Friday, January 19, 2018

Night in the Woods

You've probably heard about Night in the Woods even if you haven't played it, or have only a vague idea what it is.  Released by indie studio Infinite Fall last year after a highly-successful kickstarter campaign, the game, an adventure-slash-ghost-story starring anthropomorphic animals who live in a dying Rust Belt town, is an irresistible combination of cute and spooky.  Its story, in which twenty-year-old college dropout Mae returns to her home of Possum Springs, reconnects with her friends and family, and slowly begins to realize that there are dark doings afoot, seems designed to appeal to a certain type of young fan, with its themes of early-adulthood aimlessness, coming of age, and mental illness.  Graphics from the game have been cropping up on my twitter feed and tumblr dash for months, almost instantly iconic due to the game's simple yet evocative (and expertly-executed) design.  What surprised me, however, when I finished the game last week and went looking for in-depth discussions of it, is how little talk there seems to have been about Night in the Woods's politics.  To me, they feel not just important, but like the key to the entire exercise.

My first play-through of Night in the Woods was a little disappointing.  The game was beautifully animated, with a rich, wide world, well-drawn characters, and a fairly simple mechanic (especially for someone like me, who prefers the absolute minimum of key-mashing in her gaming).  But it also felt rather aimless.  Despite its title, Night in the Woods actually takes place over roughly two weeks following Mae's return to Possum Springs.  Each day she wakes up in her childhood bedroom, chats with her exasperated but loving parents, leaves home to wander around the center of town, and then hangs out with some subset of her closest friends: irrepressible bad boy Gregg; his boyfriend, the decent and dependable Angus; and caustic Bea, who has been forced into an early adulthood by her mother's death and father's emotional collapse.  Slowly, elements of the uncanny begin to reveal themselves.  Mae begins having strange, disturbing dreams.  At the town's Halloween celebration, she seems to witness a reveler being kidnapped by a mysterious figure.  And the local police keeps warning her off sticking her nose where it doesn't belong.  

But this part of the story takes a while to reveal itself.  The game's first half feels rather slow and a little pointless, which only makes its final act feel more rushed after all that buildup.  It was only when I played Night in the Woods a second time (and armed with information from its fan-wiki about areas of the game and side-quests that I'd missed) that it became clearer to me what it was trying to do.  Far from being the goal-oriented story that its supernatural component suggests, Night in the Woods cares a great deal more about Mae's relationships, and about her understanding of herself.  The repetitiveness of its story is designed to allow her to build (and in some cases, rebuild) friendships, rediscover her town, and slowly work her way towards admitting the reasons she dropped out of college.  In one instance, Mae can choose to spend a portion of each day visiting the church where her mother, Candy, works as an administrator.  These visits help to repair the frayed relationship between mother and daughter (which is rocked by a vicious fight halfway through the game), and if you repeat them often enough, Candy will invite you on an outing to "Jenny's Field", where she tells you a story about the person the field was named after, a child who fell into a sinkhole while walking with her mother.

In the moment, this might seem like nothing but a cute scene (and a way of racking up an achievement), but the more you play Night in the Woods, the more important, and multifaceted, the image of the sinkhole becomes.  At the most basic level, they are a menace that is plaguing the town, which the overstretched public works department can't get ahead of.  From Candy's perspective, the image of a mother losing her daughter in an instant probably resonates with her own fears for Mae.  Meanwhile, Mae herself, who has a history of emotional problems and even psychotic breaks, sees the sinkhole as a representation of her own capacity to simply drop away from reality.  Later in the game, Mae is ominously told by a friend's grandmother that "you've got a dark spot in you".  Though the woman immediately claims to be kidding, Mae angrily replies that "I'm not just an effing shell for my problems to walk around in".

Beyond the personal level, the sinkhole represents the dwindling fortunes of Possum Springs, a town that is literally rotting from its center as businesses close down and buildings are abandoned, as well as "a hole at the center of everything", the place where the malevolent being that Mae and her friends end up confronting has hidden itself.  When Mae searches for this creature, she ends up falling into an underground lake in an image that clearly echoes the way Jenny fell into the sinkhole in Candy's story.  The way this single image keeps recurring in different guises is just one of the ways in which Night in the Woods layers the personal, the political, and the supernatural over each other until it becomes clear that they are ultimately the same thing.

