The Human Cost of the Millennial Generation Gap in Night in the Woods

Games Features Night in the Woods
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The Human Cost of the Millennial Generation Gap in <i>Night in the Woods</i>

The tension between millennials and the older generations is reaching a fever pitch. As seen in the generational divide of recent landmark political decisions like Brexit and the Trump presidency, clear battle lines are being drawn. Recently, Generation Y author and business consultant Simon Sinek even went viral last December with a video that addressed “the millennial question; Striking the elusive balance between Good Guy Dad and a neighbor screaming, “Get off my lawn, you kids!”, Sinek’s diatribe sandwiches a few truthful observations between a litany of condescending Ad Hominem jabs, anecdotal generalizations, and uncited (highly debatable) research, all while painting millennials as the sole victims of technological addiction (they’re not). Yet millions (many millennials themselves) took his sentiments as gospel (the alt right, for one, ate up the language of “participation trophies”). But rebuttals from other millennials often rang out with the same red flags of a personal vendetta masquerading as social commentary, only in the language they know best: memes and tweets.

There is an astounding and ever-expanding body of thinkpieces, research, and news segments on why baby boomers and millennials can’t see eye-to-eye. But if you’re a millennial, here’s the TL; DR—and if you’re a baby boomer, here’s the synopsis: boomers criticize the new generation for being lazy, technology-enslaved, self-entitled idealists who can’t grow up, while millennials struggle to support themselves in one of the worst economies in decades after the baby boomers squandered their prosperity. At the end of the day, millennials and boomers are just two polar points of the steep line charting out our economic decline after a boon, as the generation born during an upswing clashes with the generation graduating from college thousands in debt during a recession. Yet while the battle wages on, and the media reports on every new component of this divide (whether economic, demographic, political, or professional), many portrayals gloss over one of the most key factors: the personal cost of progress.

Confession: I’ve been a millennial since 1992. I like videogames and frequent Twitter. Most egregiously (according to Sinek), I’ve checked my iPhone before a meeting. My workplace is the internet—and yes, that has made me bad at the real world in a lot of ways (you win this round, Sinek). But here’s an even more insidious confession we millennials are reticent to admit: most of us were born to and raised by baby boomers, spending much of our lives in their households. Some may even still be on their health insurance plans (thanks, Obama. Also save us, Obama). Because, in contrast to much of the literature on it, this generational war isn’t just waged in thinkpieces, on the job, or through marketing strategies. In reality, this age-based clash of cultures and ideals plays out in the most intimate of spaces: the home. Fascinatingly, the people on the other end of this particular divide are not distant strangers, but rather your own children and parents.

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Infinite Fall’s Night in the Woods poignantly and sympathetically captures the human scale of the widening millennial vs baby boomer gap. Setting aside stats and diatribes, it explores the messy, awkward nature of a paradigm shift that lives under the same roof, shares the same blood, and harbors the same deep familial love and frustration for one another. Mae, a twenty-year old recent college dropout, returns to her decaying Rust Belt home to live with her economically-strapped but well-meaning parents. In the game, the political could not get more personal, as the rapidly shifting financial landscape of America puts an unspoken strain on their otherwise beautifully supportive relationship. As both a family and community, these polar demographics struggle to contend with the fact that this was not the future they had been promised. Often, they direct their rage at the nearest scapegoat, conflating harsh societal forces for family members they can yell at.

The friction is apparent from the game’s opening sequence. Mae arrives at the Possum Springs train station, returning to her hometown because of her inability to cope with the unspecific anxiety of a generation that feels both economically and socially forgotten. While never explicitly stated, we later find out that Mae suffers from dissociative mental health issues, (again, to Sinek’s credit) stemming from the feeling of being adrift in an impermanent technological world she no longer recognizes, a world that seems artificial and unreal—like suddenly waking up inside the uncanny valley of a virtual reality. Seeking a return to her more tethered past, she instead finds herself at a train station, stranded. Her parents forgot to pick her up. After making her own way home through an old childhood playground that feels similarly estranged, she tries to brush off her parents’ misstep. Yet, an underlying sense of abandonment seeps into Mae’s annoyed and incensed jokes, taking it as further evidence that a true return home is not possible. Perhaps not even fully understanding herself why it cuts so deep, Mae must face the fact that the world that made her feel safe and protected is gone forever. Her parents are not coming to pick her up. No one is coming to save her. She is stranded in this alternate reality of childhood, alone at a train station that can only take her to new destinations of uncertainty.

