I know I’m late to the party, but I finally played Night in the Woods. The Nintendo Switch version was bound to come out sooner or later, so I waited until it hit the eShop a few weeks ago.
This isn’t the first time I’ve skipped out on playing a critical indie darling, but in the case of Night in the Woods, I didn’t have the time or emotional energy. I was hit hard by the story of 20-something Mae Borowski returning home amidst dropping out of school, only to find that her hometown isn’t what it once was.
For those keeping score, this isn’t the first time I’ve let a game dripping in the nostalgia of a character’s struggle with the confines of their birthplace get under my skin. Life Is Strange channeled a similar energy, though was far more about the disdain that festers when youth and an inability to escape your roots meet head-to-head. Main character Max is stuck looking past the horizon, usually to the detriment to those around her, such as best friend and blue-haired heroine Chloe Price.
In the case of anthropomorphic cat-person Mae, she searched past that horizon and found an inability to function and hold up the expectations of her friends and family. Unable — or maybe unwilling — to say what caused her to quit college, she sets out for home expecting life to go on as normal, blind to the adage “You can never really go back home.”
To be honest, I have been Max and Mae at various points through my life, stuck looking beyond the present but also struggling to hold onto the past. Before Toledo, I lived in the southeast Ohio Appalachian town of Gallipolis, 250 miles away from the Glass City. Long before journalism and writing were ever a career consideration, I was in nursing school.
It didn’t last long. My functional nursing skills were … fine, but I couldn’t handle the accoutrements that came along with the career. I dropped out and spent a year finding every possible reason to not talk about why I quit.
Getting back into a routine and some semblance of my old life felt like the best way to move on, or so I thought. Mae’s return home in Night in the Woods is similar in that she just expects to plug back into the lives of those who never left Possum Springs, failing to see that she is now just a square peg trying to fit into a circular hole.
Meanwhile, her friends Gregg, Angus, and Bea have moved on and dealt with the reality that we all eventually face: adulthood. Likewise, I expected to fall back into old haunts and find my friends unchanged, only to see that these people I grew up with weren’t who I used to know.
Everyone hits that point where you look back at the people and places of your youth, only to find a strange combination of decay and progression. Mae comments on her parents looking older but her childhood room looking the same. I still remember the first time I slept in my old room after moving away to attend Ohio University; at a functional level the room was the same, and yet something felt different as I stared at the ceiling and wondered why I didn’t feel the same comfort as before.
At some point, home stops being home until you create one for yourself.
While in a meeting last week with some people I would label as “nongamers,” I mentioned I was playing a game about a girl who drops out of college. Each of them looked at me quizzically, like I had just said something in a dead, indecipherable language. I believe one of them even asked “At what point do you start killing hookers?” and laughed, satisfied that he had drummed up the old video game stereotype.
The truth is, gaming has the power to channel these feelings of existential dread and hopeful optimism for the future, all without firing a single digital round. The memories that a game like Night in the Woods drums up are painful, but they also serve as a reminder that we can’t outrun the past until we make it part of our present.
Besides, I would’ve been an awful nurse. I can barely handle fractions. I’d like to think I made the right choice.
BASHCon returns for 33rd anniversary
The largest student gaming convention in the Midwest, BASHCon 33, comes to the University of Toledo campus Friday through Sunday. Beginning at 7 p.m. Friday night, the best in tabletop, card, and board games take over the Student Union, sponsored and run by the UT student group Benevolent Adventurers' Strategic Headquarters.
Tickets are on sale online and at the door, with prices ranging from $10-$30, with discounts for students, children under 13, and veterans. For more information, visit BASHCon’s Facebook page at facebook.com/pg/BASHCon/.
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