Rearview Mirror: Night In The Woods
Updated: Feb 23, 2019
If you follow me on Twitch you'll know that for the past couple of weeks I had been playing Infinite Fall's adventure romp Night In The Woods. The game was the perfect start for what I'm calling my "Casual" stream where I play games that don't require great skill or persistence to complete. Night In The Woods is a heavily story driven experience and you will reach the end credits regardless of your choices. The narrative takes center stage here and it would not be told nearly to the degree of success it delivers without the charming cast of characters that populate the shabby, forgotten town of Possum Springs.
Possum Springs is modeled after the rust belt portion of western Pennsylvania. Small town values, economic decline, and the subsequent encroachment of modernization are the topics of many conversations the player is privy to as they guide main character Mae Borowski through the events of the next several days following her return home after dropping out of college. Her homecoming is not nearly what she was expecting. Not only do the townsfolk treat her with palpable contempt but her parents completely forget to pick her up at the bus stop.
The early trials of Mae's resettlement in Possum Springs focus heavily on her clumsy yet well meaning attempts to rekindle relationships with friends and family as well as to catch up on events that took place during her absence. Shops and eateries have been shuttered, jobs cut left and right, and a sense of hopelessness pervades the scene as many residents ponder the pending demise of the town. Some consider leaving Possum Springs to find greener pastures elsewhere while others stubbornly hold tight to the way things used to be and hope for better days. In fact, it is this fear of change and loss that acts as a central theme to the story. Many of the characters involved in the game deal with some sort of personal demon resulting from traumas suffered long before the game begins. Gregg battles severe moods swings (presumably, per Bea's suggestion, because he is bipolar), Angus deals with crippling self-doubt, and Bea shows all of the signs of chronic depression brought about by severe anxiety.
Their stories unfold over a series of mini chapters. You, as Mae, determine who receives her attention with the limited time you are offered resulting in a complete story that can never be experienced in a single play through. Over the course of these episodes the character's deepest desires and worst fears are laid bare for Mae and company to examine resulting in a deeper bond that carries through to the rest of the game. These deeply human moments of pain and fear ground the characters in a way I had not yet encountered in a game before. You don't just experience their stories, you feel them; the sting of their disappointments and the gnawing ache of their anxieties. As a result, what the player used to find as a irritating traits transform into endearing foibles that strengthen your connection to these misfits.
Concurrently, a another group of residents has been suffering, but they have chosen a decidedly darker, and far less introspective means of coping with their problems. Midway through the game Mae is an apparent witness to a kidnapping perpetrated by a mysterious hooded figure. She pursues the kidnapper to no avail and is left to wonder what she may or may not have seen in the gloom of the street lights. Little did she know at the time but she had witnessed the latest in a series of mysterious disappearances around town that have been mystifying the police for several years. Ultimately it is revealed that a strange cult has been sacrificing unworthy young people to satiate the hunger of a powerful entity living in the deepest recesses of a nearby mine, and that this entity somehow preserves their youth and stimulates economic prosperity in the town with each feeding. According to their leader their work is paramount to the preservation of the town, but the means they have chosen tell a gruesome tale of stubbornness, desperation, and delusion.
It is at this point in the narrative that many branching theories can develop regarding the true nature of the events depicted. Up to this point the story of Night In The Woods has been relatively insular, taking place either in town adjacent to those closest to Mae, or within Mae's dreams. Her initial dreams are assumed to be nothing more than distorted flashbacks of the events that took place shortly before her dropping out of college, but later dreams take place in vastly surreal settings filled with bizarre creatures and supernatural forces. During one dream it is implied that Mae is speaking to a god of some kind who is completely apathetic towards the towns woes. As her dreams become more and more prophetic her physical condition begins to deteriorate. She complains of ever increasing headaches and fatigue, and hearing strange voices.
The cult would have her believe that the voices are those of the entity they worship, marking her as a "chosen one" of sorts destined to take up the mantle and continue the cult's efforts to restore the town. This is the most literal interpretation of the events of the game, allowing for the existence of a terribly powerful beast living beneath Possum Springs as well as Mae having some sort of ambiguous supernatural ability. No doubt that many players chose to accept the story at face value. It is, after all, set in a strange "Earth-like" world of anthropomorphic animals. And I would not argue their choice as the game is all about making decisions that shape the narrative. To each their own.