As Mae explores the town on her daily excursions, she gains insight not only into the lives and personal histories of the people she talks to, but into the history of Possum Springs itself.  Mae is selfish and immature, and in the early parts of the game in particular it quickly becomes clear that she's given very little thought to the struggles of anyone besides herself.  She takes it as a given that her parents will be able to cope with the mortgage they took out to pay for her college, even though her father has been laid off from his manufacturing job and is working at the meat counter in the local supermarket.  And she doesn't seem to realize that Bea, who had to stay in town to run her parents' store, is desperately envious of Mae's educational opportunities, and angry at her for squandering them.  But as much as the purpose of Mae's exploration is to open her eyes to other people's suffering, it also serves to educate her, and us, about the political and economic currents that have brought that suffering about.

I'm struggling to think of a recent work of pop culture--not just games, but film and TV as well--that so brazenly incorporates progressive, pro-labor politics and buzzwords into its story.  Characters who speak to Mae frequently lament the loss of unions, and observe that the bosses at the few businesses left in town would fire anyone who even tried to organize their workers.  Mae speaks to an old woman, Miss Rosa, who tells her about her grandfather's history as a firebrand, who once trashed the car of a visiting mining executive.  That same mine has a familiar but resonant history, including lethal accidents caused by the bosses' cost-cutting and indifference, strikes violently broken by the military, and a brief period of prosperity after the unions got their way.  

In the present, that prosperity is long gone, and again that's expressed in explicitly political terms.  Bea laments that austerity and budget cuts mean that basic infrastructure repairs, including to the washed-out bridges out of town, aren't being carried out.  A local WPA-style mural depicting heroic miners is defaced, and when Mae confronts the culprit they struggle to articulate their anger over a promise that has been betrayed.  The new pastor at the church tries to get permission to let a homeless drifter sleep in the basement, but the chamber of commerce, desperate to project an image of progress that might lure in new jobs, turns her down.  Mae's friend Selmers writes "short, cute" poems about heartbreak and her favorite foods, but when she appears at a poetry reading she delivers an enraged diatribe against plutocrats who make more in a day than she could in a century.

The more you explore the town, the more you poke your nose into even the most irrelevant-seeming corners, the more examples you come across of how economic deterioration is affecting everyone in it, from a former schoolmate of Mae who turns up at every shitty part-time job in town, to clickbait news headlines that advise people struggling with their mortgage to rent out their bathrooms for public use.  The cuteness of its graphics, and the gentle repetitiveness of its gameplay, can serve to obscure the fact that Night in the Woods is a profoundly angry story.  It's this anger that comes to dominate, especially over repeated playthroughs, over the supernatural story that ends up giving the game its shape and climax.

Throughout these adventures, Night in the Woods refuses to separate the personal from the political.  Mae's frequently referenced and slowly exacerbating emotional problems, for example, are not simply a personal issue, but an economic one.  As we find out late in the game, the "Dr. Hank" that she and her mother keep referencing, who has been treating her since a violent breakdown in middle school, isn't a psychologist, but the local GP-slash-dentist, who offers well-meaning but ultimately insufficient remedies for serious mental health issues.  It suddenly becomes clear that Mae might simply not have access to the psychiatric care she so badly needs, which turns a story about one person's struggle into a story about the failure of a badly needed system.

(One place where Night in the Woods fails to make these vital connections is when it comes to race.  The game's basic conceit effectively nullifies any possibility of talking about race, since the characters are all animals, and there doesn't seem to be any Maus-like correlation between specific animals and ethnicities.  And while the role that racial resentment played in dismantling the social safety net is referenced, it's done rather obliquely--a character complains that the government gives money to "lazy people 'n immigrants".  In a game that is otherwise so upfront about social issues, this feels like a glaring omission.)

