Thanks so much for reading and for listening as I really take this project in new directions! Today we’re covering the final bits of the deeply productive Night in the Woods. Fair warning: there are some spoilers. That said, if you do go forward, I won’t ruin anything specifically; we’re talking supernatural themes generally.
If you like what I’m doing here, consider listening to the podcast, on iTunes and Google Play, and at no-cartridge.net . There are two free episodes — an interview with NitW co-creator Scott Benson, who was a delight; and one on the legacy of creepypasta — and one subscriber episode on Demon Tower, the game within the game of Night in the Woods.
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And now, on with the show.
One of the primary complaints I’ve read about Infinite Fall’s Night in the Woods is that the game plugs along nicely as a sort of social parable about growing up until it reaches the final stages of the game, in which a supernatural element is introduced. I won’t name names, as the exact critiques aren’t super important (and I alluded to them in my interview with Scott Benson, who with Alec Holowka and Bethany Hockenberry, created Night in the Woods), but the basic idea is that the supernaturalism in Night in the Woods doesn’t quite fit, that it’s somehow tonally incompatible with the coming of age story that came before it.
The usual caveats to this kind of complaint apply — why did you expect realism in a game starring a talking cat? Haven’t you ever been scared by something off in your home town? Have we really come to the point where we complain about ghost stories? — but the question is worth parsing a bit anyway. Because its too soft to say I disagree with the notion that the last acts of NitW are out of place: the truth is I think the supernaturalism of the game is as crucial as any moment in the narrative. It cements the message of the game by prefacing the structurally crucial epilogue with this severe moment of politically charged unreality, a moment that ultimately leads the reader to conclude with Mae that as long as nothing is real or rational or fair, the best we can manage is to hang on to individual moments of social connectivity.
Before this is understood as a sort of kumbaya moment, let me stress that NitW is not really interested in giving you an easy connection with any of your friends. Bea, the friend I spent the most time with in my playthrough, is dealing with the death of her mother and a radically unfair role essentially managing her family’s store. She is understandably resentful of Mae’s blithe way of wandering through the world. Gregg, your best friend, is happy-go-lucky to the point of being almost a total cypher, fun but blank in certain important ways. His boyfriend, Angus, is the opposite: quiet on the exterior, but with a lot of depth behind the eyes (see glasses as a symbol of sight and of occlusion). And in the middle of it, Mae, your avatar, is a college dropout in a town that has no future, trying to acclimate to a life she has never felt particularly comfortable in. There is a lot of support, don’t get me wrong, but while NitW is an interactive story in some ways, it limits your choices such that you have to play the game as Mae. Bumbling, unable to really express yourself, constantly disappointing yourself and (not as often) those around you, but with the best intentions: the game itself is not difficult from a gameplay standpoint, but emotionally, there is a deep challenge in trying to be Mae Borowski.
There’s also a lot of support, though. Your family really cares about you, and it took a long time for me to recognize that a lot of what appealed to me about Mae’s relationship with her mother was how like it was to my own relationship with my mom (that’s a good thing; hi mom!). Your friends worry about you, your dark past haunts you but not in a Marvel MAX sort of way, and while no one really believes that you saw a ghost at the end of Harfest, Possum Springs vaguely religious-friendly historical substitute for Halloween, they want to help you figure it out and pad softly around what might be your own delusions. In short, your core group in the game develops from a place of support; no one thinks you simply need to grow up or get over your mental, emotional, and social issues. While your interactions with the core group of people might be complex, they’re also always positive.
And so the supernaturalism in the game lends a kind of needed pessimism that I think helps round the game out into not just a coming of age story, but also a social commentary, one that pins down what Benson calls “Rust Belt Gothic.” Like its forbears, particularly the British gothicism that accompanied what Schumpeter might call the “creative destruction” of the industrial revolution, NitW’s Rust Belt Gothicism responds to the changing macroscopic economic landscape by focusing on the microscopic, personal terrors and anxieties of individual people in the decaying towns and areas themselves. When the precarity of late capitalism or (in the case of British Gothicism, nascent industrial capitalism) is recast as a ghost, or as a Lovecraftian knot of terror, unable to be disconnected from the shadows surrounding it, we understand it not as misdirection, but as metonymy — replacing a part for a whole. The terror in Night in the Woods, in other words, is much like the terror in Wuthering Heights: the scary part isn’t the ghosts or the hauntings, whether or not you believe in the actual phantoms themselves.
So, here are the spoilers, by the way. I can’t really complete the analysis without doing them.
