What Lies Beneath: On the Love and Anger of Night in the Woods

To one degree or another, we’re shaped by the places we come from. Mae Borowski, the twenty-year-old college dropout hero of Night in the Woods, doesn’t know how deeply her hometown of Possum Springs has shaped her, but she soon learns that this struggling old town has carved tunnels that run through her heart and mind. Almost immediately upon arriving back home, she feels something unexpected inside her resonating with the landscape of her not-so-distant childhood.

As a once-thriving mining town, much of Possum Springs’ history has taken place underground, and Night in the Woods is concerned, literally and metaphorically, with what is happening under the surface of this country today, and with how long-buried resentments can remain alive, lurking in the darkness, waiting for the right moment to emerge and do harm. Playing Night in the Woods, I was often reminded of the wonderful episodic adventure game Kentucky Route Zero, so much of which takes place underground: in old mining tunnels, on subterranean rivers, and in vast networks of caves. 

Kentucky Route Zero‘s Conway, the driver whose final delivery job for Lysette’s Antiques is the framework around which all of the game’s narrative threads meet, is on the verge of becoming obsolete, as the particular brand of good, honest work he’s done his whole life becomes increasingly scarce. On his journey, Conway repeatedly encounters people being crushed by capitalism and debt, as their labor is exploited and the instruments of opportunity become part of the burden they must bear. In these moments, KR0 foregrounds the geography, the places where these people live and work, using penetrating camera angles and unusual rotations of space to make these places and the lives of the people who occupy them feel as if they push beyond the boundaries of the screen.

But where Kentucky Route Zero is a road trip, Night in the Woods is a story about being stuck, at least for a while, and the place that Conway occupies in KR0 is the position in which the entirety of Possum Springs finds itself in Night in the Woods: Teetering precariously on the edge of economic survival as the work it has always been known for becomes increasingly unnecessary in a rapidly changing world. It’s a place where people do low-paying jobs they hate, jobs where their bosses treat them like garbage, because they have no other options.

While it was the sometimes-audacious use of camera movements and environmental space that disrupted my relationship to Kentucky Route Zero, making me feel absorbed into it and encompassed by it, with Night in the Woods, it’s the moments of anger that break through the game’s warm, calm autumnal atmosphere to give a glimpse of the tension simmering under the surface. Night in the Woods recognizes that not all anger is equal; some anger rots from the inside. It decays and corrupts, breeding xenophobia and hatred. This is the kind of anger that yearns hopelessly to return to an imagined, idealized past, and it can come from believing that we are entitled to certain advantages because of our race, or because of our gender, and that other people do not deserve those things, too.

This is the kind of anger that turns some groups of struggling people against other groups of struggling people who have been treated at least as unjustly if not more by the corporate globalization, the predatory lending practices, and other systems that have contributed to economic downturns in old industrial towns. In Night in the Woods, this anger festers in what was once the bustling economic heart of the town: the mining tunnels deep under the surface.

But anger is also essential. It can be propulsive and invigorating, and it can unify people when it’s directed where it belongs: at the systems of oppression and exploitation that keep so many people poor, that keep their lives unstable and scary. The men who blame “lazy people n’ immigrants” for their ills have it all wrong, but Mae’s father is absolutely right when he says, “Job’s s’posed to pay you enough to live, job’s s’posed to have regular hours, boss’ s’posed to respect you. Workers s’posed to be able to talk. Workers s’posed to be able to have a life. Workers s’posed to be able to live.” His anger seeks to bring people together against their real enemy.

The true evil in Night in the Woods is both rampant capitalism itself and the hate that is so easily fueled when people become disenfranchised as infrastructures collapse and jobs dry up. And Night in the Woods is so fiercely, justifiably angry at these things. This game seethes with righteous, unifying anger at capitalism, acknowledging that we often have no choice but to make the best of the way things are in this moment while nudging us not to recreate an idealized past that never really existed, but rather to keep fighting for a better future.

We talk a lot about representation, the power of seeing people who look like you as the focus of films, or the heroes of video games. Discussions about these issues often center on matters of gender identity, or race, or sexuality, and these are all essential conversations for the games industry to be having with itself and with players. But Night in the Woods reminded me that there are other kinds of representation as well: representations of class issues, mental health issues, and political viewpoints that exist in opposition to the capitalist status quo. Never have I seen my own political views manifested so explicitly and with such unwavering conviction in a game. Night in the Woods doesn’t pull any false equivalency bullshit. It doesn’t pretend that the truth is somewhere in the middle. It is unabashedly anti-capitalist and anti-fascist, and I love it for that.

These concerns aren’t some “political agenda” awkwardly grafted onto the game. They are at the very heart of Night in the Woods, emerging out of the daily, lived experiences of Possum Springs’ residents. And if you come to the game with some preconceived notion of what the people who live in a place like Possum Springs are like, it will delight in destroying your misconceptions. Time and again, residents who may seem at first appearance like simple, one-note background characters reveal themselves in time to have more going on than we may have at first surmised.

My favorite example of this involves Mae’s neighbor Selma Ann Forrester, better known to Mae as Selmers, a pleasant woman Mae encounters sitting on her stoop, always with a new poem to share. Her poems are endearing, but tend to be short and a little silly, and to focus on simple things. You’d be wrong to write her off, though. One evening Mae happens upon a meeting of the Possum Springs Poetry Club, and Selmers brings the house down with her poem, There’s No Reception in Possum Springs, a fierce work that reveals the sadness and rage of Selmers herself and so many residents of Possum Springs as opportunity dries up and poor people die while techno-capitalists rake in billions. “Some night,” she writes, “I will catch a bus out west and burn their silicon city to the ground.”

Night in the Woods knows these people. It admires them and it cares about them. Simply by being a story about people in a struggling rust-belt town, people who may look like cartoon animals but who exude more humanity than the overwhelming majority of video game characters, the game says that these people are real. Their lives are real. Their experiences matter. A conversation in the food court of a dying mall in flyover country is not less real than a romance forged against the backdrop of the movie industry in LA or a friendship that lives and breathes in the coffee shops and clubs of New York City.

The anger that propels this game is anger at its most compassionate; the kind of anger, born out of love, that strives for justice, that says we all deserve better, an anger that says things can and should be different. Within that anger there is so much hope, realistic hope, the hard-earned, essential hope of people for whom nothing is certain.

So many of us are struggling, angry and afraid. Night in the Woods is for us. It knows things are hard. It knows things should be better. It knows that friendship and love are worth holding onto. As Mae, embracing the ways in which the town has shaped her and her friends, said near the end of my playthrough, “I’m, like, proud of us all, for having good-ass lives in a shitty, stupid, good-ass town. Here’s to you, Possum Springs. Here’s to survival.”

Amen, sister.