The Virtual Life – Night In The Woods And The Necessity Of Unlikeable Protagonists
I've been slowly creeping my way through Night In The Woods over the past week or so. Part of that is scheduling. The game came out right before GDC and I have some other games I'm playing to write words about. However, it also feels strange to rush through this small, quiet tale about ordinary (animal) people living and suffering in small towns that feel intimately familiar to those that populate our world. It's not a polished high-thrills ride like Gears Of War 4 or Titanfall 2 that can be devoured in one go but is instead a story that should ideally be given a fair amount of patience and understanding.
I've kept my eyes on what people are saying about the game as well, partially to keep up with the conversation about it, partially so I don't write a piece about this game that someone else has already written. I could tell you, if i wished, about how Night In The Woods is an accurate portrayal of what it's like to return home to your small town and find that everything is continuing to decay and you don't really know how to interact with the people you grew up with.
Which, y'know, fine. I can say that if that's what you want to hear. It is a game that captures the melancholy of going home again. But that's pretty uninteresting to me, I guess. I've lived that life. I don't need a simulation of it. Instead, I want to talk about Mae, Night In The Woods' protagonist and what makes her so special.
In Polygon's review of Night In The Woods, reviewer Justin McElroy spends a good chunk of time talking about how Mae put him off as the protagonist of the game:
Each of [Night In The Wood's] animals also have more heart, depth and decency than most games boast in their entire human cast.
Oddly, the one character I wouldn’t extend that last compliment to is Mae, Night in the Woods’ feline protagonist. She 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.
I don't necessarily disagree with McElroy's character assessment. However, I think we come away from it with different conclusions. To me, Mae is the beating heart of Night In The Woods. Yes, she is annoying. She is rude. She berates her parents after they paid to send her to college. She forgets her friend's mother died years ago. She doesn't really know how to be there for other people. However, she's also a young person dealing with the pains of growing up and trying to find herself in a chaotic world filled with questions lacking easy answers.
Living is hard. It takes its toll. That's part of the reason why fiction is often so appealing. We find heroes and heroines who meet the cruelties of existence head-on and refuse to buckle beneath them. The Katniss Everdeens, Harry Potters, the Commander Shepards, so on and so forth.
However, it would be a mistake to assume that all fiction, in literally any medium, should serve up only powerful role models. Sometimes we need to be reminded that there are people who break under pressure, who go through hard times and don't have a handle on all of their issues. There's a sense of comradery in that, reading someone else's beautifully articulated version of pain they've gone through and having it resonate with some element of your life. People love The Great Gatsby and Casablanca because they're timeless stories about love gained and lost. Countless folks adore 1984, Brazil, and Animal Farm because these works are bold and unflinching looks at how regimes crush the spirits of populaces, where the heroes aren't heroes: They're ordinary people who find themselves being ground into dust by powers beyond their control.
These are hard truths to swallow. A common refrain I hear about games, which was said ad nauseam during last year's showing of The Game Awards, is that they have the power to help people escape the horrors of life, both on a personal and international level. I do not disagree that games are excellent tools for escapism, just as television is, just as movies are, just as music can be. And yet games can be more than that. They can be tools for empathy, for education, for confronting things within yourself and finding some measure of peace.
This is why I want more games with characters like Mae or Spec Ops: The Line's Martin Walker. Walker slowly, atrocity by atrocity, learns that he will never be the hero he yearns to be. These characters feel real in a way that most don't because while they may be difficult to sympathize with. They're flawed in ways that are irrational, often broken by the times or their choices or the people around them. I look at Leon Kennedy and I see the action hero I want to be, kicking down doors and saying cool one-liners as I suplex any jackass who looks at me funny. I look at Mae and I see someone closer to who I actually am, going through similar hard moments I've had in my life. Both types of characters are important; one gives aspiration and fantasy, the other, sorrow-tinged courage.
Games are massive; they are the fastest growing entertainment medium on the planet. Every year we get more and more games that dare to take creative risks with storytelling and characters. That Dragon, Cancer. Dear Esther. Gone Home. The Last Of Us. Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons. Wolfenstein: The New Order. Tales From The Borderlands. Stories Untold. Firewatch. Kentucky Route Zero.
I think one of my biggest desires for games in the coming years is to see them take more chances with crafting protagonists that exist outside of jokey thrill-seeker or brooding world-saver. I want more characters who divert from the paths we've come to expect, who make choices for themselves that are not necessarily always the right choices, that hurt those around them and ache in startlingly familiar ways. Amidst the gunfire and sword clashes of this year's biggest, most anticipated titles, I also can't wait to discover and play smaller games like Night In The Woods that boldly examine what it means to be alive, with all of its horror and wonders.
For more on Night In The Woods, be sure to check out Elise's review of the game.