During its interminable lead-up, the 2016 American presidential election almost felt like a referendum on the concept of ‘Americana’. The common thread of argument placed a fantasy past America pitted against a new ‘progressive’ vision for American society. This, against the backdrop of the tumultuous final term of President Barack Obama, the United States’ first black president in its 200-odd years, left the political debate flustered. “Where do we go from here” became code for “Which America do we value: a new and evolving experiment, or the comfortable traditions of old?”
The problem, of course, being that those traditions were never that comfortable.
It only takes a cursory glance at American history to see that class lines, race lines, divisions of ability and capability are as intrinsic to the expression of ‘Americana’ as any more romanticized concept. We love the past, but only when we ignore a lot of it.
Among all of this, Infinite Fall developed Night in the Woods, a game that wears its anticapitalist heart firmly on its sleeve, in a medium that so often sheds more direct criticisms as a work enters the mainstream. It’s precisely Night in the Woods’s directness that gives it power—it’s unafraid to critique the system inside which it resides.
Night in the Woods is a game about a girl, Mae, coming home to a town that had its economic heyday in the time of mines and factories, two industries that faded in America long ago. It’s a game about homecoming to a place that never knew what to do with you, a home long bereft of the opportunities it once offered.
Mae, and her family, are poor. They get by, better than some, but they’re poor. For the first few days home, it’s like a vacation—Mae has dropped out of college, and is faced with the truth that coming home isn’t always fun after the first week. The joy of nostalgia only lasts so long before it becomes the commonplace.
It’s in this that Night in the Woods flourishes: the comfort of nostalgia, and that sad, sick moment when it runs its course. (Heavy spoilers for the end of Night in the Woods below.)
In the final moments of the game, Mae and her band of friends confront a group of older men in the town, who have been convinced that sacrificing innocent people to an otherworldly voice in a mineshaft will bring back jobs and prosperity to Possum Springs.
They are steadfast in this belief, an idea of a blood sacrifice that brings material wealth to the town, a sort of twisted fountain of youth. Another game might leave them as a villainous cadre of Satan worshipper stand-ins, but Night in the Woods goes a step further: by this point in the game, we know why these men are angry. And we know they are men, and we learn they are (as far as things go in Possum Springs) well off.
These aren’t the downtrodden making sacrifices of meagre goods, these are the wealthy afraid of losing wealth. They are so beholden to the idea of being owed a future of prosperity that they throw away those they deem unworthy, literally, into a pit to die. These men are afraid of the immigrant, the young, the ones who run away, the ones who come back but aren’t as slavishly devoted to a failed American Dream as they are.
The game takes great pains to illustrate that this is an area that has been hit hard by economic rollercoasters of the past twenty years. The mines are no longer worked, the few locally-owned businesses are rapidly being displaced by national chains, and even the most prosperous of the town are worried about business drying up. Possum Springs is a red state stand-in, but with none of the venom often ascribed to them in media.
The men in the mineshaft, the ones sacrificing humans to a deity that they think will bring back economic stability to the region, are ultimately (and obviously) wrong—but their worries are understandable, in a way. They blame immigrants and ‘the poor’ for taking the bulk of government welfare and for ‘ruining’ the town, but they do it out of desperation. They are so attached to a past that never really was that they lose sight of what could be, if only Possum Springs could rid itself of a devotion to an industrialized capitalist utopia that never really was.
It’s made clear in the mineshaft that the goals of the men in hoods (a touch not lost on this player, recalling the romanticized and anglicized dream of the Ku Klux Klan or similar mob groups) is not fueled by death or killing, exactly, but nostalgia.
Nostalgia can be a killer like that. It makes you forget that times of plenty were never that plenty.
Even in the industrialized regions of America, the ‘good jobs’ were not there because of the ruling class benevolently gifting 40-hour work weeks and weekends, but by unions fighting for them. The ‘good jobs’, even in the ‘best’ of times, were still largely gated from those who weren’t white, weren’t men, didn’t have the required identity status to take them.
Night in the Woods knows this, recognizes it, and by the time Mae enters the mineshaft we know that Possum Springs is not a bigoted place. It is a place where things can grow, if people realize it. It’s not as dead as outsiders consider it, and not as asleep as those in power think it. It’s a subtle, but crucial part of the experience that the player empathizes with the poor, the queer, the desperate—those who the men in hoods call unwanted. The blame is squarely on the shoulders of the most marginalized, as it so often is.
By the end, we all know why Possum Springs dried up. It was never because the jobs left. It was because the job-givers couldn’t move on. The wealthy were afraid of giving up wealth, the town stayed transfixed on the past, on an ideal of a misremembered American dream. A comfortable tradition, scoured clean by nostalgia, and fittingly guarded fiercely by old, rich, men in hoods. Just like it’s always been. But Night in the Woods isn’t just about what’s “always been”. It’s about what can be, if we can take a moment to look beyond tradition. It’s about looking beyond what we think as “how things are”, and fiercely, unflinchingly, at what actually is.
Dante Douglas is a writer, poet and game developer. You can find him on twitter at @videodante.