'Night in the Woods' is a Weird, Warm Funhouse Mirror of Small Town America

'Night in the Woods' is a Weird, Warm Funhouse Mirror of Small Town America

'Night in the Woods' presents a charming rendition of small town America. Infinite Fall

The rural town of Possum Springs serves up hilarity with a side of existential anguish

The rural town of Possum Springs serves up hilarity with a side of existential anguish

In the 2013 film Nebraska, there's a moment of profound melancholy where the shiftless lead – Will Forte in the role of a lifetime – asks the woman who runs the town newspaper about his alcoholic father's younger days. "Was Woody drinking back then?" he wants to know, referring to the 1950s. "Of course he was," she says, matter-of-fact. "It happens early around here. There's really not much else to do." Never has life in a small town been encapsulated so perfectly.

The characters in Infinite Fall's Night in the Woods, released last month on PlayStation 4 and PC, know that pain all too well. The game tells the story of a cat named Mae, who's just come back to her hometown of Possum Springs after dropping out of college for reasons she can't quite articulate. When she first arrives at the bus station, things seem normal enough, aside from an odd run-in with a janitor who may or may not be God; Night in the Woods is chock-full of such weirdness. Mae ventures outside and walks homeward amid what can only be described as a microcosm of nighttime in rural America – the whistling of a passing train, fireflies congregating near streetlamps, the red blinking of a radio tower in the distance. You can spot an abandoned glass factory nearby. A world-weary maple tree leans toward a public bench. "I didn't realize how much I missed the sound of that train," Mae says. "I used to hear it in my bed at night, during the winter when the leaves were down."

There's a choose-your-own-adventure component to the game's whimsical, exploration-based platforming; each day brings new choices about how to spend your time, whom to hang out with, and where to go looking for trouble. Often, you're given two or more options for what Mae might say in dialogue. This makes for a loose, laid-back narrative that serves to keep its strange, supernatural third act out of the foreground as much as possible. Which works surprisingly well, as it turns out, because much of the game's resonance comes from the world of Possum Springs and its everyday woes.

To be sure, the game traffics in the conventions of the Weird, a body of literature that goes by many names: cosmic horror, dark fantasy, gothic fiction, slipstream, transrealism. Anyone who's read Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link, or Joyce Carol Oates will probably have some idea of what to expect. Like much of the best weird fiction, it takes the sense of impending doom that accompanies certain real-life problems, particularly mental illness, and reifies it in the form of various gods and monsters. But underneath all of this – beneath the game's anthropomorphism and cartoon aesthetic – Night in the Woods is a story about a twentysomething woman suffering from untreated depression and the relationships she's working to mend in spite of herself. It's also, by extension, a deeply sorrowful meditation on the economic anxieties of life in small-town America.

Possum Springs' history is a familiar one. Founded in the eighteenth century as a mining community, the town's mine was shut down in the '80s, resulting in widespread unemployment. The local sawmill and glass factory both went out of business in the intervening decades, as well, leaving Possum Springs at the mercy of big, monolithic corporations. Mae's father now works at the Ham Panther, an obvious Walmart analogue. "Not gonna sugarcoat it," he tells her. "I hate my job. I've mined, I've made glass, I've done a heap of other stuff. But this place – they just don't respect you for workin'." When Mae runs into Dan, a gray-and-white cat she went to highschool with, he's smoking a cigarette on his front stoop and lamenting the loss of his own job. "They say construction's always hiring. But it's not," he insists. "In fact, it's often laying off guys named Dan." What will he do now that he's been fired? "I'm open to suggestions. There's always a chance someone will die and I can have their job." Mae says, "Dan, you're not gonna like kill anyone, are you?" He thinks it over a moment, then asks: "Does it pay?"

The writing is long-winded at times, but I don't think I would've enjoyed the game half as much as I did were it not for how goddamn funny the whole thing is. The writers, husband-and-wife duo Scott Benson and Bethany Hockenberry, have a sense of humor somewhere near the intersection of BoJack Horseman and the graphic novels of Bryan Lee O'Malley, and it comes as a welcome relief from the unrelenting bleakness of the story's mundane elements. In other words, it's hilarious because it has to be. One of the game's best secondary characters, Selmers, relates the tale of how her ex-husband got a good-paying job at an area prison and then left her for a girl he met at a gas station. Selmers has begun writing poetry as a coping mechanism, but still jokes that she hopes he "gets shivved at work."

Mae's core group of friends – consisting of Angus the skeptical bear, Bea the socialist alligator, and Gregg the impulsive fox – is where the game's thematic ambitions prove strongest. Each of them gets at least one key sequence alone with Mae in the game's playful middle act, and for the most part these are the standout chapters. Together, the four of them play in an unnamed garage band with no intentions of ever performing live – just as a casual way of experiencing and making music together. Anybody who grew up in a small town can relate; there are always half a dozen young, active bands, yet nowhere for them to book a show. It's enough simply to belong somewhere.

One especially effective scene finds Mae accompanying Bea to an out-of-town college party a couple hours' drive from Possum Springs. In conversation with some well-to-do students, Mae embarrasses Bea by outing her as another college dropout making her way "in the real world," whereas Bea had let them all assume for some time that she was a student at their school. Bea flees the party, and Mae chases after her to apologize. In an uncharacteristic confession, Bea explains that she doesn't have a life anymore; she has obligations. "When my mom died, my life ended, too," she reflects. Her mother succumbed to cancer during their senior year, and she had to take on the responsibility of running the family business. "I work hard!" she adds. "I take care of what's left of my family, and my life is slipping away, and I'm trapped in that stupid hardware store in that stupid town. I'm just . . . doomed."

There's a crucial bit of history to the fictional Possum Springs. About a hundred years ago, the National Guard was called in to quell a labor strike by the town's miners, and gunfire broke out, killing several of the miners and two children. The game makes clear that the real tragedy here is not the massacre itself, however senseless; it's that the victims ultimately died for nothing. Everyone knows the Ham Panthers and Snack Falcons and Telezofts of the world tend to offer godawful conditions, minimum wage, and zero benefits. Night in the Woods urges players to reject this paradigm by whatever means of expression they have available – through music, through poetry, through video games.

I won't spoil the ending for those who haven't had a chance to play it yet, but the game does a fine job of addressing the issue of rural decay. It leaves a few ambiguities, and refuses to smooth out some of its more jagged edges, but it also offers its principal characters an answer to their problems: love for one another. Togetherness itself becomes an act of rebellion. Confronted by Possum Springs' innermost darkness – in a shocking reveal that clears up at least some of the odd happenings around town – the band of friends and neighbors prevails. At turns juvenile, snarky, beautiful, and brilliant, this game is utterly essential.