Alongside our team-selected 2017 Game of the Year awards, each member of the PC Gamer team gets to champion one favorite from the year. We'll continue to post new personal picks until the end of 2017.
There are plenty of broader themes at work in Night in the Woods—capitalist criticism, the lingering effects of trauma, the abrupt transition into adulthood—that spoke to me. But the voice I heard clearest was the one just telling a story about what it's like to grow up in a small town, leave, and come back. It's not often we get games truly about America, the flyover states, the mid to lower class and the neither slow nor simple lives they continue to see through.
There's a quiet confusion and lurching pace to rural life that comes from living in the outer rings of society; social, economic, and cultural information from the decision-making urban centers take quite a while to reach rural centers, but when they do, change happens overnight. Mines close, a McDonalds rolls in as the local burger spot says goodnight—rural life is rarely as quaint as expensive landscape paintings suggest.
Night in the Woods is an honest portrait of one of these places. Cat-human protagonist Mae drops out of college and returns home to the small town of Possum Springs, where everyone and everything she knew has already changed shape in a short time. You spend the entirety of the game as her, reconnecting with old friends and her parents as the months fly by. Each day is the same routine, waking up for a quick chat with her parents before walking out into the world, often without an agenda at all. It feels like nothing is happening, at least until you start spending more time with people.
While you might parade around as a cartoon cat in a community of squirrel- and dog- and alligator-people, this isn't a cutesy Richard Scary adventure. Rather than learn about shapes and manners, you learn about the depression and economic challenges facing those in a class with ever-shrinking wealth and opportunity.
Possum Springs is pretty small, as small towns are, dotted with monuments to the industrious history of the town, a few small food joints, a church (of course), and a convenience store where everyone's favorite knife-wielding bro Gregg works. It's these people (animals?) that make Possum Springs such an interesting place to wander, and as you spend more time with Mae's small group of friends, their problems bubble to the surface and you realize they're just as lost, if not more, than you are. Possum Springs feels like it has no future, and the people there are all coping with that information in their own way, either privately, through denial, depression, or radical action.
It's more of a visual novel than anything resembling a high-score-headshot-getter, but the brief interactive, game-y moments almost always have to do with play and expression. Between uncovering the despair of the people Mae thought she knew and the dark history of Possum Springs, you'll play angry punk songs, bounce around on telephone wires, find constellations in the night sky, and throw knives at shit in the woods.
I, too, once smashed light bulbs with baseball bats with old friends. Some of them went to college. Some couldn't afford it. Some found great success, but through some hidden despair couldn't bear to live anymore. We had some great times, and I wish we could have some more. This is the kind of nostalgia, like, actual nostalgia (not that Yooka-Laylee junk) that Night in the Woods is so adept at portraying. Nostalgia is irrevocable loss, and Mae eventually comes to accept it. I don't always feel that way, but I'm getting there, and the honest portrayal of rural life in Night in the Woods helped. Most games just make me feel good for shooting alien heads, so I'm glad a game finally sat me down and tricked me into facing my fears with a few cute animals and catchy tunes .
That's not to say there's a solution for the accelerated despair and isolation of small town living in Night in the Woods, but it does suggest a few attitudes for navigating a rural apocalypse and growing up: Build community and make time to play. (Also, capitalism is bad.)