Night in the Woods: Approaching Mental Health and Mature Themes in Video Games

Throughout the last decade, video game narratives have made leaps in exploring topical themes such as mental health issues. While thankfully film and television have seen depictions of mental health and related issues released to critical and commercial success, last year’s hit movie Joker and HBO’s Euphoria being major examples, many games which bring adult themes to the fore don’t receive mainstream recognition. 

Coming up to Halloween it’s never been a better time to look back on an underrated gem of a game that explores everything from mental health disorders to the degradation of small towns, to the sense of isolation felt by the LGBT youth. 2017’s Night in the Woods tackles these themes and more with the aid of wonderfully charming anthropomorphic characters, a simplistic art style, and an engrossing coming of age narrative.

Night in the Woods follows Mae Borowski, a 20-year-old cat who returns from college to her hometown of Possum Springs for unknown reasons, as she discovers that her old town isn’t as familiar to her as it once was. Her friends are working full time to scrape by, all of the major stores and restaurants are slowly closing and leaving, oh…..and there’s something sinister going on in the woods. 

You’d be forgiven for mistaking Night in the Woods as a children’s game at first glance, with its colourful cast of animal characters and chirpy soundtrack, but this game touches upon some dark themes to coincide with it’s late October/early November setting. The player spends the majority of the game exploring the town of Possum Springs, delving into Mae’s relationships with its various inhabitants. She’ll reunite with her best friend Gregg, an excitable punk fox who lives with his boyfriend Angus, a soft-spoken bear. She’ll also attempt to rekindle her friendship with Bea, a goth crocodile who harbours resentment towards Mae for throwing away her shot at college while Bea is left to run her ill father’s hardware shop. However, things really pick up once the group finds a severed arm outside the local diner. What secrets does this town hide?

The town of Possum Springs is its own deteriorating character in Night in the Woods, as we watch how the death of small-town America affects each of its corners. The local supermarket now sits on the outskirts of town, abandoned and home only to travellers with no place to stay and the local homeless. The local Pastor struggles to create an initiative to allow the homeless to stay in her dying church but faces resistance from the town council who worry for the town’s image as they try to bring business to the town.

We learn from our interactions with the many characters in Night in the Woods that existing in Possum Springs brings its own issues. Gregg and Angus desperately wish to leave to the nearby thriving seaside town, where they aren’t the only LGBT couple. Mae herself struggles to cope with how much her place of familiarity has changed, and she struggles even more so with what has remained the same. As her mental state deteriorates we are left in the realisation that this game has much more to say about the lives of struggling small town youth than we are first led to believe. Night in the Woods does a tremendous job of conveying the importance of relationships in overcoming communal and personal hardships while also telling an engrossing coming of age tale filled with lovable characters. 

This Autumn is the perfect opportunity to explore this amazing game. Night in the Woods is perfect for fans of coming of age tales, Stranger Things, Halloween/Autumn, and games that explore themes of mental health. It runs for about 10 hours on a first playthrough and It’s available on PC, PS4, XBOX ONE, and Nintendo Switch for 20 EU.