Where do you stand on the story vs gameplay debate? It is a discussion I see online almost every day. Which one is more important for creating a great video game? I think it is entirely subjective. Maybe you’re just someone who prefers a thoughtful, detailed story. Then again, you might play video games in order to play a game of some description. Or the titles that tickle your fancy could be ones that have a healthy balance of story and gameplay. This brings us to Night in the Woods; a narrative-focused game so crushingly uninteresting that it’s hard to recommend.
Released for the Xbox One in February of 2017, Night in the Woods was developed by Infinite Fall, and recently came to Xbox Game Pass. This adventure (ha!) game has you follow a confused cat named Mae. Having just dropped out of college, she finds herself living with her parents in the small, closed-minded hometown of her youth. It is then up to you to bum around, hang out with friends, and uncover some deep secrets. Hopefully, in the process, you’ll be able to help Mae figure out what it is she wants from life as well. Add in the game’s adorable, well-executed visuals, and I was immediately hooked. I mean, hey, I’ve had to move back in with my parents. And believe me, I’ve definitely considered dropping out of college. Surely this cat and I were going to get along! Spoiler alert: we did not.
As an incredibly story-heavy game, you would think that Night in the Woods would want to make its main character likable. Flawed, to be sure, but likable. The problem is that Mae has too many flaws. You know how inexperienced writers create original characters that are amazing at everything they do and everyone loves them? Mae is the exact opposite of that. In several ways, she is the antagonist of her own story. While that makes a whole lot of sense for a game about a depressed college dropout, and it was likely intentional, it doesn’t come through in an effective way. Mae constantly makes outright stupid decisions and refuses to learn or grow. She doesn’t take responsibility for her actions, she acts solely on selfish impulses, and she isn’t fun to watch.
Throughout the game’s entirety, hardly any of Mae’s horrible traits change in any way. In fact, she brings down, bums out, and upsets friends and family. Except they aren’t that much better. If they aren’t making horrible decisions themselves, they’re complaining about their responsibilities and being rude in other ways. The harsh realities of life and the smalltown chit chat between both primary and ancillary characters certainly lead to the conclusion that the writers wanted a realistic tone. Yet, just because a scene has dramatic, serious, realistic dialogue does not mean it is a good scene. It feels that every character interaction and event happens “just cuz”. The story isn’t being moved forward by any of these things either. It isn’t until the game is almost over that any semblance of a plot actually appears.
Normally, I would not harp so much on the writing of a video game that I’m reviewing. Night in the Woods, though, has nothing else to offer. If you’re firmly set in the “gameplay is more important” camp, you will find no fulfillment here. There is no primary gameplay loop. Wandering from one place to another at a miserably plodding pace is the grand majority of gameplay. Every so often, there is a little mini-game to show Mae’s interactions with her friends and the world around her, but they are roughly optimized, lengthy speed bumps for the already crawling storyline. There was one mini-game that took a frustratingly long amount of time to complete due to some odd controls and a bug. While trying to use a crossbow to shoot a hunting decoy, Mae and her friend Gregg continuously reminded me that I had to “pull back the trigger”. So, like someone who’s played a video game before, I pulled the right trigger on my controller to no avail. After trying every other button, I eventually restarted the game. Once it reloaded, the X button was able to pull the trigger back, and I was incredibly confused.
Confusion abounds during Night in the Woods on Xbox One. Characters do things for seemingly no reason, and finding out what continues the story can be a bizarre mess. Despite the strong premise and appealing art design, playing through the game was a complete slog. A poorly written story padded out with unnecessary and boring gameplay turned what could have been a cute little story into ten of the least interesting hours I’ve spent with a video game this year.