Night in the Woods is My Horror Game of the Year

Night in the Woods was one of our favorite video games of last year. And now it’s available on the Nintendo Switch, our favorite new video game system of last year. So we’re looking back on what this adventure resonate so deeply with us now that you can take it with you anywhere, including on a trip back to your own Possum Springs.

Night in the Woods is a fantastic game with a charming art style that belies its incredibly honest and resonant stories. In other words, Scott Benson, Alec Holowka, and Bethany Hockenberry made a Game of the Year. You can look at it however you want, as an adventure game, a visual novel, a social simulator, a series of minigames threaded by a plot. I personally see it as the most effective horror game I’ve ever played.

I’m an exile from a small town in central Pennsylvania. It’s a self-imposed exile, the typical story of a nerd growing up in rural America and then leaving to make a life in the city. I went to college, graduated, and moved to New York. I recognize how luck was a big factor in getting to where I am, and that makes Mae Borowski and her friends’ stories genuinely terrifying to me.

Mae is a college dropout returning home and dealing with aimless restlessness. She’s back in her small town, with her old friends trying to build their lives while her own future is a complete blank. She moves back in with her parents, touches base with her old friends, and tries to just find things to do. All while her parents try to be supportive and hide their disappointment and her friends struggle with her disruptive presence and the temptation to pull them back into old, juvenile habits.

There’s a murder and maybe ghosts, but that stuff isn’t really the point of Night in the Woods. It isn’t about a thrilling mystery. It’s about banal existential horror. And it’s a horror that literally hits close to home.

I’m from central/northeastern PA, which isn’t quite coal country but is really close and has much of the same feel. And Possum Springs is clearly inspired by the rural areas near Pittsburgh, hollowed out by fading industry and mining. It’s in a worse state than my hometown (which has been buoyed by a small state university and some remaining factories), but it’s a parallel to several of my friends’ hometowns. And it’s built on a flood plain, which is the case for literally half of my hometown.

Night in the Woods might have a colorful art style depicting a world full of bipedal animals running around and being friends, but it’s still the most real game I’ve seen in years. Mae’s a cat, her best friend Gregg’s a fox, his boyfriend Angus is a bear, and their friend Bea is an alligator, and they’re all adorable. But they’re also frustrated, troubled people returning to and trying to get out of the small town they were born in by fate and are trapped in by circumstance.  All while trying to entertain themselves by grabbing any diversion they can no matter how meager (like hanging out at a donut shop) or random (like wandering through the woods at night).

Every character in the game is a person, dealing with their own and others’ problems and frustrations. Sure, they’re cute animals, but they’re also beating their heads against minimum wage jobs, struggling with loss, and only barely getting through another day in a town where they feel like they have no future. They’re people, written incredibly well with heartfelt and complex motivations and flaws.

More than cosmic horror, more than homicidal ghosts, more than the undead or werewolves or robots or aliens, I’m terrified of going through what Mae goes through in the game. Failing, returning home with no prospects for the future, and struggling to stay entertained and positive even when your very presence can be disruptive to your friends who never made it out in the first place. All while clinging to scraps of nostalgia because there’s nothing new in town to look forward to.

I’ve been in New York for over ten years, and I still sometimes have dreams of just ending up in my hometown, failed and directionless. And Night in the Woods is so well-written and hits so many notes that resonate with my experiences growing up in a town like Possum Springs that it brings out that fear in a very real way. And, as an exile, it comes with a deep sense of guilt for everyone who couldn’t get out, and who ended up back there like Mae and her friends.

Besides my personal experiences and fears, Night in the Woods is fantastic thanks to its charming art style, excellent characters, incredibly well-constructed and quirky-but-natural humor, and Gregg. Because Gregg is the freaking best. And as you learn why Gregg is the best, you start to understand exactly why Night in the Woods is so good.

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