A game that provides ‘permission’ to talk about mental health

Review: Night in the Woods
Published by Finji Games

A game that explores mental health as a theme is itself nothing especially new or innovative. Night in the Woods, however, stands out as an exceptional title because it tackles this theme with authenticity and gravitas, serving as a stepping stone for wider conversations.

With a narrative engine designed by an Australian team, it is a game where narrative and character take centre stage, propelling a story about growing up in uncertain times.

Under its cute exterior with anthropomorphic animals, Night in the Woods is a game with a serious story. Returning to her hometown of Possum Springs as a fresh college dropout, Mae Borowski finds herself out of sorts and out of place. Something of a town pariah, she struggles to reconnect with family, friends, and her past.

Night in the Woods’ biggest strength unquestionably lies in its writing, which elevates the overall standard for in-game dialogue. As Leah Williams has pointed out in IGN, Mae is in many ways an authentic representation of many Generation Y experiences, finding that the circumstances she is in are not what she was promised due to economic forces beyond her control. Nights in the Woods also manages to discuss mental health in ways that are appropriately complex and befitting the game’s narrative. This theme is something that the game’s developers have firsthand experience with: the game’s animator/illustrator Scott Benson lives with Type 2 bipolar disorder. He also told Kotaku that everyone on the Nights in the Woods team had personally experienced depression at some point.

Benson also said that he hoped the game gave people permission to talk about their own experiences of mental ill health.

“Permission doesn’t mean an authority figure or that they need to check with us, but like, sometimes you just need to have someone say this is a thing that occurs in your life and it’s ok. You’re not like, broken or something,” Benson said in the Kotaku interview.

“This does not mean that you’re irrevocably busted and have to be quarantined or something, because you may want to quarantine yourself a lot of the time. There have definitely been people who have explicitly said, ‘Night in the Woods was there for me in a time when I was really desperate or kind of on that ledge.’ Sometimes literally.”

Night in the Woods’ story keeps the mental health elements somewhat ambiguous, however, never divulging too much about individual characters’ individual illnesses or experiences.

Night in the Woods’ ‘gameplay’ largely exists to advance its compelling story. It’s simple enough at first: walk up to other characters and talk to them, occasionally collecting items. Really, however, the main game here is in the choices the player makes that shape the game’s narrative and Mae’s dialogue. There are also some gaps in the story for the player to fill, including why Mae dropped out of college in the first place.

Possum Springs is very much like many towns along the US ‘rust-belt’. A place that has seen better economic times, Possum Springs is a former mining town in decline. There are plenty of businesses closing down and people bitterly out of work, with some green shoots along the way. The game’s world evolves in a similar way to South Park: The Stick of Truth, as places that are inaccessible due to construction barriers are gradually added in.

There are also plenty of minigames hidden in the game’s world that really serve to enhance the game’s experience and show off the developers’ talents. These include a surprisingly addictive dungeon crawler on Mae’s laptop and a Guitar Hero-esque rhythm game that players access when picking up Mae’s bass guitar.

Night in the Woods is a little on the short side, taking as little as eight hours to finish in some instances. It is recommended, however, that players take time to linger in its world. As the game designers intended, the title serves as a great stepping stone to wider conversations about mental health, life’s ups and downs, and the way the world can so often seemingly crush our hopes and dreams.

While the game initially appears cynical about organised religion (Mae says at one point that the broken steps in town aren’t a problem because “it’s not as though I was looking to go to church anyway”), the introduction of an ordained Christian woman named Pastor K is a welcome addition to the narrative. Pastor K manages to avoid the usual Christian cliches and she demonstrates that, depression and loss of meaning in life are themes on which faith can provide certain resources. More than once, Mae echoes Ecclesiastes’ lament that “everything is meaningless.”

Night in the Woods is rated PG. It is available now on Nintendo Switch, PS4, and Steam.

If you feel depressed or need to talk to someone, Lifeline is available 24 hours a day on 13 11 14 or at lifeline.org.au.

Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor




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