Hands-On Preview: Night in the Woods – The Cat-cher in the Rye
In the case of most games, players are put into the shoes of a character that is meant to make us feel extraordinary and powerful, whether that’s as a gun-toting commando fighting off hoards of aliens, to powerful wizards, knights, and sorcerers capable of powerful magic and spells.
Most of the time – whether it’s a character from the imagination of a developer or a character that we can make on our own – games provide players with a sense of empowerment and the ability to go above and beyond what we normally are capable of. However, in the case of Night in the Woods, a visually-arresting adventure game from developer Infinite Fall, the emphasis is instead on a more relatable story of a college dropout in her hometown, seeking to find meaning in her own life while investigating some extraordinary circumstances in her hometown.
Originally starting its life as a title submitted through Kickstarter in October 2013 (and achieving over 400% of its initial funding goal in just over 24 hours), Night in the Woods is the work of the small development team at Infinite Fall, consisting of developers Alec Holowka and Scott Benson, with the game’s writing by Bethany Hockenberry. Though it’s been in development for nearly three years at this point, with an impending fall release we were able to check out the latest build of the title at PAX East 2016, and see just where Night in Woods will take us in its bizarre (but wonderful) exploration of young adulthood with a dark, comedic edge.
Night in the Woods tells the story of Mae, a feline college dropout in the town of Possum Springs that finds herself aimless and adrift in her hometown and living in her parents’ attic. From there, players guide Mae through Possum Springs to talk with friends and explore the town. However, that soon gives way to Mae’s discovery of supernatural elements in Possum Springs, and discovering her paranormal abilities that lead her to dark places in the town’s outskirts.
Having been familiar with the title previously (and getting to play a demo at last year’s E3), the latest build of Night in the Woods certainly showed some refinements and a few updates at PAX East since I last had hands-on time with the game. With the title planned for release later this year, there’s still plenty of opportunity for change and improve before its final release, but for the most part Night in the Woods has kept many of the qualities that I admired when I first played the game, and has still made it one of my own most anticipated indie titles for the year.
In particular, Night in the Woods‘ strongest (and most appealing) element is its bold and unusual visual style. While I was initially interested in the game just from catching glimpses of screenshots and artwork, seeing it in motion (especially since I last saw the game) really drive home the fact that Night in the Woods is almost like a graphic novel come to life. That’s especially appropriate given some of the game’s aesthetic influences from graphic novel and comic artists such as Chris Ware and Mike Mignola, and Night in the Woods feels like a living, breathing illustration ripped right from the page of an indie comic.
Within my first moment in the world of Possum Springs, Night in the Woods is almost overwhelming in the amount of visual detail and flavor it provides while exploring, with incredibly fluid animations and style. From stepping out of Mae’s house to the sun-soaked streets, to exploring the town’s dark, shadowy sewers, Night in the Woods showed lots of variety in its environments, along with many areas that I could discover with a little bit of ingenuity and a desire to jump around in unconventional places.
However, Night in the Woods goes beyond just its lush visuals with an emphasis on exploration and conversation; even in the span of our 20-30 minute demo at PAX East, it’s clear that Night in the Woods will be packed with secrets and activities to find. Within the demo, I went from exploring Possum Springs to bashing broken lightbulbs on top of a dumpster at night, to trying to shoplift inside a Hot Topic-inspired store. Beyond that: I even got to play a makeshift Guitar Hero-like rhythm game when practicing in a jam session with Mae’s band.
The greater story of Night in the Woods is something that’s still waiting to be seen in a bit more detail, but as it stands the bits and pieces I’ve played of the title so far have totally evoked a sense of the game’s “slice of life” premise through the eyes of a character most can relate to (even from the perspective of an anthropomorphic cat). Dealing with topics as widespread as teen angst, depression, and the dynamics of small-town life, Nights in the Woods puts interaction with Mae’s friends and who she meets at the front, but still backs it up with gameplay that will have players exploring the environment and completing small mini-games/puzzles along the way.
While certain aspects of the game may be a bit off-putting to some (given its “talky” and dialogue-heavy nature), Night in the Woods still nonetheless takes an adventure game-like approach and fills it with a unique mix of dark humor and colorful, charming animation. With inspirations from the likes of Twin Peaks and children’s books, Night in the Woods offers players an eclectic and weird world where a depressed, talking cat hangs out with a smoking alligator and a fedora-wearing bear. However, much like Mae’s search for meaning and purpose in typical twenty-something fashion, Night in the Woods also has me plenty curious to check out what more of its bizarre world I can uncover on my own.
Night in the Woods will release for PS4, PC, Mac, and Linux in fall 2016.