What Work Was: Labor and Play in Night in the Woods

You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.

-Philip Levine, “What Work Is

Night in the Woods is a game released by studio Infinite Fall not too long ago.  Normally in these essays I talk about something that’s either really old or at least old enough that no one cares about spoilers, but this essay will be different in that I’m dealing with something relatively recent.  To that end you may want to note that I am going to be discussing aspects of the game’s plot in some detail, and if you want that experience fresh, you better bail now.

So, again: Night in the Woods is a game released by studio Infinite Fall, consisting of a team of Alec Holowka, Scott Benson, and Bethany Hockenberry.  I’ve described the premise to others as a bit like a Rust Belt version of Richard Scarry’s Busytown.  It takes place in a world where everyone is an anthropomorphic animal, rendered in simple but charming illustrations reminiscent of children’s books, but the location of the action, a quietly dying east-not-quite-Pennsylvania hamlet called Possum Springs, is the precise opposite of Scarry’s thriving metropolis.  The mines closed long ago and when the player character, Mae, arrives suddenly home after dropping out of college during her sophomore year, she discovers that the local supermarket has shuttered as well.

In my hometown the local grocery store was sold during my first-year of college.  “They’re Indians,” my mom said, with no particular tone, but the fact this was observed at all was a tone in and of itself.  In my rural Indiana town of about a thousand people, there was at the time only the one store.  One of my first good online friends, who lived near Philadelphia, once mentioned to me over AIM how weird it was that I would say “going to the store” rather than specifying which one.  This was the first time, perhaps, that I realized how small my world was.

The store closed the year after the Indian family took it over.  I met them only once, when I asked them if I could use their fax machine.  The building has been empty since, but hey, a Dollar General opened down the street.

Soon Mae reconnects with her friends from high school, dour goth Bea (who is running her family’s hardware store after her mother’s sudden death and her father’s nervous breakdown) and manic troublemaker Gregg (who is working at a convenience store so he and his boyfriend, quiet and thoughtful video store clerk Angus, can save up enough to move to the city).  As my descriptions indicate, the game’s point of emphasis is primarily its characters, their personalities, and their interactions.  But inextricable to character, in the game’s perspective, is work.  This is true even for Mae’s parents: her father has worked a few industrial jobs before taking up the deli counter of a Wal-mart-ish box store, while her mother does admin work for the local church.  Characters you meet on the street are on their lunch breaks from their telemarketing jobs or waiting at the social security office.  This is a game concerned with what work is.

In my senior year of high school I worked the deli counter at a Wal-mart.  I was 18 so I could legally run the fryers and machines.  College was on the horizon and a lot of things were uncertain.  Since the divorce about six years earlier my mother’s finances had been a little scattered; within a year or so she’d lost her job as a gas station manager, a job for which she suffered a torn rotator cuff due to reaching up on a high shelf for cigarette packs multiple times a day (she still can’t fully lift that arm).  She had eventually gotten a job in the same Wal-mart I now worked in, across the way, in the bakery.  But when it came time for me to apply for financial aid I found that she hadn’t filed her taxes for years, a prerequisite for any of my applications.  She wasn’t making enough for it to matter, and she was working so hard and so often, she said she didn’t have the time, and it had never been something she felt compelled to do.  But now it needed to be done.  So I learned to do — and then did — my mother’s taxes.

Mechanically Night in the Woods is fascinating for the way it layers its thematics of labor and employment over the experience of gameplay.  Mae, who has just returned from dropping out of college, is literally unemployed, and the game provides little firm direction in the normal sense of the term, what designers call the “core loop” of actions that the player undertakes.  Other characters talk about their jobs, can be met at their jobs, but Mae is granted a certain ambiguous freedom to wander around Possum Springs as she (or rather, as the player) desires.

Essentially how the game progresses is that every day Bea and Gregg are working at their respective jobs, and Mae can go visit them to ask if they want to hang out, which moves into a sequence of some evening activity — band practice, going to the mall, smashing fluorescent light tubes in a parking lot, and so on.  The player can do this as soon as Mae wakes up in the morning, making for a fairly brisk run-through, but time is not exactly of the essence.

The game models Mae’s unemployment by emphasizing the player’s freedom relative to her friends.  Whereas they stand behind counters and talk about how bored they are, Mae can wander by the old canal, or climb trees and tip-toe across powerlines to reach the roofs of buildings downtown.  For the most part there is no spur to exploration in these platforming sections; the player simply decides how to make use of Mae’s time.

