Stuff! Heck, we all feel “Stuff”, you know from time to time, like… you know when feelings and things…
The truth is, despite that masterfully elegant opening paragraph, I’m pretty bad at articulating feelings. In my “day-job” this isn’t a problem; few people really want to know how metallurgy makes me feel, so the papers and reports tend to just stick to the science. However, that’s just my daylight hour alter-ego and outside those hours I’m someone who loves games that make me feel things. Of course I do feel things all the time, but I’m rarely called upon to explain, understand, or write down exactly what I’m feeling.
So recently I’ve been playing “Night in the Woods” (I’m some way through, but havn’t completed it yet so no spoilers in the comments please!) and it makes me feel things in a way that the simple charming 2D graphics of an anthropomorphised cat manage to hide really well to the casual observer. It’s a game all about feelings and I’m going to do my best to break down what it makes me feel, and maybe even why.
For those unfamiliar with the title, it was released last year to almost universal acclaim. The player steps in to the shoes of Mae, the aforementioned anthropomorphic cat, just as she has dropped out of college and returned to her home town of Possum Springs. From a gameplay point of view there are some light platforming elements and neat mini-games, but at it’s core it is an exploration game as Mae rediscovers her family, friends, the town she grew up in, and some of the mysterious happenings there. Visually this all plays out in bold colourful graphics depicting the townspeople as woodland animals wrapped up with an excellent soundtrack.
… so what about these feelings?…
Most overwhelmingly playing NitW fills me with a sense of nostalgia and that mournful sense of a lost something, or time, in the past that can never be reclaimed. Mae returns to her home town with the expectation that maybe the last two years never happened, that time should somehow have stood still. In essence she not only wants to have returned home, but travelled back in time to a specific version of her home that no longer exists. Everything she sees is tainted by that passing of time; stores she used to hang out at closed, her friends worrying about jobs and money, and her parents older. The weird thing is that, as a player, I feel nostalgic for Mae’s teenage years. I feel that sense of a lost time in a life that wasn’t even mine. I guess you could call it a phantom nostalgia; imagining what it might have been like to have teenage years growing up in a small town, doing stupid stuff down by the railway tracks, having that group of ‘whatever’, ‘whenever’ friends and then feeling like I’ve lost what wasn’t mine to begin with.
The next thread that NitW tugs at is the sense of being an outsider, someone without a place. When Mae comes back to Possum Springs she finds that the niche she had once sat in no longer fits her, yet she’s not ready to move in to anything else. She tries to hang out with the teens who reject her as an adult, yet the adults reject her as a child. She sees her friends having grown up whilst she was away at college, and even though she’s back there’s a barrier erected because she was the one who left. I guess we all feel like outsiders at some point or another and so much effort is spent finding a place to belong. I can’t help but empathise with Mae because I spend so much of my time pretending to be sensible, and pretending to adult (I kinda worry that spending too much time pretending to be an adult is how you become an adult), but inside I’m neither and the act is just a way to cope with work and function in society.
In a more general way NitW just makes me feel sad. The boundless optimism of some of the characters only heightens the bleakness of the town disguised in the bright colours and woodland creatures. A bleakness that is an all too apt reflection of our own society. Possum Springs was once a mining town, but with the mines closed the older generation is struggling to define their own lives and the town they live in, whilst the younger generation is bearing the brunt of the economic downturn. Set against this backdrop the player meets several characters, each with their own, often tough to hear, story and dreams for the future. The beautiful moments in the game, those of joy, abandon, and even just plain simple contentment, give me bittersweet pangs. Seeing these characters enjoying life in the moment despite the bigger picture is a microcosm for an outlook on life that is attractive to many of us, but difficult to achieve.
Finally, as an unsuspecting player, I was side-swiped by some of the dialogue in NitW. Delivered in simple speech bubbles the conversations between characters are brief and to the point. They’re often inane and silly, but suddenly shift gear to raw staccato expressions which pick at the stitches of my own self-worth, delivered with a blunt force in the 7 or 8 words contained within that speech bubble. It’s a powerful way to deliver such ideas and I’m pleased to see the technique wielded with a certain amount of restraint delivering a blow where it has maximum impact.
Looking back at what I’ve written so far I’m not sure that I’ve really achieved what I set out to do; should I just accept that articulation isn’t my strength. Maybe you understand what I’m talking about, maybe you don’t. Articulating feelings is that tough, yet somehow NitW manages to say so much through such a simple medium. By comparison I’m pretty clumsy, falling over words and digging deep for adjectives, similes, and metaphors when all I really want to say is:
Here is my review of Night in the Woods:
I guess what I’m trying to say … In more understandable sounds… is that it’s beautiful and magical and heartbreaking and happy and tragic… And you should play it…