Thursday, 4 May 2017

Night in the Woods: Small town blues

The following post contains spoilers for Night in the Woods.

I'm glad I made Re-Entry before I played Infinite Fall's Night in the Woods because if I hadn't, I'd have been pretty disheartened. Like Re-Entry, Night in the Woods is the story of a twenty-something dropout who returns to their rusty hometown, but unlike Re-Entry, Night in the Woods is a deft, atmospheric exploration of mental illness.

Oh, and it looks gorgeous.

In my last post I talked about Re-Entry's biggest shortcoming: the way mental health is gamified. There is a clear distinction in my game between thoughts/actions/words that have objectively positive outcomes, and those that have a detrimental effect on the protagonist's state of mind or self-image. It makes for good gameplay, but it also depicts mental health as a reward for saying or doing the right things. The reality, as Night in the Woods expresses, is far more complex, beautiful and sad.

Mae Borowski is a deceptively upbeat cat who was the first member of her blue collar family to go to college, shortly before becoming the first to drop out. She slots almost too easily back into the life she left behind, picking up where she left off with her parents, worn down by the erosion of the town's economy, and her friends, who assimilate her back into the group with varying degrees of suspicion.

Night in the Woods is full of mysteries. The most dramatic, which involves a ghost, kidnappings, and a cult, lays bare the desperation wrought upon the town's elders by the demise of its Copper Mine, and with it, their hope for the future. But although this chilling story exposes the tension between Possum Springs' baby boomers and its millennials (discussed in this excellent Paste article) while providing a quest for Mae and her friends to bond over, it's not the mystery I was most driven to uncover.

Instead, I wanted to know why Mae dropped out of college. For much of the game I thought it had something to do with her capacity for violence, which is revealed both through gameplay - she and her friend Gregg like to smash things with a baseball bat - and dialogue, through which it transpires that Mae once put another teenager in hospital. Her evasiveness when people ask her outright why she's back in Possum Springs made me think she was hiding something dark.

And she is, in a way. The emotional climax of the game comes when Mae explains that her anxiety at college was so severe that she was unable to stay. It's a simpler and yet more devastating reason than the one I was preparing myself for. Had Mae made some terrible mistake or simply wasted her opportunity - as her blitheness and general irresponsibility fooled me into thinking she had - then every poignant and funny moment I played through might just have been in aid of either learning or repentance.

As soon as Mae reveals that she was unable to function at college, and the indolent life she's returned to is the one she's going to have to live for the foreseeable future, everything that's taken place in the game up until that point takes on a heartbreaking significance. Fumbling her way through bass solos with the gang's band, getting drunk in the woods and making a fool of herself, and indulging in acts of petty theft and vandalism: all these are ways in which Mae is trying to carve out an identity, and a life.

A traditional, non-interactive narrative would leave little room for these slow and sometimes deliberately silly digressions. Although Night in the Woods does use Mae's misadventures to deepen her relationship with her companions, for the most part, they create space for her to simply be, feeling out a way to exist in a world she hadn't planned on returning to.

Several of these interludes take the form of easy, sometimes flippant minigames, like trying to splash shoppers with water from a mall fountain, feeding stolen pretzels to a family of baby rats, or scouring the sky for constellations. These moments don't drive the story forward, but since Mae herself is in a state of inertia, they force the player into her perspective.

These (mostly) quiet sequences remind me of Hayao Miyazaki's explanation of the concept of "ma", the quiet moments in his films where the audience has time and space to simply feel the emotions that the events of the film have inspired. He explains it in this Roger Ebert interview:
[Miyazaki] clapped his hands three or four times. "The time in between my clapping is ma. If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it's just busyness, But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time you just get numb."
"Ma" is exemplified by the transcendent train scene in Miyazaki's Spirited Away, and while many film-makers still lack the confidence to deploy it, game designers have become increasingly adept at immersing players in moments of calm introspection. Night in the Woods does it masterfully.

The story comes to a satisfying ending, but Night in the Woods avoids a cheap resolution. Mae's problems are still the same as they were at the beginning of the game: she's been forced to make a painful choice between her health and her education, and the repercussions still haunt her. The difference is that at the end of the game, she has been honest with her friends about what happened, they've witnessed her terrible coping mechanisms, and they love her anyway.

Mae is lucky to have the friends she does, but unlucky to have a serious mental health condition. That's the only conclusion Night in the Woods ultimately draws, and the only one that feels right. Mental illness can be romanticised in fiction, but Night in the Woods uses hypnotic gameplay and subtle writing to show that like any health problem, it is something that is difficult and often tedious to live with.

What ultimately makes Night in the Woods' ending feel ok is the same thing that makes any major struggle feel ok: the understanding that we can live a meaningful life despite the onslaught. Mae's three friends have struggles too: achingly dutiful Bea battles depression, live-wire Gregg is (as Bea points out) possibly bipolar, and his kind, thoughtful boyfriend Angus is the survivor of an abusive childhood. The four have varying levels of self-awareness, but they all have patience with and compassion for each other, enabling them all to find a way forward despite the social, economic and emotional hurdles they face.

Still, despite supportive friends, the only way to live with mental illness is to keep battling through, even though there's no way to know in advance what the best course of action will be. For much of the game, Mae is tragically and often comically inept, at that pivotal moment in her life where she's realised that her wiring's a bit different, but hasn't yet worked out what to do about it.

Night in the Woods depicts her experience in such a way that even players with no experience of mental illness can understand what it's like, but perhaps its greatest triumph is its bittersweet recognisability to the rest of us.

All screenshots were taken by me on the PlayStation 4 version of the game.

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