The Real Horror of Night in the Woods - Believer Magazine
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The Real Horror of Night in the Woods

How the indie game ties together themes of existential dread, free will, and class struggle
by Ellie Kovach
September 9th, 2021

By most reasonable metrics, the 2017 indie adventure game Night In the Woods is not a horror game. There are no jump scares, no dread-inducing meta experiments, no resource scarcity (no item management to speak of, actually), and no tense gameplay sequences. Night In the Woods is a story about a 20-year-old cat named Mae Borowski who has returned to her hometown of Possum Springs after deciding to drop out of college, and you spend the majority of the game exploring her relationships with the townsfolk—with her neighbors, with her parents, with the friends she left behind. Aside from a few rhythm game inspired musical sequences, it is a relatively quiet game that thrives on rich dialogue and character interactions.

Lurking under the surface, however, is a game about existential dread, mental illness, despair, cosmic horror, and feelings of helplessness. It’s no secret that Night In the Woods is a complex game that weaves many threads throughout its deceptively simple storyline—aside from the surprisingly deep religious backstory that the creators developed for the citizens of Possum Springs, the player is rewarded for multiple playthroughs, which progressively reveal more about the lost souls who populate the town, Mae’s relationships with them, and their relationships with each other. 

There are some superficial earmarks of spookiness: Mae’s menacing platformer fever dreams, which exhaust and overwhelm her more and more as the game goes on; the ghost story introduced halfway through the narrative, which provides a nifty basis for some eerie setpieces; even the music that plays on the title screen, which feels like a gamified version of the ambient music from Scooby-Doo, priming the player to solve the mystery that drives the game’s climax. But the scariest element of Night In the Woods isn’t anything aesthetic at all—and the secret to unlocking it lies in the game’s fundamental mechanic of decision-making.

The player, as Mae, is forced (mainly through dialogue trees) to make decisions throughout the game, which range from irritating to truly terrible. What makes them so insistent, and what makes them a rich textual mine to dig into for interpretation, is their inevitability. Early in the game, Mae is at a party where she knows nearly no one, her friends are wrapped up in other conversations, and her social anxiety is magnified by the awkward presence of an ex. The player is essentially given no choice but to return to drinking a beer several times in order to move the story along, and as Mae gets drunker, her social decorum (already not in the best state, as throughout the game her dialogue options are often all terrible) disintegrates and the party ends with her disoriented, nauseous, and making a scene.

Later, the player may choose to try and mend Mae’s estranged, fractured relationship with childhood friend Bea by going on a few outings with her. One of those outings is at a mall, and as the scene unfolds, it becomes clear that the only way to move the story forward is for Mae to shoplift something, even if the player doesn’t want to do it. It’s here where these “false” choices really start to bear their subtextual significance: what else are you supposed to do in a boring small town but commit crimes for fun? (“Doing crimes” is a recurring theme brought up over and over again during Mae’s outings with her troubled, hyperactive best friend from high school Gregg—to the point where Gregg’s boyfriend, Angus, accuses Mae of being a bad influence in the heat of the moment.)

The sense that the choices presented to the player are red herrings or traps mirrors the sense of static despondency and hopelessness that the entire town of Possum Springs seems engulfed in. Never exactly a rich place, it’s sunk even further into economic depression by the time Mae returns from college. The way the working-class residents respond to her decision to drop out is extremely telling; Bea resents her for it, since she didn’t have the choice to go to college and must instead take over her family business since her father is emotionally incapacitated (stemming from the death of Bea’s mother), forcing Bea to assume the role of caretaker. Mae’s own parents are stressed and overworked due to the debt of sending Mae to school (she is the first Borowski to attend college), with her mother expressing fear of losing the house while her father works long, stressful hours and laments his inability to provide for his family with a single income (Mae’s mother works at the local church).

Mae’s father works at Ham Panther, which itself seems to be a stand-in for mega-corporations like Wal-Mart—it blows into Possum Springs and in short order obliterates local grocery stores and becomes one of the only employment options for anyone in town, despite offering bad hours and pay, since it’s still more competitive than the overly-stressed, local small businesses. While Possum Springs once had a strong union presence as a mining town, that’s no longer the case (and even in the past, the stress of manual labor in the mines caused Mae’s father—by all appearances a loving, faithful, and kind husband and parent—to develop a drinking problem that Mae recalls inducing frightening behavior).

All of this adds up to a gameplay experience that is already mired in hopelessness even before the characters’ tragic backstories and the (ambiguously supernatural) cosmic horror angle is introduced. By the time you dig into the meat of the story, it’s become clear that the story of Mae Borowski and Night In the Woods is really the story of Possum Springs and class struggle. Every character is where they are because of traumas and experiences in their past that may have been avoided entirely had they just been afforded a smidgen more economic freedom and stability.

Bea feels trapped for reasons explored earlier (and, in an aside, is implied to be forced to work with a sexual harasser because her father can’t afford to fire him), but Angus (who comes from a deeply abusive background) and Gregg (self-described “parking lot trash”), the only queer couple for miles, are working dead-end jobs and trying desperately to save up to move to a more urbane and accepting community. Mae herself is eventually revealed to consistently suffer from depersonalization and dissociation, which resulted in a violent outburst in the past (the fallout of which resulted in even more debt for the Borowski family), and her ongoing mental health struggles informed her decision to drop out of school. 

