nothing to this being and tells her only one thing in simple terms, that there is “a hole at the centre of everything”. The sense of something in the back of your mind telling you everything is wrong, that society is hurtling towards some dramatic conclusion, that there exists a force draining you is the feeling of developing a sense of social consciousness. I have written on the process of pathologising those who come to see through society’s illusions and to it’s monstrous core before and it is massively relevant here. The stresses and strains of a life lived in a society that doesn’t exist for you assert themselves as mental illnesses and in turn create more stresses and make one more of an outsider in an infinite loop, capitalist society hides it’s shame in the very suffering it causes, by the infliction and the complication of people’s mental struggles it is able to define its most key opposition as “insane” in such a way as to define their words and actions as being beyond sense. Mae is subject to this process as anyone else is, her deliberate lack of education about the true face of the society she inhabits forces her grappling with it’s contradictions to take on life as shadows haunting her mind, personal struggles nobody else would understand, a sense of unreality that makes her feel disconnected from existence itself.
Her pervasive sense of wrongness, unreality and her burgeoning awareness of the world start to mingle with her lived reality. As the game settles into a daily rhythm that neither the player nor Mae herself knows can last the rug is suddenly pulled from under her feet, sitting alone after the historical re-enactment of the town’s founding she witnesses a spectre emerge and quickly drag off an unnamed teenager, the ghosts she has been seeing and feeling suddenly marking their will on physical reality right before her eyes. It is through a chase, some talking to her sympathetic but disbelieving friends and Mae’s own mental state deteriorating and drawing her to the source of the “hole in everything” that the true nature of what she witnessed becomes known. A cult meets in the dark in the burned out remains of the old mine that once sustained the town, it serves an eldritch being of endless hunger with the bodies of undesirable townspeople, people who won’t be missed, they say, people who in other words society expects and perhaps even wishes to disappear. The force, they claim, sustains the town now as the mine once did, bringing in jobs and security in return for the sacrifices it is given, the old glory may one day return if only enough people can be thrown to this being in appeasement.
This being is a force Mae knows well, it is the thing that communicates to her in her dreams, the spectre that wears the faces of the old union musicians, it is the force that compelled her to this place and it is the reason the cult defines Mae as being “like them”. The cult’s allegorical nature is hardly disguised by the story, characters refer to it later jokingly as a “racist uncle club” and it is clear what they stand for when even killing off Mae, descendant of white labour, is seen as unconscionable to them when stacked against the much more worthy targets found amongst the homeless and other manners of outsiders. The cult is a group united by their attachment to the past, they cosplay the old union workers that once operated this mine even taking from them their old arcane rituals of identification to each other, though not one of them has ever involved themselves in the struggles of their forefathers. Mae immediately understands these people and they see kinship in her precisely because of what drew her to them, the collective knowledge that something is wrong, the shared vision of this hole in the middle of everything represented by this ravenous force that has replaced the prominent labour-provider of the town unites them in seeing a world that is not as it should be. Mae’s depression and disassociation has led her to seek hope in the possibility of alternative social organisation and these robed men hiding in the dark believe they have found that. In knowing their world is run for this infinite hungering force above all else they believe, like the town council (who are never seen again after the cult is crushed under the mine), that by maintaining the idealised historical image of the town and rooting out all unseemly others, they can keep the gaze of this dispassionate consuming force on them allowing the town to live on at the expense of some people society didn’t need anyway.
If this eldritch cult represents modern resurgent Fascism with it’s appeals to “white working class” solidarity (echoing the historically white-centric racist character of old union movements divorced from any and all of their otherwise leftist goals) then Mae represents the theoretically ideal ground in which their ideals can be sown. She is the child of a poor family with a history intimately tied to old white American labour struggles, a people who feel abandoned by the world and their government which operates only for profit not for its people. She is a young person with the sense she is being denied a life that should be hers with a wealth of culture available to tell her that there was once a glowing past where she could’ve had it, that if one can turn back time and set things back to how they once were she and her kind can live well again even if it costs the lives of others to do so. Fascism thrives on dressing itself up as transformative and progressive, it promises to the end the same sufferings as leftists do but only by way of sacrifice. Fascism takes “economic anxieties” and uses them to justify deep hatreds, it preaches the ideology of capitalism as thought it were somehow oppositional to it. To the cult and to modern fascism at large, the existence of outsiders, minorities, the unemployed, the homeless, the mentally ill, these are all the reasons for capitalisms abandonment of you, the suffering young white person struggling in a society that doesn’t seem to value you. These people have stolen too much of the resources of the world and in their language leech out the life of something that was once great by selfishly continuing to exist in places that can’t sustain them. The cult of Possum Springs has wholesale begun to worship the very market forces that are destroying them, they are willing to sacrifice anyone from outside their world in order to temporarily appease this force and to put off the understanding that they will only ever matter to it as a source of violent populism that will never truly bring any change to their lives, all of which only makes them attach themselves to it harder.
Mae however is not the person the cult thinks she is, though her struggles have found her literally dehumanising people and inflicting violence on them on individual scales, a violent reaction to her own inescapable dissociative episodes, Mae is struggling precisely because she cannot accept what this force is telling her. Along with telling it’s depressed youthful white base that it has been deeply wronged by a social conspiracy to replace them, modern Fascism tells it’s supporters that their depressive disconnection is accurate and to be lauded. As someone who has deeply felt the anger and loathing depression can instil in you it is not hard for me to see how Fascist groups twist this feeling into a self-justifying rage in service of old hatreds. The temptation to fall into a kind of depressive violent nihilism lasted in me for a good while and frankly in another life without the positive influences I had I can imagine that maybe it truly could’ve made me into a much worse person. The online cultures of young reactionary men demonstrate this constantly, they bemoan their loneliness and talk candidly about what are obviously symptoms of major depressions while utilising that nihilism as a cudgel. They operate social landscapes of mutual abuse wherein caring about things is seen as a great embarrassment, unifying largely to mock and attack any who can defined as Other to them. In her struggles with the world and it’s people becoming “just shapes” to her Mae touches upon a sensation that some wear as a gleeful badge of pride.
Mae however is horrified, she cannot accept these people and their goals even if she realises how closely she can envisage their exact mental landscapes. She and her friends reject the cult and mock it’s beliefs, they escape the mine and inadvertently bring it collapsing down leaving the cult trapped to starve to death in the husk of the past they obsess over. The true horror of Night in the Woods begins here in the return to town, it’s impossible for the group to know who just died in that mine and who in town knows about them and hides or even supports them. The player is left trying to work out who they met that might have been a member, with some interpretations encouraged by for example the lack of any appearances by the police officer family member of Mae’s or the town’s reactionary image obsessed council. The truth of the matter is though neither we nor Mae and friends can know who they all were and the ending offers now suggestion that this great vampiric hole has been closed. Nothing says more people won’t simply be drawn in in the same way, nothing says the cult wasn’t just bigger than we know. Ultimately all the death of the cult can tell us is that these people hide among us in our communities with deep seated murderous intent that they’ve learned to expertly mask, it teaches us also that no amount of appeasement to the fascist undercurrent of society can truly protect you from the forces of history crashing down around you.
Night in the Woods is a masterfully told story about living in place history has forgotten, about the kind of surreal aimless living that comes from being an unemployed dropout in the middle of nowhere. It’s a story concerned with class struggle, distant rich people siphoning off the life of poor communities and old union movements. It would’ve been easy just to make a game about noble young working class kids rejecting their world and learning about their roots but it is so much more detailed than that, Night in the Woods doesn’t back down from the muddier natures of what other oppressions old working class movements were willing to overlook for gain, it makes clear the link between a fetishised working class history that hides its context and economic reality and the growth of a new fascism and it does so while still sticking aggressively to the need to overthrow and punch bosses in the face and extols the virtues of unionising and labour-lead political projects.
Mae and friends don’t resolve much, their struggles all lay unresolved, everyone still wants to escape Possum Springs and their home lives are still tangled up in struggles. In their brush with the bestial hunger underlying society and their encounters with those who feed it they learn to protect and live for one another and to resist the nihilistic worldview imposed by capitalism’s overlords. They may be stuck, but they’re stuck together and with that collective care they learn that one’s mental health struggles can be understood and helped by friends and also that sometimes your friends can shoot a fascist with a crossbow.
AT THE END