In the very beginning of Night in the Woods, the main character Mae hikes back home from the bus station on the outskirts of her hometown Possum Springs. The bus station is empty because no one comes to Possum Springs. Not anymore at least. As she hikes back, she jumps on the logs that fill a ditch where she played as a kid and they crack beneath her and the weight of years of negligence and rot. She falls next to a small puddle and says a few simple words that have stuck with me longer than most others.
“I am not gonna die in this hole.”
It’s a plucky little line from the opening of a game that turns out to have a lot to say about resilience and defying death, making Night in the Woods a deceptively heavy experience and one of the single most important things ever to me. And all these years later, it still captures both my fears and hopes in brilliantly simple fashions.
Night in the Woods came out five years ago this week and captured, for lack of a better term, a vibe. Mae, an aimless college dropout for whom things just didn’t work out, comes back to her small rust belt town looking for direction and instead finds that things have changed without her around. The town has continued on its decline and everyone who’s still there is caught in its gravitational pull and collapse. Mae’s friends have been moving on with their lives, finding adult jobs and progressing relationships. All the while, she keeps trying to cling to some sense of life or stability that has passed her by. Same, girl, same.
Night in the Woods is a chill and cute game, but it’s also a work that’s angry about countless things, like the institutions that promise people the world and turn their back on them or the ravenous corporations that eat up towns like Possum Springs and its people. Or the death of life as we knew it and how hard it is to hold onto good things. The one theme that particularly struck me is the fear of being forgotten, which permeates the town and its characters. It’s a game with anxieties about loneliness and being left behind, with this idea stretching as far as the game’s abandoned mall Fort Lucenne and the disappearance of Casey Hart, a childhood friend of Mae’s who vanishes without a trace before her return home. It’s a fear I’ve long struggled with, going so far as writing an essay about it when I was 16 that earned me a trip to the counselor’s office, and it’s one I’ve actually rarely seen in the games I play.
When I was 20, I worried again that I’d be alone and forgotten. Friends moved on to colleges far away, academic setbacks stalled me, and socially I was a ghost. I was all but worried that if I up and vanished no one would care, or worse, that I’d continue existing miserably and still go unnoticed and uncared for. Depression can have quite the stranglehold, you know? And then I played Night in the Woods and met Mallard. Mallard, a parade float that Mae uniquely loved, is discovered in storage where it hasn’t seen the light of day in God knows how long. And even though it’s been kept away from anyone and everyone, it inspires the most unbridled joy from Mae to see it. In the midst of my own depressive episode and isolation, I think I needed to see that even when you’re out of touch or have outright disappeared from people’s sides, you’re still there in the hearts and minds of the folks you’ve touched. Mallard isn’t a person, but in that sense it at least embodied the warmest aspect of personhood. And if a fake duck could do it then so could I, dammit.
I could throw a rock and hit some kind of personal note that Night in the Woods touches on in ways that speak to me. Bea, one of Mae’s friends, feels trapped by familial obligations even though she so badly wants to be anywhere else but the rotting husk of Possum Springs. She resents Mae who seemingly forfeits her dreams of getting out without so much as a second thought. Gregg, Mae’s best friend and partner in crime, worries about how his mental health might affect Angus, his boyfriend, and how to weigh this responsibility to another person against a firm sense of self. Everyone’s trapped here in some sense or another, a feeling a great deal of younger folks in shitty situations are likely familiar with.
Because of when it was released, Night in the Woods also often feels of its time. That’s because it’s my comfort game that has and continues to pick me up when I reach my low points, often bringing me back to the year I played it. I always associate the game and its politics with our own political upheaval and my radicalization in 2017. Possum Springs is a fictional mining town based on real ones that have teetered on the brink of collapse. A number of towns like it have likely gone under. They’re places made up of people who probably voted for snake oil salesmen who sold them promises of a livelihood, because no one else actually cared enough to support them. Night in the Woods also feels like a response to how long they have been pandered to only to be sold up the river. For me, Night in the Woods is a foundational text about places that, due to my upbringing and environments, have long been mythologized in my own circles. It’s as honest a love letter to a place and people as anything that I’ve ever experienced; an ode to what was and should have been that knows how it’s been exploited and ruined. It’s a galvanizing text and response to the circumstances that encouraged its creation and attempts to chart something new.
And so despite the well-earned cynicism that Night in the Woods wears on its sleeves and how much I associate it with a time and place, the game’s obviously still as impactful as ever. It breaks out of that corner I’ve boxed it into and becomes something more. Sure, five years isn’t that long in the grand scheme of things, but to still be so on the ball all this time later is an affirmation of its strength and legacy. And in my eyes, that legacy is due to its hope. Not wide-eyed optimism and not necessarily how rightfully jaded it is, but its measured hope. Night in the Woods doesn’t end cleanly so much as it just reaches its natural, almost awkward conclusion: things are fucked up but we’ve got one another and as long as we do, the unending cycles of cruelty can’t kill us. We aren’t going to die in these holes. Normal may be a hard thing to reach again because of the shifting definition of what “normal” is, but we can do good enough for now and reach it eventually. In the meantime, let’s have some pizza and just live.
That simplicity makes Night in the Woods a standout messenger of these particular messages. In a field crowded by games that run the gamut from annoyingly dense to frustratingly abstract, it’s a rare treat to find such a straight shooter. I’m thankful I found it when I did, and I think it was the perfect time for me, but I firmly believe now that Night in the Woods just might be timeless. And while that means it’s worst fears are, it just might mean that it’s greatest hopes are too.
Moises Taveras is a former intern for Paste Magazine. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.