I started playing Night in the Woods again recently, and I have a lot of feelings about the game. When I get interested in something, my first instinct is to read what other people have written about it. Although I knew it was a mistake, I made a bad decision and clicked on the Polygon review.
This specific line jumped out at me:
Mae also does some platforming in her sleep, and these dream sequences in particular are dull, especially late in the game when the story starts to pick up momentum.
First of all, this game is not a platformer, and evaluating a story-driven exploration game as a platformer because the main character can jump is not useful or interesting.
Second, the dream sequences are amazing. One of my favorite conceits in gaming is a piece of music that has more instruments added as the player makes progress (like the Hateno Village theme in Breath of the Wild), and every single one of the dream sequences handles this conceit perfectly. The songs themselves are weird and fun and creepy – my favorite is Astral Alley.
The fact that a professional game reviewer could look at Night in the Woods and criticize its “platforming” as “dull” boggles my mind to such an extent that I feel like a Lovecraft narrator who can’t describe what he’s seeing and resorts to frenzied and nonsensical muttering.
Here’s another bit of the review that caused me physical pain:
[Mae] is often selfish, cruel, self-absorbed and destructive in ways that may be believable and relatable but rarely ever pleasant. Mae is somewhat redeemed by a childlike joy in simple pleasures, a streak of loyalty to her friends and some late-game realizations about her own failings, but only somewhat.
Mae is a good protagonist because she’s flawed, and she’s a good person because she’s genuinely trying to be sensitive and understanding for the sake of her friends and family. She’s not perfect, but she’s doing her best, and the same can be said of the way most of the other characters in the game treat her. Some people lose their tempers with Mae when she accidentally says something stupid, and some people are mean to her for no reason, but she’s good-natured about it and doesn’t get into fights or try to hurt people to get back at them. She goes out of her way to speak to everyone without prejudice, and she’s extremely generous with her time. She’s good-natured and, yes, she’s loyal and cares about other people, even when she’s hurt. This is why people want to be friends with her.
The fact that an adult man would look at this twenty-year-old female character and say that he doesn’t like her because she’s not performing enough emotional labor is really scary to me, to be honest.
It’s also troubling that Polygon wanted someone to review a story game about a twenty-year-old queer woman and couldn’t find anyone except an older man with children. They didn’t know any women? Any queer people? Not even any younger people? This writer openly admits that he didn’t want to review this game. Could the editors at Polygon really not find anyone in even a slightly different demographic? Perhaps someone who had been following the development blog attached to the game’s massively successful Kickstarter campaign?
I wouldn’t usually include the name of the reviewer in a critical response like this, but I think it would be weird not to mention that this review was written by Justin McElroy. I know a lot of people love The Adventure Zone, but I have to admit that I’ve never understood the charm of the McElroy brothers. The fact this writer is something of a celebrity in queer-identified youth cultures is even more troubling in light of his attitude regarding Mae’s mental illness.
In that regard, this part of the review is genuinely frightening:
After a scene where Mae belittles her parents for working for years so they could afford to send her to the college that she had just bailed on, I found it pretty difficult to re-engage with her. But I’m also a parent and feel a lot further from Mae’s side of the kitchen table than I used to. It’s a bold choice to center a game on an unlikable character, and it’s an effective way of highlighting the virtues of the supporting cast.
Before anything, it’s important to point out that Night in the Woods is a dialogue-driven game. Except for a handful of very specific instances, the player is always given a choice of what Mae can say and how she can respond to the direction the conversation is taking.
For an adult man who identifies as a parent to choose the dialogue option that belittles Mae’s parents and then blame his own choice on the personality of a twenty-something female character in a video game is hypocritical and unfair.
It’s also important to provide the specific context. What has happened is that Mae’s mom, who is stressed out about money but doesn’t want to talk about it, tries to be “helpful” about her daughter’s illness in an unhelpful way. Mae interprets her mother’s genuine but off-the-mark concern as condescending, and she makes a shitty comment about how she doesn’t want advice from someone who stayed in town and never went to college. Mae’s mom snaps and says she worked hard so that Mae could go to the college that Mae has dropped out for reasons that, depending on the player’s dialogue choices, she’s either not willing or not yet ready to explain.
Mae knows this, of course, and Mae’s mother knows she knows this. They both realize they’ve gone too far. Again, depending on the player’s dialogue choices, Mae can either apologize or be a brat and walk away. Regardless, Mae and her mother offer each other more meaningful apologies later, and Mae’s father provides a different perspective on the situation when Mae mentions that she wants to start looking for a job. Essentially, he tells her that it’s the responsibility of parents to care for their child; and that, as parents, he and Mae’s mother take that responsibility seriously.
What the player learns toward the end of the game is that Mae was suffering from severe depression, which was co-morbid with executive function disorder (which refers to the state of knowing what you need to do and wanting to do it but being unable to get started) and extreme dissociative episodes. This specific diagnosis is never provided, but I’ve seen it often enough to know what it is. The way college is structured is not healthy for people who are prone to mental illness, which the game has established is true of Mae. It’s not that there’s anything “wrong” with Mae as a person, but being forced to live in a dorm while taking large general education classes that she wasn’t interested in triggered a crisis with a condition that she had previously been able to manage.
Mae was failing all of her classes, sleeping for most of the day, and thinking about death while feeling that she was slipping in and out of reality. No one helped her – which is normal in American universities – so she came home. Mae’s parents are sympathetic, and Mae is, for the most part, grateful.
Mae is in a difficult situation, but she made the right choice.
What exactly did Justin McElroy expect Mae to do? Stay at school until she successfully killed herself? So that she wouldn’t cause trouble for her parents?
A major theme of Night in the Woods is its critique of this specific attitude, namely, that it is the individual who is to blame for the failings of a large and impersonal system. It’s terrifying to me that Justin McElroy could play this game from start to finish and write about it as a staff reviewer for a major gaming news outlet and completely misread this theme, saying instead that it’s “a bold choice to center a game on an unlikable character.” What I’m afraid of is the fact that this is the sort of person who’s driving the culture – an older straight man who doesn’t see any problem with condemning a young queer woman for making difficult but healthy choices about her own life.