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Welcome to Small Town Life in Night in the Woods

Jenna

Jenna

Jenna's defining characteristics are green hair that was intended to be blue and a strong tendency to speak in long string of stupid puns. They are a game designer, an internet roleplayer, and, much like Discworld's Death, thinks CATS ARE NICE.
Jenna

“All it takes is being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

It’s the fall break of my sophomore year of college — early October, just before the weather starts to turn quickly south in upstate New York. It hovers in that unpredictable zone that oscillates wildly and rapidly between ‘Armpit Stains the Size of Texas’ and ‘Two Sweaters Because You Forgot to Pack a Coat’. I can still walk around outside in a tee shirt and jeans for now. (Or, as was my habit, jeans, a tee shirt, and a kheffiyeh from my unfortunate and tone-deaf stages of appropriation and political demonstration. But you live and learn when you’re a week away from being 20.)

I’d gone home that weekend for one of the last times of my undergraduate career; a lot of my liberal arts college friends were from families where they could comfortably return to their middle class lives and live in their childhood bedrooms and hang out with their friends who were also all on break from college. Or they had gone to New York City.

I was having something of an existential crisis (monthly, at the time) and, you know, I’m poor as shit. I couldn’t afford staying a few days in a place where, living there now, my rent costs more than my family’s generous allowance for that entire sophomore year combined. But I couldn’t stay on campus either. It felt like the claustrophobia of my dorm room in the woods without any of my friends to keep me company. But going home was always hard, too, because college was a million miles away from what it felt like anybody else from outside that tiny town would understand. It’s also becoming increasingly clear as I look back to who I was then that I was growing farther away from what I could understand. From what I was willingly trying to forget sometimes.

Enter Night in the Woods.

I can see myself in Mae, the main character. A little too close for comfort, in fact. Would you know, Mae is actually my middle name, and my last name is also the name of Polish immigrants who came here a century or so ago? My mother’s side of the family had lived in Pennsyltucky, too, since before this country was a westernized Nation. They were the original extorters of the native peoples. I play the bass, as well, and graduated somewhere around the middle of my high school class even though I had talent because I was just so dang bored. I, too, ended up in college by what felt like sheer luck and felt so guilty leaving my friends behind when they worked hard, too, if differently so.

God, I remember so well the feeling of being with two good friends then, that weekend, on top of a building we certainly shouldn’t have been, on what is probably the highest point in our town if and only if you consider the tops of buildings to be peaks. Later that year, I came back for spring break, for another identity crisis, and one of those good friends and I ended up in a literal cabin in the woods on top of a godforsaken actual mountain. There was a fire and other goings-on, another cabin in the woods we most certainly shouldn’t have been in, and there were syringes sticking out of the snow that still, in March, was over a foot high. I hadn’t brought a coat then, either. I ended up on top of a building then, too.

That happened a lot between the end of high school and the middle of college. I was living out my teenage years all at once, kind of like running around on power lines. But I went back that October. Mae didn’t. Mae dropped out, and don’t think I hadn’t considered it, too. She’s right, you know, about the shapes. Sometimes things are shapes, shapes with no meanings or intentions. And you need to step away and get some perspective on how they fit together.

Basically, Night in the Woods is my story. The first few hours of playing it, I kept shouting at the television “THAT IS TOO WEIRD” or “THAT IS TOO REAL” or “ARE YOU KIDDING ME” because — well, I ended up on top of buildings. The cabin in the woods. Power lines.

But most of all, Night in the Woods gets small town post-industrial Appalachia so right. Where at first I was thinking “god, this is uncanny, this game was made for me,” I found myself thinking no, this isn’t just my story, this is the story that we all know. The narrative that stories about small towns get almost universally wrong. Most media makes it seem like small towns are actually small cities, that Buffy’s Sunnydale is a “one Starbucks town” that also has a night club, space for an art gallery opening, and a huge-ass high school.

Meanwhile, our coffee shop closed down for repairs after a flood in summer 2010 and hasn’t opened its doors since. The sign was in the window until recently, a faded red Jesterman font. It was a gift shop with Adirondack chairs out front when I was last there in May 2016. It was once a railroad stop, but grass overtook the tracks long ago, before the industry even left.