Even characters who seem to be doing as well as they could, like horror-movie-obsessed teenager Lori Meyers or neighborhood poet Selmers, are suffering from the effects of the town. Lori mentions she has a morbid fascination with death and murder, while Selmers developed an addiction to painkillers, causing her to steal from the pharmacy where she was employed; her poetry is one of the only outlets she has to cope. One of the most chilling outcomes for any character, however, happens to one who never appears in the game and is only discussed—Mae and Gregg’s other high school troublemaker friend, Casey.

The first time the player sees mention of Casey, it’s on an oblique “missing” poster. When Casey is discussed by the group later, they assume that he’s run away. But as the game’s plot careens to its climax, it’s revealed that Casey’s fate is much, much darker than previously thought.

In a tidy fusion of the deep religious system invented for the game and the hopeless poverty of Possum Springs, it is revealed—after a ghost story and a few sightings of hooded figures around town prompt an investigation from Mae and her friends—that underneath Possum Springs is a secret society, a cult that worships a mysterious elder god. This cult is of the belief that the god demands human sacrifice and, in turn, provides prosperity (or at least something close to sustainable living) for the rest of Possum Springs. To that end, the cult abducts random people—everyone from the homeless to wayward children—that they see as lost causes or blights on the town, and throws them down a mine shaft to appease the god. When Mae, Gregg, Bea, and Angus stumble upon a meeting of the cult, they discover that one of their recent sacrifices was their old friend, Casey Hartley. The cultists justify Casey’s death by explaining that he had come from a background of poverty and had resorted to cooking meth—they believed that no one would miss him, and that most would assume he’d have died in an explosion during a cooking session gone awry.

Casey—someone with few options in life already—was robbed of the choice to grow into anything more by this secret society, who themselves believe they have no choice but to sacrifice people to a Lovecraftian deity, lest Possum Springs devolve even further into a poverty-stricken ghost town. (Night In the Woods, through a few contextual clues, is often presumed to take place in Pennsylvania, and an assumed influence on the game is the near-ghost-town of Centralia, PA, which has also been an inspiration on everything from Dean Koontz novels to the film adaptation of Silent Hill). 

The true horror of the Cult of Possum Springs is a horror all too familiar to those who live in countless rural towns from Pennsyltucky to the Rust Belt to take-your-pick across America, and it’s one that felt especially visceral in 2017, in the aftermath of Trump’s presidential victory—alienated and disaffected folks in positions of meager authority, destitute and desperate, feeling robbed of agency by poverty and capitalism but unable to properly articulate and diagnose their rage, turning to extremism, violence, and demonization of “the other” or perceived negative social influences in order to “protect” the only way of life they’ve ever known. It’s telling that another authority figure in Possum Springs, Mae’s aunt Molly, a police officer (who Mae openly disdains and refers to as Moll-Cop), claims unawareness of the the cult’s true activities, but mostly just turns a blind eye to them, shepherding Mae away from the truth whenever she comes too close.

Of course, even when Mae and her friends escape the mine shaft and trap the cult inside (effectively killing everyone), it doesn’t mean that the town’s troubles are over; in fact, the hard work is just beginning. But a brief conversation with Mae’s father at the end of the game reveals that he’s been having conversations with some of his coworkers at the Ham Panther, and a tentative union seems to be coming together. In Night In the Woods, as in real life, labor organization and collective bargaining is just the beginning of the fight, but even with a long road ahead of them, the tone at the end is one of cautious optimism. 

Ultimately, Night In the Woods is a game that is too thematically dense and philosophically complex to distill into one message, but if there’s an overriding theme that it seems to be trying desperately to impart to its players, it’s that systemic injustice is something that must be fought against. Comments by Bea and the closing conversation with Mr. Borowski make this somewhat explicit, but it’s drilled in much deeper by the gameplay mechanics and the subtext of the plot. Choices can only take you so far when the systemic rot of capitalism and the isolation, both metaphorical and physical, of small-town living have reduced the kind of choices you can reasonably and ethically make. Night In the Woods is a game about free will, but it’s one that acknowledges and analyzes the limitations of free will within inescapable structures, and the empathy and intelligence in which it does this is what makes it such an important, special, and emotionally affecting game.

There are a lot of horror games out there, and the approaches they take to terrifying and entertaining players in equal measure are vast, but at the root of a shocking amount of them is the terror of free will and its variety of limitations. Silent Hill 2 moors its themes of psychosexual torture and personal hells in a single choice (with wildly divergent interpretations) made by protagonist James Sunderland before the game even begins. Carrion and Maneater put you into the shoes of a B-movie monster and allow you to marvel at the chaos, destruction, and death that you yourself are responsible for (while remaining endearing, sharply satirical, darkly funny, and compulsively playable throughout). Doki Doki Literature Club explores the ramifications of choices made by the player in a deliciously twisted and bracingly confrontational blend of meta-textual, psychological, and deconstructive horror. 

But it’s worth thinking about the social critiques offered forth by Night In the Woods, and its applications to the world in which we live. If the horror of free will is compounded by the horror of class struggle, of systemic limitations, of unchecked authority and the quiet desperation of those who feel left behind, then Night In the Woods might be one of the scariest games of all.

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