Disasters Never End: Night in the Woods and Pre-Post-Lockdown Dread
Note: 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 (Finji, 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 of the way through 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 videogames, 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 investigated only 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 gone.4 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 the halcyon 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 about 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 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.
I loved reading this, so thanks for taking the time to write it and share with us. The general ominousness pervading Night in the Woods really does take on a sinister quality when taken in context of how the UK has reacted to Covid, and I think that your piece does a lot of neat work tying Possum Springs to what we’re dealing with right now.
I wish I had something more to contribute as feedback, but I just think this is really well done and not much needs to be changed. Although, I do think Brendan’s point below is intriguing but could serve as a future article in it’s own right.
This isn’t really a suggestion for improvement, but I am very intrigued by this point in particular and I adore how you’ve connected this game to doomscrolling - I wonder if other games do the same? I noticed that repeating the same cycles each day in Night in the Woods felt quite laborious, and basic activities in the UK lockdown take on a laborious edge.
Oof, this hits close to home. If I go a day without hearing that, I would be very happy!
Love this piece! The idea that ‘in retrospect, bad times seem to lack a concrete beginning’ is I think very strong.
One thing I notice is that you develop this idea primarily around Possum Springs [& the literal poisoned spring], choosing a lightened emphasis on the realworld side of the story (March 2020 etc). I think this is a good and appropriate choice, especially given our wordcount limit!
Yet one connection I made after reading this piece is that the pandemic (like Possum Springs’ troubles) also has many compelling origin points lying waaay in our past. In particular I think about how human industrial practices around the eating of animals FREQUENTLY trigger human/animal pandemics (& how the NitW characters are themselves anthropomorphized animals from species we like to farm/hunt). So in case you were looking for ways to re-balance the emphasis on this piece, I'd be interested in reading a sentence here or there re: which factors kinda led us into this/future pandemics (& how those might relate e.g. to the poisoned spring).