There are so many of us out here with these stories but few who live in our towns ever really escape. We rarely get to make the stories that we lived, because we work blue-collar jobs to barely make ends meet in our trailers and remain not-even-blissfully ignorant of the world changing around us. My town is honestly stuck in about 1952, where new businesses get run out in under a year and the ones that thrive are the ones that have been around longer than I’ve been on this earth. (Or above it, hovering somewhere on a building, it would seem, much like Mae’s power lines.)

most of the game is power lines

I got exceptionally lucky, despite my family being in the bottom 10% of income earners, to have had opportunities to leave and lacked the strings to discard them. There is a point where you can listen in on the conversation the historical preservationists are having about a statue in Possum Springs, Night in the Woods’ setting. They’re discussing whether it should stay or go, and one of them shouts out “this is like the stoplight all over again.” My town literally has two dueling historians who alternately sabotage and refuse to acknowledge the existence of the other. Or at least, they did in 2010. One of them might have died by now.

Mae’s friends work hard at their jobs at their cash registers. Bea in particular had a light that got snuffed out, and she struggles throughout her story arc with resentment for Mae having the opportunity to what she could not: go to college, have a ‘normal life.’ Bea believes Mae squandered her chance by dropping out (though this does change as Bea learns the reasons why). Bea also thinks that she’s run herself dry and become “uncool” by Mae’s jaded collegiate standard because she works long hours in a job she hates and has the energy to do nothing but stare at the wall.

There’s no romance to living in a town a square mile large with a thousand people, where everyone lives in abject poverty and the nearest real grocery store is ten miles away. You’re all working class, blaming the government who was supposed to help you for the state you’re in, having to decide between heat or food for the winter because the railroads left and the cars broke down. (Truth be told, they should have died in the 80s.) You can’t drive an hour each way for $35,000 a year when you’re supporting sick families. Or when, as with Mae, you can’t even get a job or talk to people normally because your reputation from five or ten years ago follows you around everywhere and pokes its nasty head in sometimes.

You can hardly blame the Big Bad at the end, which solves the story, because their motives make sense. Even if the ends (some stability in a world that’s moved on, is that too much to ask?) don’t really justify the means (murder).

Mae’s family works hard to pay the mortgage, but they might lose their house because of predatory lending. They re-mortgaged the house to send her to college, and then she dropped out. Her dad works at a deli counter, and her mom works at a church. The future suddenly doesn’t have a form any longer. It’s not even shapes. Mae’s doing a lot of things without an understanding of what’s going on at home. She puts her friends in danger and makes selfish decisions, but it makes sense, you know, when you’re trying to compare two worlds that really, deeply, contrast. I want to hate her, but I see myself at 20 and just can’t.

The gameplay is repetitive, but it feels meaningfully so, whether intentional or not. When you’re whiling away the hours in your childhood home, trying to find purpose in a place that doesn’t even have cell service, you do kind of end up doing the same things over and over. There’s always the guys in the bar (who, by the way, you have fascinating relationships and are worth listening to. Their words speak volumes).

He’s right. SOMEONE always has to stand outside the bar.

You know they’ve all worked hard, in the real world or in the game. We all know the people who can’t catch breaks no matter how many knots form in their shoulders. That fall break, I was mourning the end of the honeymoon of my freshman year of college, realizing there were a lot of things that I couldn’t rationalize or make fit into the shapes of my new world when I had been so molded, against my will, by the old.

Night in the Woods tells the story of getting out of your small town but being drawn back. The story of the people with bright futures had they only been born elsewhere and in the right time at the right place, or who, by chance, ended up facing the consequences of one bad decision that mapped out everything that would come afterwards. Night in the Woods puts you into that post-industrial forever-economically-depressed-if-only-they-would-see-it rust belt, and I’ve never felt anything more real. Night in the Woods doesn’t romanticize the small town, and for that, it tells the story perfectly.


Images Courtesy of Finji
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