Okay great. So in NitW, the “ghost” Mae sees abducting a teen turns out to be one member of a massive cult of, as Mae and Bea put it, upset dads and uncles. Resentful and angry at their changing economic fates, the men who make up the cult (we never learn who they are, importantly), descend into the long-closed mine that fueled the hey-day of Possum Springs, Mae’s hometown, and find a being there who demands sacrifice for the promise of prosperity. While the first victim is an unwitting dad who falls down a hole to his fate as the being’s lunch, the cult slowly starts abducting undesirables, drifters, and kids who won’t be missed. Their justifications are fairly standard — “He wouldn’t have amounted to anything anyway” — and their reasoning is not too much different — “We did it for our families.” NitW, thankfully, does not do the typical contemporary move of giving you the option of empathizing with these guys, and instead, after Mae meets the dark god under the mine for a shadowed and blurry conversation, they are buried alive after a chase goes wrong.
The reviewers I mentioned above maybe feel that the inclusion of a Lovecraftian horror is a bit gauche given the game’s very down-to-earth qualities beforehand. But I’d suggest that reading the beast as real, a true malevolent evil under the town, is a bit of a mistake. The only two witnesses we have that confirm the monster are the cult of men, who want something, anything, to bring the town of their youth back, and Mae, who has been having troubling dreams and visual hallucinations throughout the game.
For the men, the god under the mine may boil down to an avatar for their racialized and bigoted hatred and fear, a way to weaponize their own anxiety into a force for displacement and reinstantiation. Think of it like the burning cross. Or a Make America Great Again hat. It’s simply a central figure by which the hatred itself is made into ritual and mobilized as a practical action. It allows for action that works as a kind of negative therapy, a reactionary pushback against the social order that is as much symbolic as real, repeated as believed. It absolutely does not matter if there’s a monster at the bottom of the mine or not.
Then there’s Mae, who is suffering from…well, a lot. Repressed anger at the circumstances of her life; loss of faith; total uncertainty about her place in the world; and ultimately this strange sense of image impermanence that causes the things around her to become abstract shapes, lacking meaning. This last issue is why she attacked a fellow student in grade school, an incident alluded to often in the game, but never quite worked out. As she describes the incident to Bea, however, she explains that she was obsessed with this video game and that, one day, the game became a series of unrecognizable and unconnected pixels to her. And then everything felt that way. Self-reflexivity aside — it pains me to do that; there are 8,000 things to talk about in this game though — Mae’s sense of unreality is both a mental issue that has material heft in the game, and a symbolic issue that speaks to the qualities of late capitalist abstraction. Money, we acknowledge together, is a real source of value, even as it turns from precious metal, to specie, to algorithmic magics. Meanwhile, we acknowledge that we want certain things, aspire to have and own other things, and we never really ask why. Not because there’s some sort of “open your eyes sheep!” at the end of that question, but because there’s nothing at the end of it at all. Mae’s mental illness is catastrophic and tragic for her as a character, but for the game itself, it reveals the undergirding logic of the world.
So when we meet the anti-god in the center of everything — whether as the cat avatar in Mae’s nightmare or as the darkness, the “hole in the center of everything” — we have to take Mae’s word for it that what we’re seeing is more fact than metaphor. And to Mae’s deep credit as a protagonist, she mostly doesn’t so much care about that distinction. The cultists focus their own angst on “shapes” as well, but in terms of a yearning toward a past world. The player of course wants clarity. But Mae, who falls down a sinkhole to meet the dark god at the center of Night in the Woods, could just as well be repeating symbols, stories, and suggestions that she’s been given through the entire game. And that distinction, between the real and the symbolic, is what finally cracks for Mae by the end of the game. From insisting that she saw a ghost to being largely uninterested to delve into the actuality of what happened to her in the mine, Mae changes over the last two acts in many ways, but most strikingly from a wide-eyed adventurer to a somber, but hopeful adult. And all through the supernatural experience which…may or may not have happened.
In the end, the supernatural element of Night in the Woods works because it redirects the player away from the supernatural and back into the real world. It doesn’t matter if those cultists were sacrificing to a real elder god or not, because nothing actually happened beyond the death of a bunch of innocent kids and vulnerable people. And it doesn’t matter if Mae saw the elder god or if it was another part of her delusion, spurred on by a lack of sleep and terrible physical pain (you play the last bit of the game as a shuffling shell of the bouncy and nimble cat you start out with). Mae’s lesson of the game — that what we have in life is a series of diversions that we get to spend with people we love so long as we stay alive — is formed in the absence of a larger guiding structure, be that the church or the darkness of the mine. In other words, the supernaturalism fits so well in NitW because it strictly does not fit in the ecosystem the game has produced to that point. Be it total fantasy or actual true monster under the town, it does not determine Mae and her circle’s view of life. Indeed, much like the persistent thrum of capitalism just outside of the frame, the monster at the end of NitW structures the experience of the game quietly and by negation. To look straight at it is absurd, but to deny it seems just as foolish.
The revolutionary act, as Mae discovers in her most heroic and humble moment, is to imagine life without it.