Infinite Falls' Night in The Woods is undoubtedly a game centered around change. It begins with the protagonist, Mae, returning to her hometown of Possum Springs after dropping out of college. What she expects to find there is the same small town she left a few years ago.
She wants to settle seamlessly back into her old life with her friends. Instead, she finds nothing but change. There are differences within Possum Springs, her group of friends, and also within herself that she cannot ignore.
The change is not just physical or emotional, but spiritual. As Jess Joho notes, Night in The Woods tackles the tensions between millennials and older generations, and how isolated younger adults feel living in a world that scolds and criticizes them. And while it is absolutely about generational gaps, it's also—as the game's tagline says—about holding onto anything, particularly faith and religion, when things get out of control.
The game portrays faith and religion in such a multitude of ways it's difficult to list them all. First, there's Mae's on-and-off relationship with her faith: when Mae returns to Possum Springs, she learns of a new pastor working at the local church. If the player chooses, Mae can visit Pastor Karen daily to learn more about her.
Mae explains to Pastor Karen her personal history with religion: She attended church as a young child, and once she was old enough to choose whether or not to attend, she stopped. It's apparent in the game that Mae isn't very religious, but she isn't atheistic either. In fact, there are multiple times where she believes to be speaking to or interacting with God. Her belief in divinity doesn't necessarily lead her decisions in life, but her past with faith always seems to return during the most harrowing parts of her life.
As players learn more about Pastor Karen, Mae discovers that Karen feels unsure of her faith in Christianity. Even a pastor, who oversees the maintenance of faith within her community, wavers. Her attempt to turn the church into a homeless shelter is thwarted by Possum Springs' town council, and that rejection unnerves her. As a pastor, Karen is in charge of a congregation of people who all ostensibly share similar beliefs, and when Karen's new community rejects her ideas, they also reject her understanding of faith.
Learning that a pastor is unsure of God shakes Mae. To her, Pastor Karen should be steadfast in her beliefs, no matter what happens. Mae questions Karen's ability to lead a cause that she isn't confident about, but perhaps Pastor Karen's ability to speak openly about her doubts is what makes her the most able. Pastor Karen does not leave the church afterwards, she keeps going, possibly hoping to rekindle both the community and her own mentality. As Night in The Woods shows, faith is a personal journey, and eventually everyone must recognize their own fears.
Faith plays a pivotal part in Mae's friend group as well. Angus, a bear who's dating Mae's best friend Gregg, has a volatile relationship with faith. If players decide to hang out with him, Angus will confide in Mae that both parents abused him at a very young age. Desperate to escape his home, he would pray for help through divine intervention. When no helped arrived Angus stopped believing. Like Pastor Karen, the one thing he was looking for—compassion—never came.
Despite her struggles, Karen continues to believe in higher beings, while Angus discards it completely and instead decides to believe in his relationship with Gregg, who Angus credits with saving him from his abusive family. Once again, Night in The Woods plays with a larger conception of faith.
Believing in something or someone is one of the most trusting things to do, and when Angus found religion to be unreliable, he turned to something smaller, like a relationship between two people.
Night in The Woods allows religion to be weird and uncomfortable. Sometimes it's difficult and leads to dark decisions, other times it leads to small tales shared underneath a star-lit night.
Night in The Woods uses astronomy and mythology to establish the otherworldly nature of the town. The stargazing is a direct tie to Lost Constellation, a supplemental game created in the same world as Night in The Woods, but it does more than connect two games together. Through the conversations with Mae's former teacher Mr. Chazokov, Mae learns of mythological tales of different people who have been immortalized through constellations.
During their search for constellations, Mr. Chazokov mentions that "the gods in these stories are only stand-ins for things we cannot control." Chazokov's statement is emblematic of the fact that each character personalizes their faith into specific things in their life. For example, Angus' difficult family situation left him devoid of love and support, which ultimately caused him to reject traditional religion when he thought it failed him. Instead, he placed his faith onto his relationship with Gregg.
Mae's struggles lie inward. She wrestles with her decision to drop out of school, and when she returns to her hometown she sees everything has changed around her. Though it seems as though she doesn't follow any sort of faith, she still sees benevolent and demonic Gods around her. Like Chazokov says, the gods are a representation of the utmost thing she cannot understand: herself. This is why Mae finds herself studying the stars, talking to pastors, and fleeing from cultists. Her life is in disarray, and so are her thoughts on faith.
As is evident, not all townsfolk care to believe in the same things. After multiple run-ins with what Mae believes to be a ghost haunting her, she and her friends discover that the ghost was a member of The Cult of the Black Goat. Congregating in the mines outside of town, the cult hunts and kidnaps people they believe to be worthless to society, and sacrifice them to the Black Goat, a monster that is never seen, living in a cavernous, black pit.
The cult members' motivation for kidnapping and worshipping the Black Goat is their belief that they are helping the town. They see their beloved town deteriorating: Many businesses have been lost due to a crumbling economy and, with a bigger city nearby, many people move away in hopes of finding better opportunities. Even Mae's family has been affected by the economic decline, as paying for Mae's college education has been an issue.
Night in The Woods showcases the many directions faith can lead. Some, like Angus, abandon belief in religion and focus on relationships. Others, like the cult of the Black Goat, abandon their morals in the hopes that a beast living in the darkness of an abandoned mineshaft will make things better.
Whereas Pastor Karen and Angus sought positivity (ie. building a homeless shelter in a church, or finding a supportive partner), the cult members of the Black Goat use their faith as justification for kidnapping and killing innocent people.
Mae and her friends criticize the cult for it's terrible crimes, but the game doesn't actually follow through in truly punishing them. A scuffle between Mae and the cult leads to a cave-in in the mine. The group assumes the cult members to be dead, but nothing is ever confirmed. They disappear almost as quickly as they appeared. The cult members were not meant to be an antagonist for Mae or as an answer to why the town is at a decline; they were instead meant to show the dangers of faith, and how holding on to anything can lead to downfall.
But life, like the town, always moves on.
In no way is faith or religion really glorified, nor is it vilified, exactly. Faith is defined individually, and as the game points out, the definition of someone's faith can always change. Night in The Woods allows religion to be weird and uncomfortable. Sometimes it's difficult and leads to dark decisions, other times it leads to small tales shared underneath a star-lit night.
The game's official tagline is "At the end of everything, hold onto anything." Possum Springs is a troubled town, but what keeps it together is the human need to hold on to something, whether it be otherworldly or mundane. The world—and the town—is changing, in ways that are out of anyone's control.When Mae returns to her hometown, it's already started.
What she finds is the townsfolk trying to make their own change, trying to find stability in a crumbling city, and trying to keep their faith intact.