Finding my way through a Night in the Woods
Author: Eric Vero
Since turning 23, I have known loneliness. During my twenties I met some of my best friends, and have had two long-term relationships. But just shy of my 23rd birthday, I was diagnosed with bipolar II. As I left my psychiatrist’s office, the initial relief of finding answers was sidelined by loss. It was only me and the questions I had while standing outside my campus’ wellness centre. What does this mean? Where do I go next? And still: what happens if this struggle is forever?
In Night in the Woods, we meet Mae at a train station at an ungodly hour. She’s returned to her hometown, Possum Springs, after dropping out of college. But her parents have forgotten to pick her up. With no other way home, Mae walks home in the dark by herself.
The theme of loneliness is central to Night in the Woods. Mae is alone between two worlds: college and Possum Springs – growing up and childhood. Mae struggles to reconcile the two. She doesn’t belong at college, but she doesn’t belong in her hometown either. She’s a stranger in her own house.
The foundation of all of her isolation, though, is her struggle with mental illness. Night in the Woods wastes none of its 10 hours in pulling punches. Its portrayal of mental illness is scalpel-sharp. Within its short run time, it successfully portrays what so many other games can’t: believable mental illness. Rather than focusing on sanity mechanics with win/lose conditions, it centres on the lived experience of mental illness.
And Mae’s lived experience is one of loneliness and struggling to cope. At the start of the game, she has no one in her corner. Often, mental illness makes you feel alone. Meanwhile, you have to navigate a patchy health care system where professionals view your disorder in a way that isn’t always helpful to you. Likewise, Mae’s only interaction with a health care professional wasn’t even with a psychologist or psychiatrist. He paternalistically suggests she start writing in a journal. And that’s all she really has.
To sum up this game would be to call it “imperfect adulting.” In fact, she copes with her mental health “poorly.” Destruction follows her like a tornado. I get it, though. I’ve been that person before. My friends once had to drag me away from a heated argument with a Mormon on the street. When I came down from that hypomanic episode, I felt embarrassed. It’s not my only cringey hypomanic story, nor will it be the last.
What solidified Night in the Woods as one of my favourite games is that it makes clear that it’s okay to mess up. You don’t need to be perfect. In the real world we have this narrative that mental health progression is a straight line, like a marathon. But I think it’s more like a maze. Or getting lost in the woods. Sometimes you hit a dead end and have to backtrack. Going over your foot prints might be the best way to learn a lesson. The moral imperative to achieve progress often robs us of insightful failure.
Mae finds true progress in learning to lean on her friends. Her parents’ support always comes with an asterisk, but her friends give unconditional love. This is in spite of how Mae has given them every reason to give up on her. In fact, in one scene, Mae sabotage’s her friend Bea’s chance of momentary escape from their suffocating hometown. But, in the end, Bea chooses to see the good in Mae. When Mae is desperately seeking someone to believe that a ghost is haunting her, Bea simply says, “I dunno…what you’re going through, it exists.” Bea doesn’t care if ghosts actually exist. She simply believes her friend.
When it matters most, her friends support Mae in confronting her demons. At the story’s climax, the gang ventures into the town’s mines to confront the ghost haunting Mae. Sometimes our loved ones will dismiss our concerns or even gaslight us, but Mae’s friends simply accept that she must go into the mines, demonstrating unconditional acceptance.
Upon defeating the “ghost,” the gang resurfaces, all of them changed for good. Their bond is ever stronger through collectively confronting trauma.
When we met Mae, she was alone at a train station. When we say good-bye to her, she is surrounded by love and her friends accept who she is. “You’re good with doom,” one of her friends observes. I personally cope with my depression by understanding that it has purpose. If you don’t, that’s cool too. But I find it helps. Just the right amount of depression allows me to see the darker side of things. Rumination can be a powerful tool for self-improvement. And as far as my hypomania goes, my friends cherish me for my creativity and magnetic personality. But even after my engaging (or embarrassing) diatribes, they love me for who I am.
Rejecting mental illness only sinks the blade in deeper. I used to think of my struggles like a boss fight. like I could one day slay depression. But I’ve come to learn that it’s much more like Night in the Woods – all I can do is cope and continue the narrative.
I don’t ask “where do I go next?” and “why?” as much anymore. It’s more like “where do I want to go next?” and “why not?”
Peace doesn’t come to me when I think about the next five, ten, twenty years – it comes between moments when I am content with monstrous existence.