What you find yourself doing, after a while, is building a routine.  Mae gets up in the morning and talks to her mother in the kitchen.  She wanders downtown into the canal and shoplifts a pretzel from a vendor for the baby rats she discovered when she broke into the storage room of the municipal building.  She feeds the rats.  She talks with her retired high school science teacher about star-gazing.  She listens to a high school acquaintance’s poetry.  She visits the homeless man living in the woods outside the church, and talks with the new pastor about God.  She eavesdrops on some workers outside the local bar.  All of these things and more can happen, and precious few of them are required.  The player’s lack of concrete direction mirrors Mae’s own aimlessness, orbiting the uncertain reasons for which she dropped out, and her friends’ quiet resentment toward her (from their perspective) frivolous and selfish choice to scuttle an opportunity they never had.

My scholarship was a miracle.  They put my face on a billboard, along with the other winner.  Full tuition paid to any in-state college or university.  My work at Wal-mart, and a mom willing to let me mooch a few months out of the year, meant I’d saved up enough to pass through the summers when I lived at home.

My friends were working at gas stations or delivering pizzas while taking class part-time at the local state university satellite campus, half an hour away.  The school I chose — which was in the same town, also half an hour away from home — was a private liberal arts affair, and the vast majority of the students were from far out of town.  My roommate’s parents were professors.  He didn’t know how debit and credit cards worked, so I explained the ones his parents gave to him before they left.

During a safety convocation during our orientation week, a campus security guard with a thick Indiana drawl pronounced “motorcycle” in a way that made all the other students at the assembly snicker — motor-sickle.  During Q&A people kept trying to subtly maneuver him into saying the word again.

For a lot of reasons, but these were some of them, I felt very alienated at school.  My old friends were too busy to talk to me and everyone new I met was someone who would blithely mention things I had no way of comprehending — travel to Europe, vacations, high school internships — or, potentially, mock me for being ‘basically’ a townie.  What do your parents do? Oh, my mom’s a bakery manager at Wal-mart and my dad does machine maintenance at the casket factory.

My untreated anxiety and depression was boiling and to this day I cannot think of a moment where I have hated the world and everything in it more, and more personally, than standing in the dining hall alone and seeing that rush of bodies and hearing that chatter of voices and passing my tray off to the guy who worked in the kitchen who probably said motor-sickle which was the way I’d said it too before, many years before, when television helped me unconsciously train myself out of it.  And why had that happened, Michael?  Why did that happen? I saw a therapist for the first time that semester.

I returned from my first year of college, aimless.  I read ten books a week and, on weekends, sometimes, met up with high school friends.  But we didn’t hang out as often as we used to.

Night in the Woods is a narrative-heavy game, but it’s also not quite an adventure game.  Choosing to hang out with, say, Bea more often than Gregg or vice versa means you only see more of that character’s life.  There’s no penalty, in the sense that other characters or the gameworld at large don’t judge you.  Furthermore, aside from explorations and conversations, the game is interspersed with what we might call “minigames” — short sequences where the type of actions you as the player undertake change.

There’s a nice little roster of things: guiding Mae’s hand as she shoplifts, stopping your movement when a clerk’s eye turns toward you, or swinging a pretzel around to catch the attention of all your baby rats.  Perhaps chief among these gamey elements is band practice, which you undertake with Bea, Gregg, and Angus, with Mae as a bass player in a Guitar Hero-style rhythm game that is so frustrating to play on my controller I basically gave up.  (I told Scott Benson this, and he said that’s all right, because Mae is a canonically bad bass player.)

That I basically gave up doesn’t really matter, though, as the game progresses normally regardless (characters just make passing comments on Mae’s ability).  Like the exploration of Possum Springs, these smaller minigame sequences aren’t very stressful or difficult.  Indeed, by bringing back the Guitar Hero approach, a genre I haven’t personally touched in like ten years, Night in the Woods seems to invite not play necessarily, but reflection on play.  It’s true that when I played Guitar Hero it was… mostly with friends.  Mostly before and during college.

Even Mae’s normal mode of movement evokes the platformers of my childhood, but it shears them from the context of Mario gathering coins and powerups, repurposing them for self-guided exploration.  Similarly, the unexpected reappearance of a rhythm game sequence (with an inappropriate controller, to boot) both recalls and estranges me from something familiar.  Interacting with Night in the Woods is often like interacting with an old toy from your childhood: you remember the delight and wonder of these things, and stuff still moves more or less like it’s supposed to, but you’ve personally moved on.  There’s a temptation for nostalgia, for when games were clearer, when the actions we do now seemed to mean something more: when there were win and loss conditions, things to collect, points to rack up, prizes to earn, levels to complete.

The closest the game itself comes to offering this is a roguelike you can play on Mae’s laptop — which provides that point- and goal-oriented experience, but does so only as yet another way for you to whittle away Mae’s long, aimless, unemployed hours.  In a late sequence of the game, while exploring a house with Gregg, Mae becomes frustrated with having to take multiple elevators between floors and collect materials for lockpicking: “This is like work!” she cries.

