There's something profoundly gentle about Night in the Woods. That feels like a weird thing to say about a video game which is, among other things, about the destructive power of mental illness, but it's true. It stands as a good companion piece to another of 2017's great games, Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice. But where that game is interested in emulating the specific feeling of having a mental illness, Night in the Woods is more interested in telling the story of how a group of friends find strength, despite their demons.
Mae is struggling at college, so she drops out and returns to her rural hometown of Possum Springs. The place she finds is markedly different from the one she remembers. Her friends are moving on with their lives, local businesses have shuttered, and there is a pervasive sense that the town is slowly collapsing in on itself. There's also something lurking beneath the surface of its fading bucolic facade. Something sinister and mean. Mae and her friends set out to investigate what's at the root of this troubling undercurrent. What they find is disturbing, but not surprising.
These revelations don't come until much later, though. Instead, the first third of the game sees Mae carrying out a repetitious set of activities as she begins to come to terms with her new situation. She walks to the corner store where her friend Gregg works, she visits her mum at the local church, and she talks to her neighbor about their poetry.
It should be boring, and it almost is, but thanks to believable and often hilarious dialogue, a palpable sense of place, and some interesting twists on the adventure genre, it isn't. Rather, it feels like the electronic equivalent of a warm bowl of chicken soup. It also means there's plenty of room for the game to build mood and character. You slowly learn about Mae and her friends' struggles with mental illness and trauma so that by the time you make it to the pointy end of proceedings, you're significantly invested in their lives.
Ultimately, those characters are the game's biggest strength. They're real people, with real problems, and real foibles. And just like real people, they often do and say the wrong thing and then feel bad about it afterwards. But they also support and love each other.
At one point, Mae's friend Gregg says, "When I'm awake at night, I listen to Angus snore, and I stare at the ceiling, and I think about how I'm a complete piece of shit."
Mae responds, "Gregg. Gregg. Calm down. You're good."
It's a beautiful moment in a game brimming with beautiful moments, and it also captures what's at the heart of it all: when it feels like the whole world is falling apart, the best place to look for support is in each other.
What are your thoughts on Night in the Woods? Did you find it to be a relatable piece of fiction worthy of its position on this list, or do you think it was a bit dry? Make friends in the comments section below.