This essay contains major spoilers for Night in the Woods.
“...the apocalypse began / when Columbus praised God and lowered his anchor.”1
“Disasters begin suddenly and never really end.”2
Night in the Woods (2017) follows college dropout Mae Borowski as she does, on the whole, very little. As the player character, she is defined in large part by her aimlessness. Where her friends and family all have jobs, Mae is free to wander her hometown of Possum Springs - to explore how it’s changed, reconnect with old friends, and generally hang out.
From a gameplay perspective, this means you spend much of your time walking around looking for new content. You may learn that examining things or speaking to people multiple times sometimes nets you new information - from then on, you click things repeatedly. Waiting for something new. The next day, you do the same.
It’s easy to find parallels here with the pandemic experience: stagnation, limitation, flattened routine, ‘doomscrolling’3. Take your pick. Playing Night in the Woods in lockdown, though, just walking through a busy street and hanging out with friends, felt like the height of escapism. Sprinkle that with a growing sense of dread - a severed arm, an abundance of ghost stories, frequent nightmares - and you have something that more resembles early March, 2020. The calm before the plague.
It’s not a perfect comparison. The growing horror in Night in the Woods is far more solid and palpable than anything I experienced before lockdown; an occasionally mentioned news story, a small-but-growing number of cases. Looking back, though, it gains a sinister significance: the present stains the past. The restless, doomscroll-esque quality of the gameplay fits this model, too: the events belong to the past, but the expression to the now.
About two-thirds into Night in the Woods, Mae investigates a kidnapping she witnessed. You are given three potential clues to investigate in any order you choose. In the language of video games, it’s clear what this means: when you’ve done all three, the endgame will begin. Only the endgame doesn’t wait - the scripted events leading up to it trigger after you’ve only investigated two things. Your plans are cancelled, your life is thrown awry. Your carefully-planned routine is shattered.
At the end of the game, you discover there is a pit deep in the town’s mines that houses a Lovecraftian horror. A group of the town’s elders - ‘a buncha old boys doing their damnedest to protect their own and their neighbors’ - abduct society’s most vulnerable to feed them to the beast. They claim that doing this will ensure the town’s prosperity. It promised them so.
The connection between Mae’s misplaced nostalgia and the cult’s desire to return to the town’s heyday has been widely commented on - the game is deeply concerned with what happens when you try too hard to recapture what’s long gone4. What stands out to me, though, is that there is no origin point for Possum Springs’ troubles. The kidnappings have been going on for years. What we see of the town’s past suggests violent upheaval and widespread worker exploitation. Even its origin story, referenced by the lead cultist in the final confrontation, features a poisoned spring. Neither Mae nor the cultists can return to the blissful past they imagine. The true tragedy, though, is that that past does not exist.
The awfulness of 2020 has become something of a cultural touchstone - a scapegoat for the varied political and personal horrors we find ourselves living through. Similarly, the phrase ‘the new normal’ has been repeated ad infinitum in the UK government’s messaging on the virus. There’s a desire to view the year either as aberration or threshold; to separate the time before COVID-19 from the now. It’s an understandable impulse, but to do so is to ignore how we got here and why the pandemic, against all odds, still rages on today. The governments that failed to heed the warnings, the ways we’ve been taught to think about each other. The hole at the center of everything.
While it is true that disasters never really end, Night in the Woods reminds us that they never really begin, either. Their roots go back decades, centuries - the past cascading down into the present, the present becoming the past. In this light, Night in the Woods’ tagline becomes ever more urgent. At the end of everything, hold onto anything - and it is always the end.