Infinite Fall’s Night in the Woods is an interesting game, but it isn’t always a comfortable one. Mae Borowski is a difficult protagonist. She’s dropped out of school for reasons that aren’t immediately made clear. She has a troubled past. She makes bad choices. She’s dealing with a lot of issues. A lot of us have been there, or are there, and it doesn’t necessarily feel good to step into her shoes.
But for a lot of players, it does feel valuable.
In the video above, YouTuber HeavyEyed explains why. It’s not just because Night in the Woods addresses complicated issues like mental health, poverty, and sexuality — it’s also because it acknowledges that those issues really can be complicated.
Night in the Woods has inspired a lot of thoughtful, personal writing on those topics, too, as with this piece by Don Saas Waypoint:
And what does the decay mean to Mae Borowski—a young woman struggling with depression and her perceived failure to handle the responsibilities of adult life? It means that other things that so many folks take for granted aren’t available to her.
Not only is Possum Springs experiencing economic decay and technological stagnation; it is experiencing an unraveling of its social infrastructure. Mae does not have an organized community of folks struggling with mental illness to look towards for guidance. There aren’t any functioning community centers or community health clinics. I saw no mention of the Affordable Care Act in the game, but Mae only makes broad allusions to a therapist she saw when she was younger. She doesn’t have access to the care she needs now.
Life in towns with few prospects and minimal support isn’t an abstract idea for a lot of people. It’s real, it’s difficult, and there aren’t a lot of easy solutions. As Saas points out beautifully in the article’s closing paragraphs, it’s powerful to see your experience reflected empathetically and realistically in a game like this.
Prophets and Players also highlights the lack of resources available to Mae and her friends.
I mean it when I say that Night in the Woods is the story about mental illness we deserve, because Mae represents people with cluster b personality disorders – the people who are often highlighted as crazy ex-girlfriends and maniacs. While societal dialogue has opened up about people dealing with depression and anxiety, many other mental illnesses like personality disorders don’t get talked about. I can’t diagnose Mae, although I have my suspicions. I also can say with faith that the writers on this game may have experienced it first hand, or loved someone who did.
Mae copes well, all things considered. It becomes clear that — thanks to where she lives in a small community — her mental illness was not properly treated. She shares a conversation with Bea where they discuss the journal Mae keeps, something she was told to do in order to “repress” her anger. When Bea asks if she means “cope”, Mae stresses: “No, repress.” Bad doctors and a lack of resources have contributed to Mae not getting what she needs which have put her in her current psychological freefall. As a mentally ill person in a small city, this is an uncomfortable reality for me as well.
Some of the team members at Infinite Fall have spoken about their own experiences with mental health issues and towns like Possum Springs, too. Alec Holowka has a podcast (currently on hiatus) where he talks to other developers about mental health issues. His first guest was co-creator Scott Benson. Benson has explored depression in his animation, as well — just check out this grimly humorous piece from a few years back:
But Night in the Woods’ creators aren’t out to present an unrelentingly bleak vision of life in these small towns. In a recent (spoiler-filled) interview with No Cartridge, Benson spoke about the hope underlying the game’s narrative:
I hope that, with the game, we didn’t just say, “Look how bad everything is.” Everyone in the game is just trying to get by, and a lot of those people are trying to build new things in those ruins. That, you know, it isn’t just ruins…That there are people who are working under these exploitative conditions that are trying to figure out how to fight back and how to assert their dignity and agency. And there are people like Mae who are having a really rough time but have figured out, “Hey, if I can just make it through today, then that is enough for today. And it’s not going to save me forever, but can we just get a pizza and hang out? And maybe if I’m mega depressed and having end-of-the-world mental issues — maybe that’s kind of enough while we figure everything else out.”
And maybe that’s the most important thing. It’s powerful to see your own issues reflected in a game, true. But what would it mean for the rare game that acknowledges you to also say that the future is hopeless?
Things may be grim in Possum Springs, but Mae isn’t alone — and when you need to find hope, that’s a great start.