Figuring it Out: A Look at Night in the Woods
Mae Borowski? More like me Borowski.
There’s a permanence to finishing university. I’ve left education twice already—once after GCSEs and again after sixth form—but this time is the last. I’m not doing a masters, I’m not flying into postgraduate courses or apprenticeships, I’m just…going home. For good. I’m left with a lot of questions; should I have learned more? Networked more? Pushed myself more? For the last two and a half years, I’ve lived in a city only two hours from my hometown, but a far cry from home. London is bigger, darker, busier and a whole lot more than Shoreham ever has been. It’s suffocating, and it’s changed me. The thing is, that’s probably okay.
I’m unpacking a whole lot of myself right now. The "am I ever going to get out of here?" The second, third and fourth-guessing of every little thing past, present and future. The hand-me-down guilt of potentially not being the extra successful family member. The pressure to try regardless. The aberrant strangeness of a town that is physically changing but philosophically stagnant. My parents, in their bucolic seaside town, convinced the world beyond has grown ever more dangerous in the relatively short time I’ve been away. Atop the mountain of stress that finishing university brings, the process of deconstruction and decompression that comes with that kind of change is dizzying.
I picked up Night in the Woods because my bigger, more expensive games had run dry. 100 hours of Red Dead Redemption 2, a complete endgame character in The Division 2, a half-finished playthrough of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey; I’d had my fill of AAA over the past few months, it was time for something smaller, more intimate. I chewed through the game like nothing else, soaking up every interaction and every bit of scenery along the way. I took countless screenshots, chuckled aloud at volumes that would be embarrassing if I didn’t live alone and, at one point, knocked a mug of coffee over because I was too engrossed to look away from the screen as I fumbled with my charger.
I saw a lot of myself in the game, in Mae Borowski and her friends. Mae’s identity is, at the start of the game, kind of up in the air. She feels torn between two different selves and she’s not even sure what either of them are. Watching her grapple with what feels like the beginning of the end of the world became a source of comfort for me; it didn’t give me any answers, but it at least made me aware of the questions I was subconsciously asking. I, like Mae, am worried that I’m not enough, that I’m incapable of being enough, and that I wouldn’t know where to begin getting better. By the end of the game, I came to realise that it’s all part of the process, and that process will never be linear.
Part of why Night in the Woods is so effective to me is that it interweaves Mae’s personal struggles with the larger problems facing her hometown. Possum Springs was thriving until the copper mine, sawmill and glass factory all shut down. The husks of industry remain, sleeping giants on the parallax backgrounds. While Shoreham hasn’t experienced quite the same collapse, there are definite lines between the two. My hometown’s golden era came in the 1840s, when it was a bustling Victorian trading port. These days, it’s known for two things: the deaths of 11 people in a 2015 airshow crash, and the campaign visits of racist politicians. Mae Borowski frets over the closure of her favourite grocery store, I worry about the unending construction of cloud-scraping flats along the riverfront. Possum Springs residents are resistant to providing shelter for the homeless, and Shoreham’s Facebook group is full of furious posts about the recent arrival of beggars. Shoreham even has a concrete ghost of its own: the old cement works that has remained silent on the edge of town since the 90s, now a daring supernatural outing for urban explorers. It’s great to go back, but it sucked to be there.
When I left Shoreham in 2016, I was ecstatic. I couldn’t wait to be away from the small-town news and lack of activity. I felt I’d grown too big for my hometown, but I soon realised that I was too small for London. The big city was, in the words of Mae, just shapes. There’s been no sense of place, no warmth or comfort, it’s just the place I went to grow for a while. Mae and I struggle with not being anchored to a place. In moving away to university and subsequently dropping out, Mae’s been shunted between two different worlds and two different groups of people, and the link to both has suffered. It’s hard to make contact and it’s even harder to keep it, and she struggles with the lack of connection. But those connections don’t disappear, they just…nap for a while. All it takes is a bit of poking and things go back to the way they were. Now? I realise I thrive in Shoreham, with its incessantly-complaining residents and ceaseless influx of new hairdressers. Like the old Fort Lucenne mall that Mae and Bea visit, Shoreham might be over, but it’s been over for as long as I can remember, and I find some small comfort in that. I am the fish fountain god of Shoreham, and I will make it my home again.
I found myself settling into a daily routine across the game’s four chapters. I’d nick a pretzel to feed the rats in the abandoned storage loft, do some stargazing with Mr. Chazokov, visit Mae’s mum up at the church and make sure none of the local kids had gone missing. It was a natural thing, like dipping into Animal Crossing for those daily fossils or grabbing my login reward in Warframe. Possum Springs has a sense of place and presence that really makes it stand out, and I found myself desiring the banality of just walking around. I can’t really do that in London like I can back home, so I guess Possum Springs will have to do.
Finishing Night in the Woods was an immense emotional release. Like the end of any good character-driven story, I was left feeling empty and more than a little nostalgic by the conclusion. In much the same way that I want to replay Persona 4 Golden or Steins;Gate, I want to return to Possum Springs, to be with those characters a while longer. Now more than ever, I also want to return home, and begin working towards the things I want to work towards, whatever they end up being. I’ve learned things from the game that I’ll carry forward for a long time. I might not be enough, I probably don’t network enough, and I’ll never know if I pushed myself hard enough at university, but so what? I’m still around, and I’ll make do. Here’s to survival, because that’s enough.