This refusal to separate the personal from the political continues all the way to the game's climax.  It's not uncommon for horror stories to juxtapose the cosmic and the mundane--as Bea rather blatantly puts it, ghosts scare her a lot less than medical bills and mortgages.  What's interesting, however, is that Night in the Woods refuses this straightforward dichotomy.  The ghost story isn't opposed to the political story, but inextricably tied to it.  When Mae finally confronts her "ghosts", she finds that they both are and are not supernatural creatures, both are and are not a response to the failure and impending death of Possum Springs.  There is a monster, and there are also people so demoralized by the loss of their way of life that they've allowed themselves to become monsters.  Even the imagery used in this sequence works to conflate the two types of horror.  Mae has a vision of her parents' street, but all the houses are gone, and as far as she can see there are only barren fields.  This is a common image from cosmic horror--the post-human world, with all of our tiny efforts swept away.  But it also expresses the more mundane fear that the town's elders have been struggling against, of Possum Springs falling to decay and abandonment, becoming a ghost town.

When Mae confronts the monster, all the things she's been struggling with--cosmic horror, mental illness, her lack of future prospects--combine into one image, a tiny creature facing an immense, powerful being that doesn't care about it.  This is not, as you might expect, a boss fight, and there isn't even a right or wrong choice that the player can make.  But it's here that the choices you've made over the course of the game--to shoot straight through to the ghost story, or to meander and let Mae learn about herself, her friends, and her past--can imbue this scene with added meaning and significance.

As we've learned over the course of the game, Mae, despite her often infuriating flaws, her seeming inability to cope with reality, is fundamentally strong.  When pushed, she fights back, and protects herself and the people she cares about.  "I'm not going to die in a hole", she announces very shortly after the game's beginning, in what feels at the time like a joke, or even a comment about her recklessness (she ends up in this particular hole by jumping on a pile of discarded timber and causing it to collapse), but ends up being her mission statement.  So it's not surprising when, at the end of the game, Mae chooses defiance.  But the choices we've made throughout the game can give that defiance an added depth--is Mae lashing out blindly, or is she fighting a particular political enemy?

Another way of describing Mae's adventures throughout Night in the Woods is that she's had her consciousness raised.  From a self-absorbed child, she's become a slightly less self-absorbed adult who is at least aware that she is part of chain, a community, and a family.  That knowledge gives her the strength to defy entropy, at least for a while longer.  It's impossible to get to the end of the game without being exposed at least some of its political weight, but the experience is much richer when you've taken the time to get to know Possum Springs and its inhabitants--as expressed in the game's epilogue, when Mae discusses everything she's seen with her friends, and has much more to say in the iterations in which she's done more exploring.

Some fans have described the Night in the Woods's ending as disappointing, and it's easy to see where they're coming from.  Nothing really happens, after all.  Mae doesn't defeat the monster, and the villains she does defeat are sufficiently pathetic that one can't help but join in the characters' horror and guilt at their demise.  But this, too, is part of the game's point and of its political message.  There's no false hope here.  Possum Springs is probably doomed and many of the characters we've come to love probably don't have very bright futures ahead of them.  The triumph is in their willingness to fight (and in their hints of political defiance, such as Bea's membership of a local Socialist group).  Not bad for a story about talking cat people.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Introducing A Political History of the Future at Lawyers, Guns & Money

The political blog Lawyers, Guns & Money has been a favorite hangout of mine for years, both for its sharp and often funny discussions of progressive politics, and for its vibrant, intelligent comment section.  As well as being political junkies, many of the bloggers and commenters at LGM are nerds, and the blog has hosted some great pop culture writing, including by Steven Attewell and the late Scott Erik Kaufman.  So I'm pleased and thrilled to announce a new guest series at LGM, A Political History of the Future.

As I write in my introduction, the focus of this series will be on works of science fiction and fantasy that address topical political issues, particularly from a progressive point of view.  I'm also interested in how science fiction imagines future societies and how they order themselves, and particularly those that are not dystopias and post-apocalypses.  I'm not necessarily looking for "optimistic" futures, but I am interested in ones that are functional.

I've already got a list of works that I'm planning to write about, including books, TV series, and movies.  Hopefully I'll find some comics that also touch on these subjects, and maybe even some games.  (In fact, I recently finished playing Night in the Woods, which is a little outside the scope of this series but also extremely political, and unabashed in bringing up issues like the baleful effect of austerity or the importance of unions.)  I hope you'll read along and comment.