The piece contains mild story spoilers for Night In The Woods
One of the first pieces of Night in the Woods' world that Mae Borowski can interact with is a payphone. Mae, Night in the Woods' feline protagonist, is a college dropout returning to her hometown of Possum Springs. When she sees that payphone, she bitterly remembers that Possum Springs has no cell service. Welcome back.
Access to cellphone service or any other signifier of modern telecommunications (such as high-speed internet) is something many Americans take for granted. Once you have a little mini-computer in your pocket that gives you ready access to the entirety of human knowledge—as well as an immediate connection to your friends, family, and peers—it's hard to remember what it was like before you had it. Cell phone service and cell data coverage has penetrated the overwhelming majority of the nation, but one of the many reasons that Night in the Woods is so special is that it hasn't forgotten the parts of America that have been left behind in our steady march towards technological progress.
Mae's Possum Springs isn't too different from my hometown of Philippi, West Virginia.
Differences do exist between Possum Springs and Philippi. Possum Springs is a clear stand-in for the abandoned steel/coal towns of southeastern Pennsylvania. The game is brimming with those sorts of specific regional details: the Pierogi stand, the fans of the Smelters outside the bar (a team with the same colors/font as the Pittsburgh Steelers), certain dialectical choices such as "big'un" and "I seen" that are the mark of those living in small towns like Waynesburg, PA or Uniontown. I kept expecting a character to use the contraction "yinz" which is rural Pennsylvania-ese for "you guys" or "y'all" considering all of the other truthful details the game threw in.
While the game is rooted in the story of a very specific part of the country, the struggles that Possum Springs and its denizens face are the same of Philippi and of any of America's dying small towns: industry that left and isn't coming back, new work only coming from faceless, soulless mega corporations, thinking things can't get worse and then unexpected bills appear and you don't have the savings to pay for them, watching your once peaceful community succumb to addiction and crime, the all-consuming desire to escape, and the guilt that eats away at you for everyone else who couldn't get out.
That Night in the Woods addresses those sorts of ideas is a small victory in and of itself. Outside of Kentucky Route Zero, the suffocating crush of rural/small town/ex-urban poverty is not given much thought or representation in contemporary games spaces. But Night in the Woods goes deeper than a mere depiction of poverty and the exploitative voyeurism that work risks if it stays in the shallow end. It soars as a fundamentally empathetic critique of the intersection of poverty, mental health, and rural isolation.
What does it really mean when Night in the Woods emphasizes that Possum Springs lacks cell service? It means that despite 98% of the country having cell service, the cell companies didn't think Possum Springs was worth the infrastructure investment to cover their needs. Why would they? The only business hiring in the area is a Ham Panther (a Wal-Mart basically) near the highway. The town's "mall" only has a handful of shops that are still open. Nobody that isn't from Possum Springs has any economic or cultural reason to be there, and in its decay, the world—including a modern utility like cell service—let it slip away into obscurity.
But people inhabit Possum Springs despite its slow death. What does this decay mean to them?
It means they've begun to internalize a feeling that they're worthless, for living in a town the world has deemed not worth investing with the most basic modern amenities. It means that in order to find real work, they have to accept the poverty conditions something like Ham Panther offers them or leave their homes and roots and shoulder all of the emotional burden that implies to find work elsewhere.
And what does the decay mean to Mae Borowski—a young woman struggling with depression and her perceived failure to handle the responsibilities of adult life? It means that other things that so many folks take for granted aren't available to her.
Not only is Possum Springs experiencing economic decay and technological stagnation; it is experiencing an unraveling of its social infrastructure. Mae does not have an organized community of folks struggling with mental illness to look towards for guidance. There aren't any functioning community centers or community health clinics. I saw no mention of the Affordable Care Act in the game, but Mae only makes broad allusions to a therapist she saw when she was younger. She doesn't have access to the care she needs now.
What social structure that Mae does have is an ad hoc collection of friends in her band who are all struggling with mental illness in their own ways—Gregg's manic depression or Bea's faux-cynical exhaustion. Without proper supervision of more established adults who can help them manage their mental illness or any other support structure to keep them on path, Mae and her friends by turns alienate, aggravate, and antagonize each other because they are all burdened with problems and feelings that they have no healthy route to resolve. They love each other and try to be each other's salvations despite it all.
Fairly early after returning home, Mae agrees to attend a party in the woods with her bandmates. Before she leaves, she looks at herself in her mirror. Mae tries so hard to convince herself that she is loved, that she is worthy of love, and she just can't. Her self-hatred and self-loathing come gushing out (even if it's couched in self-deprecation) and this excoriation occurs because her rural isolation gives her almost no one else to share this with. Night in the Woods is great at subverting power fantasies. There are moments where you have no choice but to screw up. You simply choose how you screw up because that's how unattended mental illness can be.
Night in the Woods is able to talk about all of this while placing Mae's problems into a broader perspective—the suffering in Possum Springs. Mae's problems are real, and her inability to find outlets to handle them are a tragedy, but it's placed in an intersectional web of human compassion. The game also shows Mae's relative degree of privilege.
Mae has parents who can take care of her for the time being. Her friend Bea runs the family business by herself. A neighbor, Selmers, shares many of Mae's specific struggles with mental illness but lacks even the barest social safety net that Mae relies on. Gregg and Angus battle the repressed emotions and social exclusion of the small town queer.
It tells us we are not alone even when we feel cut off from the rest of the world.
I'm from (the outskirts of) a dying Appalachian town who still doesn't have cell service or modern internet at his childhood home. I nearly failed out of college because of struggles with anxiety and depression as a result of gender dysphoria, and I've had to move back in with parents who are only moderately less poor than I am on more than one occasion because my mental illness got the best of me. Night in the Woods doesn't simply reflect back the world I grew up in and still currently live in. It tells me and others like me that our stories matter, that our lives matter, that our struggles and tiny victories matter.
It tells us that we deserve love. It tells us that we deserve happiness. It tells us we are not alone even when we feel cut off from the rest of the world. It tells us that whether we're stuck at home or out in the broader world, we can't forget our neighbors, our roots, and everything that birthed us. Nobody has the power to make it better other than us.