And so it is.  The game cannily walks a line between presenting players with gamey elements and, at the same time, evacuating those elements of the affective veneer of gameplay.  This is not a criticism, mind you, but I think overall part of Night in the Woods‘s project: if play and work only exist in meaningful distinction, then the loss of work is also the loss of play.  Mae’s unemployment becomes a condition for how we experience the world: as a place for interaction and exploration, but also a place where, in the absence of productive labor, our play becomes itself a kind of labor, a routinized inspection of the game’s world and characters that can (with enough repetition) overwhelm us.

This is made clear in the game’s multiple dream sequences, wherein Mae traverses jumbled dream architecture to stir up phantom musicians and receive apocalyptic visions of giant animals devouring the world.  Aside from the short minigames, this is probably the game at its most “game-like” — there are markers to help you find your way as you platform around, small lanterns that show which musicians you have summoned, and activating each musician offers the reward of deepening the complexity of the in-game soundtrack (which is incredible, by the way).

But, as is the case in dreams, and the case for the game generally, this play lacks context: the points, the score, the concrete sense of progress.  With one or two exceptions, as dreams they communicate theme and mood more than any sense of accomplishment or plot, and by the time I thought “I am not looking forward to the next dream platforming sequence” — they stopped.

By the time I graduated from college I had gotten over a lot of stuff, but a recurring moment: people I met expressing surprise that I was local.  I was never taken for a local.  Most people thought, I discovered, that I was from Chicago.  Everyone assumed I was middle-class.  I did not mention my family’s jobs often or my origins because it got tiresome to hear people say I’d “overcome” something, as if my family and the place where we lived were obstacles to jump over.  That’s the charitable part.  The other, more queasy part, is that I also didn’t want people thinking less of me because of it.

I was feeling increasingly out of place when I went home for the summers and for vacations.  I saw my old friends less and less, went out infrequently, and read more and more.  I also played videogames.  Lots of videogames.  There was no time in my life, I think, where I played new releases more frequently.  Passing the time, waiting for the next step.

I knew I was going to go to grad school and I knew that meant leaving — really leaving — for the first time.  “That’s great, Michael,” my mom said to me when I told her, and then she paused.  “So what is grad school?”  When I joined the McNair program at my college — a program specifically for helping first-gen and low-income students get into grad school — I discovered this experience isn’t by any  means unique.  My path through life had tugged me away from my friends, and now did the same for my family; my home began to feel less like home.  I wanted out.

My senior year, a man was found in a ditch outside my hometown, a plastic bag on his head, his hands bound, his throat slashed.  A drug thing, they said.

The plot of Night in the Woods is minimal but interesting: Mae and her friends discover a severed arm outside a diner one night.  Mae also begins to suspect that something is happening in the town — that a “ghost” is stalking her, and kidnapping local youths.

What might seem, at the beginning, to be merely Mae’s own breakdown takes on a grim reality in the game’s final sections.  Most of the gameplay is the aimless routine-building and hanging out I’ve described; in the climax, however, Mae and her friends descend into one of the abandoned mines to discover the weird stuff happening in Possum Springs is quite bad indeed.

A demonic cult has taken root literally under the town.  Evoking the neurotic perfectionist murder cult of Hot Fuzz, these hooded figures claim to be the disenfranchised laborers who lost their way of life when the factories and mines closed, and they are now offering sacrifices to a dark god who lives in the bottomless pit in the mines in the hope that it will return commerce and vitality to the area, that it will, in short, bring the jobs back.  That this game began production three years before the reality of a Trump presidency is really something.


The game is cagey about the reality of some of this.  I mean, it’s truly happening — other characters apart from Mae see and talk about the cult — but it’s not clear if anything really lives in the bottomless pit and, even if it does, if it’s doing anything to help out Possum Springs.  The cultists insist that it is, that these sacrifices are holding small town entropy at bay and soon the jobs will come rushing back, but the best evidence they can offer is that one time some flowers bloomed.  What the player has actually seen of the town isn’t exactly heartening.  But if sacrifices are left off, furthermore, the cultists claim disaster will come — floods or worse, with the eventual erasure of the town. (Here, to the odd combo of Busytown and Hot Fuzz, the game adds Stephen King’s IT, which similarly deals with cyclical evil and destruction in a town and features a character having confusing conversations with large mystical animals.  I point this out only to appreciate the effectiveness of the eclecticism.)

What is clear about the cult is that they are modern blue collar reactionaries, decrying the loss of industry as the government supposedly spends too much money helping out immigrants.  They feed to their demon the homeless who pass through the town and the less useful young people — the ones who don’t work, who go into drugs or are simply mired in Rust Belt aimlessness.  The game makes it clear that their fantasy of work is, now, only a fantasy — Mae goes so far as to wonder whether the cultists are even old enough to remember the heydey of industrialism — and it’s their dedication to an ahistorical idea of what meaningful labor is that has led them down their dark path.  They are obsessed not with what work is, but what it was.

