Why this game rings true for an entire generation.
It’s not often that you stare into the deep well of video games and find your own reflection staring back at you, but the first time I played Night in the Woods, I saw myself in Mae Borowski’s nightmare eyes. From her snarky cynicism to her steadfast rejection of the world, I saw flaws in Mae that mirrored my own, but on a much larger scale, mirrored the overall sense of nihilism and defeat that characterises the millennial worldview. Mae, to me, became a representation of a generation of silenced voices, and of uncertain futures.
Ostensibly, Night in the Woods is a game about the intriguingly odd Mae Borowski returning to her hometown of Possum Springs after dropping out of college, but beneath its charming surface, it represents all the horrors of the postmodern millennial condition. It is a game unafraid of exploring the context of the world in which it takes place, drawing parallels between Mae’s circumstances, and the financial and emotional struggles of the current generation of young people.
As a member of this much-maligned group, Night in the Woods spoke to me in a way that no other game has, and in a stroke of luck, it was a game that arrived at just the right time for me. Having just completed a double university degree, and with no faith in my career as a writer, I felt directionless when I first picked up the game. Ironically, I’d chosen Night in the Woods as an escape – to forget my lack of job prospects and the mounting list of reasons I’d never succeed. But even as I tried desperately to distract myself, the game was determined to remind me of my circumstances.
We’re consistently held back from what we could truly achieve because we’re so often told that we simply can’t achieve our goals, and the more often we hear it, the easier it is to believe it.
As millennials, we’ve all heard the criticisms levelled at us for daring to live as we are in a time when living seems impossible. We’ve heard that we’re lazy, entitled and that we eat too much smashed avocado. The criticism and scepticism with which we’re treated is frustrating and disappointing. We’re consistently held back from what we could truly achieve because we’re so often told that we simply can’t achieve our goals, and the more often we hear it, the easier it is to believe it. Maybe we are lazy, maybe we are entitled, and maybe we should complain a lot less. But then again, maybe the world we live in isn’t the one we grew up expecting, or were promised. Night in the Woods tackles these criticisms head on with its depiction of Mae and her place as a pariah in Possum Springs.
Our tale opens on a desolate locale – Possum Springs is a town suffering from financial hardship and years of neglect. Since the local copper mine closed, businesses in the town have begun to shutter their doors, giving the town an eerie, abandoned feeling. The streets are filled with boarded up shops, and upon returning to the town, Mae is surprised to find that even the local grocery store, The Food Donkey, is closed. The memories that she holds of the town don’t align with her reality, and yet the harsh truths facing the town don’t seem to dawn on her.
The moment that underlines her naivety and denial about the state of her world comes in the later half of the story, when Mae finds herself at a poetry jam supporting her quirky neighbour, Selmers. As Selmers prepares to read her poem, titled ‘There’s No Reception in Possum Springs,’ Mae waves her hands and laughs, in expectation of something cute and quirky.
What Selmers delivers functions as a generational wake-up call – a poem that talks of Silicon Valley billionaires creating apps that make more money in a day than a hundred generations of a single family, of a “world where house-buying jobs became rent-paying jobs, became living with family jobs.” Selmers speaks harsh truths not just about Possum Springs, but about our own world, and the financial, political and social hardships that millennials must face.
The line above was particularly poignant for me, as with the rising tide of the digital age, the opportunities for writers and journalists are diminishing rapidly. The poem seeks to highlight the changing nature of the world, and Mae’s position in it, but more than that, it provides a scathing criticism of the postmodern world and its disregard for young people. The nihilistic ideals proliferated in Selmers’ poem are shared within the world of Possum Springs, and are reflective of the millennial worldview, which has little hope for the future.
