E3 2014: You Can't Just Hang Around Forever in Night in the Woods

Things fall apart. It's scientific.

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At Sony's booth here at E3 2014 is an unassuming little game called Night in the Woods. Easy to miss amidst the noise and spectacle, this game about an anthropomorphic cat named Mae whose world is about to change is one of my personal highlights of E3. It seems poised to tell the kind of story that games rarely tell, which may end up making it the sort of game that some people find tremendous value in while other people find no value in it and argue that it's “not a game” at all.

There's no combat or danger in the game--at least not in the early section that I played--but there is joy in moving around its world, in the simple act of play. Mae is a cat, after all, and she can walk up power lines to reach the rooftops of her little burg. But even though she and the other residents of the town are animals, their feelings seem very human, and their worries and struggles seem very rooted in early 21st-century American life. Mae comments at one point about how a family she knows fell on hard times and had to move out of their house and into an apartment, and one conversation with another character raised concerns about gun violence.

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But it's Mae's personal life that seems to be at the heart of Night in the Woods. Anyone who's lived at all knows that sometimes things change whether we like it or not. Kids move out. Friends drift apart. Relationships end. Mae's life seems to be on the brink of big changes; friends of hers are leaving town, and she's getting to the age where she needs to think about maybe not living with her mom forever. There's a poignant sense of the inevitable passage of time imbuing Night in the Woods. Early on, I looked at a family portrait hanging in Mae's home and she commented, “I was so cute then. We were all so cute then.”

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Night in the Woods seems to understand the significance of the simple moments we share with others. Toward the end of the demo, Mae and a friend enjoy some amazing donuts together, and the sequence is both sweet and sad, because Mae knows that her friend is leaving town soon. “I just want to hold on to something,” Mae says, as everything seems to be falling away from her. “Everything is ending, but I want more.” I know just how she feels. I think most of us do. And I can't wait to experience the rest of Mae's poignant story.

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