The characters in this game are not too big for their town.  Working at a convenience store sucks, yeah, but so did working in the mines.  One was indisputably more dangerous, but that makes the other no less real.  The unpleasantness of labor, its tedium, or the risks one faces are not what make that labor dignified.  It is dignified because it is labor.  It is our labor, yours and mine.  Working to exist, and knowing that’s why you are working, is better than sacrificing others in hopes of conjuring what you imagine to be a better job for yourself.

The cult’s nostalgia mirrors the player’s — let me be honest here, my nostalgia.  My feeling that I’ve played all these little games before, but that it used to be clearer, more meaningful, that I knew I was working — playing? — toward something.

Mae reveals that she dropped out because she was overcome with a depression that took hold of her at college.  She contextualizes this with regard to her history: in high school she severely beat another kid, put him in the hospital, during a raging manifestation of depression that boiled up in her when she realized a game she had been playing was fake.

It was all scripted, she explains, and the characters weren’t real people — characters she felt so strongly about! — but just shapes on a screen.  And if characters on a screen are just shapes spouting scripted lines, where does one find the reality of people in the world with you?  How are we different from the fictions we represent for ourselves?  That this is said in a game, of course, gestures toward metacommentary: the characters themselves are just “shapes,” Benson’s simple but beautiful animated storybook animals running on Holowka’s code and Benson and Hockenberry’s writing, often reduced to silhouettes by the game’s lighting.

None of this is real.  And yet when Mae finds out the local supermarket closed my teeth clenched.  When I saw her dad behind the deli counter I remembered how much standing on the concrete floor back there strained my calves.  Smashing lightbulbs with Gregg and vandalizing an abandoned car reminded me what passed for fun in the middle of nowhere.  When, at a party, Bea tried to judiciously flirt with a middle-class poli sci undergrad my heart hurt. When Angus described his childhood pleas to a God who never answered I recalled the little boy in Indiana who, sitting alone (hiding, but not quite) in the backyard, looked to the sky and asked something to make his parents stop fighting.

If these characters are just shapes then so am I, something you might glimpse between them as they are pressed together like a tessellation.

When I was a child I was convinced the water tower in the center of my hometown was the tallest structure in the world.  We lived out in the country, across the flat Indiana farmland, but you could still see it: a column of electric blue gleaming on the horizon.

The year after I graduated college, a turbine company bought a bunch of that farmland and set up sleek white windmills to generate green energy.  When you approach the town now you can see them all, so much more numerous and so much larger than that water tower, sometimes moving and sometimes still.  At night they blink red in unison to warn aircraft of their presence, popping into view along the skyline like lightning.

Night in the Woods is a game that ends by remembering a game.  Characters quite incidentally discuss a game another character has been playing, something with obnoxious music and wacky sound effects, an older game that everyone played when they were in high school.  “All summer,” Mae says.

What the game suggests on the level of plot is that labor is changing, but it is still labor.  Mae’s unemployment and freedom to play become, for the player, a search for meaningful work in the world of the game.  But the loss of labor and a surfeit of play threatens to render both meaningless.  Play becomes labor, but without any clear purpose.  On the level of gameplay — or experience — Night in the Woods hammers home this theme by representing, again and again, vague echoes of familiar gaming templates that, lacking their original context and goals, edge toward the absurd and tedious.

It is tempting to let what is lost dictate our ideas about what should be next.  If the game argues that the cultists are caught in a reactionary fantasy, it mechanically fashions the player into someone who is tempted by a similar dream: remember what it was like to just play?  Do you want to go back to that?  This is the first choice Mae seems to make, ducking out of school to spend her days annoying teens and feeding rats.  But the game itself goes to great lengths to show how much work goes into this play, how much effort the player/Mae must expend to fill her time, and the disruptions it causes for Mae’s friends and family.

That she recognizes, along with the player, the hollowness of play elided with or abstracted from labor, suggests a hopeful turn at the end of the game.  The cultists have been trapped in the mine, a new taco joint has opened up in Possum Springs (doubtless the cult would take credit if they knew), and she finds herself ready to move forward with her friends.

The cultists are wrong not because they desire to work, but because their idea of work is a Mammon to which they’re willing to sacrifice anything.  The old jobs aren’t coming back.  The mines and factories will not reopen.  Work has changed, but their idea of labor is something other than what they’re doing, an escape from reality.  This is why, it seems, they and their dark master possess such an affinity for Mae, whom they try to persuade to carry on their order.  She is at a crossroads, caught between the child who could play games “all summer” and the young adult who, disenchanted with the play that used to seem so meaningful, is at a loss for what sort of work should follow.

This post is funded by readers like you through Patreon.  If you like what you read, want to see me write more, and want to get a chance to choose what I write about, please consider pledging.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *