Though I wasn’t able to back it on Kickstarter at the time, Night in the Woods has been on my radar for the last three years. But like the mysterious forces in the woods next to the small town of Possum Springs, I didn’t know much about the game apart from the tiny bits of gameplay I’ve seen over the years. Before PAX East, I knew that the game looked stunning, immediately reminding me of Parappa the Rapper or its spin-off UmJammer Lammy (Though they clearly have a darker vibe going for them than the ultra-vibrant Parappa). I knew that there was something ominous in the titular woods of the game. And I knew that the main character was a black cat in a town filled with anthropomorphic animals. Luckily, I had the privilege of playing a demo of NITW at this year’s PAX East, and I’m glad I did. While the demo affirmed everything I already knew about the game, I learned that there’s a lot more to Mae and Possum Springs than I had realized. Night in the Woods has the potential to be a very particular experience in today’s gaming landscape, and that’s not even with the mysterious woods.
The demo started off with Mae, the protagonist, getting out of bed after an exhausting night in the woods. We aren’t told what happened, but based on her observations (“Oh great, I look like shit”) and exchanges with other characters it’s clear that something slightly unsettling has occurred. You then proceed to meet up with your other friends while talking to townsfolk and exploring the town. The first thing you’re hit with is how natural the dialogue is. Nothing feels cliched or forced, and Mae’s dialogue choices are variations on sarcasm and sass rather than a right or wrong choice. Every character is set in their ways, and it makes the whole experience that much more fun. The second thing you notice is that there’s a lot to see in Possum Springs, even if it’s implied that Possum Springs is a town that’s seen better days. Mae is quite the acrobat and is more than comfortable walking along power lines and rooftops to get around, even if it’s not safe (or legal). But once you’ve made your pleasantries with the other residents of the town; some think you should be arrested, you meet up with Gregg and the real fun begins.
Arriving at the convenience store that Gregg works at, he immediately suggests the two fo you go around back and smash light bulbs with a baseball bat. A surprisingly cathartic minigame, though was soon over when Gregg started throwing beer bottles at Mae. It may not have many points in the plot, but it does cement Mae and her friends as the ne’er-do-wells of society. Then it’s off to band practice, which funnily enough takes a page out of Parrapa’s book of rhythm game mechanics. I’m not sure how many of these mini-games are going to be in the final product, but if they continue to break up the larger exploration and conversation sections, then NITW seems to be on the right track.
Once practice is done, Mae and another of her friends Bea head to the local mall at Mae’s request. Mae hasn’t been in town in years and wants to visit the old haunts of some of her adolescent mischief. What follows is a commentary on the death of malls, the advent of the internet, a shoplifting mini game, and controlling a water fountain to soak bystanders. Like the light bulbs, it doesn’t seem like these serve a larger purpose, but in a way these distractions make the world of NITW. That might be a bit more philosophical than what the game is trying to say, but it does make the experience that much more enjoyable. Though I will say that the instructions as to what to do during the shoplifting segment were unclear, and I kept failing (or maybe it was just my conscious).
While I didn’t learn anything more about the woods in this 45-minute demo, I did learn that I’m looking forward to Night in The Woods when it comes out this fall. Mae and gang are probably not the kinds of people to do the right thing, but they certainly seem to know how to have fun.