But it is not the conclusion I accepted. I had grown quite invested in these characters over my play through and as a result I began to closely analyze their dialogue and behaviors for hints at what lay deeper in their hearts and minds, and also what forces were actually driving the heart of the story. To put it bluntly: there is no entity in the mines, there are no strange voices, and Mae is not supernaturally inclined in any way. I came to this conclusion based on a plethora of evidence that points to a crucial detail of Mae's character that is never specifically identified...Mae is schizophrenic.
There are numerous hints dropped throughout the game to Mae having been suffering with some sort of mental issue for quite some time. As she tells it, it all began when she was playing one of her favorite video games as a kid. Suddenly, she came to a realization that absolutely nothing she was doing in the game mattered. The characters didn't care if she played the game or not, and the game would have no real lasting impact on her life. All of her time and effort as well as her personal, emotional investment in the game was for nought. This realization may be the reason why her favorite shirt has a 'Null' symbol emblazoned on it, but this could also just be a simple design choice made by the developers. After this sudden mental shift Mae recounts that the next day she beat a kid within an inch of his life with a baseball bat during a Little League game. She can't recall actually committing the act, but she does say that leading up to the baseball game things around her looked like "just shapes" lacking in any real meaning or purpose. The kid appeared the same way, and the sight of him threw her into a fit off rage.
This comment seems to indicate that Mae suffered some sort of psychotic episode, hinting at a more chronic mental problem that was just starting to develop. Schizophrenia is not common, affecting only around 1-1.5% of the world population to varying degrees. However, it does most commonly manifest in early childhood and without proper diagnosis and treatment the condition can worsen through puberty and young adulthood. Unfortunately for Mae being from a small town in the Rust Belt doesn't provide ample opportunity for her condition to be tended. Her local doctor, whose reputation around town is less than flattering, tells her she has "anger issues" and pushes her to repress these feelings as well as to keep a journal where she records daily events in her life. This approach rarely if ever works to reduce the symptoms of Schizophrenia. Mae would have been better served with regular sessions with a psychotherapist to work on behavior modification techniques and, if need be, be given anti psychotics.
Based on this many of the events throughout the second half of the story can not be taken literally. Her dreams are nothing more than feverish hallucinations of a troubled mind. The voices she claims to be hearing are, again, nothing more than hallucinations. Her odd emotional outbursts and dialogue choices add credence to her not being in a fit mental state. That is not to say that ALL of the events later in the game are complete fabrications of Mae's mind. The cult is very real and has been kidnapping youths to act as sacrifices. But they are not fulfilling some higher calling as they claim. They are just a gathering of the most gullible, delusional, and manipulative individuals in town desperate for salvation by any means. Bea, Angus, Gregg, and Mae go out ghost hunting over the course of several days, and also venture into the mine to confront the cult at the game's finale. But anything surreal or otherworldly in the midst of all of this is courtesy of Mae's mind. Her fractured psyche is desperately trying to make sense of the events beyond her comprehension by inventing and injecting supernatural elements.
However, some might point to a scene at the very end of the game where Mae supposedly plunges into the spirit realm while walking through a shallow pool of water in the mine as evidence to the contrary. There she talks to a shadowy mass, assumed to be the creature of the mine, and openly challenges the beast to kill her while also philosophizing that the only real way to experience life is by struggling through the pain of it.
This conversation potentially reveals a certain level of self-awareness of her condition, but in truth it never really happened, at least not in the way she thought. While walking through the shallow pool Mae slipped into a schizophrenic fugue state, that is she imagined the whole thing. The weird voice that spoke back to her during all of this is more readily accepted to be the garbled calls of her friends as she stood motionless in the water. What appeared on screen was a battle of wills within her own subconscious. There she defiantly stood her ground against the encroaching darkness of her psychosis and hopefully made the first, tiny step towards gaining back her sanity. Fortunately for Mae, she has a group of family and close friends, as well as a new found appreciation for life, that can spur on her recovery, and with the proper medical support at her side she has a very strong chance of success.