Meanwhile, Mae’s parents do their best to hold down the fort in their own alternate world of broken promises. After decades of following the societal playbook drilled into them by their own parents, they now slowly come to realize that they, too, have been lied to. Played for fools, they’re left looking down the barrel of foreclosure, duped into believing an American dream that assured them anyone with enough moxie, perseverance, and dedication to honest, back-breaking labor would get the white picket fence house and 2.5 children guaranteed a better future. Yet, instead of blaming the societal forces responsible for this unkept promise, Mae’s parents (particularly her mother) internalize it as personal failure, racked with guilt, shame, and an unshakable fear that (to Sinek’s discredit) their own poor parenting and financial choices are at fault. Worse still, in their weakest and most stressful moments, Mae’s mother directs her blamelessness at the closest possible target. Lashing out at her beloved live-in college drop out, she pins hers disappointments on Mae for not living up to the promised potential she had gambled and sacrificed everything for—including her own happiness. Of course, neither Mae nor her parents are at fault for these devastating disappointments. But it sure feels more cathartic to fight with a person rather than face your own powerlessness to stop the real culprits, like the absurdly inflated price of educating your child, or a bank permitted to prey on the most vulnerable people in a society without regulation.

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Night in the Woods captures a cultural and personal moment in these characters’ histories when nothing is as it was before, including their own relationships to one another. The kid, lost and afraid, can’t help but hold her parents responsible for giving her an impossible task and the wrong tools to achieve it with. The parents, racked with the guilt of their child’s hopeless future, find their shame only exacerbated by the kid’s defeated homecoming from an unfulfilled destiny. Of course, the scapegoating is not restricted to just Mae and her parents, either. By the end, the game reveals that the source of the town’s unsettling casualties—young people mysteriously blinking out of existence—is far from cathartic or clear cut. In the final confrontation between Mae’s gang and the Dad Cult in the abandoned mine, the millennial and baby boomer divide becomes literal through the visuals on screen. The two parties stand off at opposite sides of the chasm, flinging insults and blame at each other while the real culprit lies in wait at the bottom of the abyss. Despite each demonstrating their own fair share of wrongheadedness, neither sides are the monsters in this high stakes conflict of best intentions. Yet the black goat—AKA the forest god, the space between the stars, the inhuman forces of nature—remains silent, allowing them to destroy one another. The xenophobic adults, wishing only to abate the beast, feel faultless for sacrificing their community’s youth “for the greater good.” Meanwhile the self-entitled idealistic kids, expected to shoulder the burden of the beast’s hunger, feel justified in putting an end to the stress of an unfair witch hunt.

The question at the center of Night in the Wood’s palpably wide-spread paranoia is spelled out in one of Mr. Chazokov’s constellations. Sterling the Seer, tells “a tale of the world changing and leaving one behind,” when a sage is suddenly shunned from society after a new astronomer tells his king “a different story about the stars.” Essentially, Sterling becomes obsolete because he was born in an era that assumed the planets revolved around the earth. The moral is that the beast of progress, in its inevitable march forward into new world orders, always comes at a price. It leaves behind innocent causalities who simply believed the sun revolved around the earth, perhaps even after the facts proved otherwise. The ethical question the game posits (and to its credit) offers no obvious answer to is: is that okay? Are we, as a society, okay with the human cost of progress? In the struggle for survival, Mae and her friends must leave the Dad Cult behind to die, disregarding them as carnage crushed under the crumbling ruins of their own bygone prosperity.

The game leaves it up to the player to decide whether this is ultimately a “positive” outcome. But the logic seems no different than that of the Dad Cult. It does, however, offer another more transparent takeaway: these hot button political issues and generational tensions are not new. After all, idealism, naiveté and self-entitlement are all in the job description of being young. And the obsolescence of the previous generation not only is, but most likely should be inevitable. As Sinek, a member of Generation Y himself, should remember, every new generation is the new “Me Generation.” Nothing changes, and everything changes. That’s the nature of the forest god, the cycles that rule our universe and create new beginnings like clockwork every couple decades.


Jess Joho writes about the web, culture and intimacy in the digital age. Her words appear on Kill Screen, Motherboard, Paste and The Atlantic.

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