Mae’s nervous laughter at the poem’s conclusion is a sign of both her innocence, and her sense of denial about reality. Upon returning to the town, Mae is confronted with a world that she doesn’t recognise any longer, a town where everything around it and everyone in it has changed beyond recognition. In order to avoid confronting the harsh truths faced by the town, Mae instead retreats into herself, sinking into a childish persona to cushion herself from reality. Her friends Gregg, Angus and Bea have all changed with the town, taking up jobs and moving on with their lives, while Mae has instead regressed in a case of arrested development.
By crafting and fostering her childlike persona, Mae attempts to dissociate herself from the world and deny any responsibilities that come with transitioning to adulthood.
Her emotional turmoil is influenced not only by her circumstances, but a distinct sense of failure brought about by dropping out of college, as well as by her own dissociation and sense of unreality. This unreality defines the vast majority of Night in the Woods, and is made clear in Mae’s desperate but futile attempts at running from her responsibilities. By crafting and fostering her childlike persona, Mae attempts to dissociate herself from the world and deny any responsibilities that come with transitioning to adulthood.
In attempting to rekindle her past relationships by repeating activities that she used to love, Mae attempts to bottle the magic and wonder of childhood, deifying the whimsy and freedom that she once felt. It’s natural, after all, to long for perceived ‘simpler times’, when we understood the world so completely. But a focus on nostalgia has warped Mae’s sense of self, creating dissociation between her persona and the world.
In a poignant conversation with best friend Gregg later in the game, Mae reveals the circumstances of a particular ‘incident’ that is consistently referenced throughout the game. The incident she recounts is her first major break with reality, a moment in which she experiences both intense anger and an irreparable sense of dissociation with the world.
Mae describes how in the days leading up to the incident, she had immersed herself completely in a video game about dating ghosts as a form of intensive escapism. By losing herself to the fantasy world in the screen, she came to the ironic realisation that the world around her, just like the game, was all just a mess of meaningless pixels. She concluded that the world around her was all just lines and shapes, and if the world of the game was inconsequential, then so too must her life have been. This break with reality shaped her future, and her worldview, because to Mae, “it was all just stuff. Stuff in the universe.” This sense of unreality seeps into Mae’s world, influencing her decisions and shaping her carefree persona.
Shaped by a nihilistic sense of defeat and a longing for simpler times, Mae represents the breadth of millennial anxieties.
Mae’s sense of dissociation with the world speaks to a generation that desperately wishes to return to the wonders of childhood, as cloaked as they are in nostalgia and longing. Whether it be escape via long hours in front of the television screen, or immersing ourselves completely in the world of a game, the millennial generation is one that desperately seeks out some form of comfort in the unreal. In exploring these feelings, Night in the Woods makes a definitive statement – that you are not alone in these feelings, and more than that, it’s okay to feel this way.
Mae is a product of her environment in much the same way as millennials are. Shaped by a nihilistic sense of defeat and a longing for simpler times, Mae represents the breadth of millennial anxieties. By crafting her naive persona, Mae attempts to escape the pressures and responsibilities of adulthood, and in doing so, only contributes further to her sense of alienation and dissociation from the waking world. Plagued by surreal and frightening beasts that manifest in her dreams, Mae’s sense of self has become irreparably warped by her inherent fear of growing old.
Night in the Woods serves not just as an exploration of the issues of mental health and financial instability faced by a generation of millennials, but also serves as a cautionary tale about harmful nostalgia and a deep-rooted fear of change. In the closing moments of the game, after an intense journey through the horrors of the woods, Mae poses a simple question to her friend Gregg, “Do you think any of this means anything?” It harkens back to Mae’s insecurities and dissociation from the world, but also her desperate longing to find meaning in living. It takes Gregg a moment before he responds, but the eventual answer rings true. “It does, dude,” he says, and the game ends.
Having lived through the traumatic events of Night in the Woods and with her friends by her side, Mae’s story ends on a poignant, beautiful note. Does any of this really matter? Of course, and you should know that you’re not alone in asking the question.
Leah Williams is a freelance writer based in Australia who loves video games and wrestling. Why not say hello on Twitter?