Night In The Woods Is An Affecting Portrait of A Rust Belt Community
"I met a lot of people who assumed that because my hometown is in the Rust Belt, it’s a small town, there’s nothing there."
Night In The Woods, the new side-scrolling, indie adventure game available on Steam and PlayStation 4, takes place in the small, Pennsylvania town of Possum Springs. The game stars Mae, an anthropomorphic cat, who's returning to her hometown after dropping out of college.
In the game's opening sequence, Mae's parents forget to pick her up at the bus station, and so Mae huffs the trip to her house on foot. Along the way, she sees several abandoned structures. Some of them are from before she was born. She comes across the ruins of an old sawmill, for example, noting—somewhat wryly—that the park built over it is called Sawmill Park.
And some of the abandoned structures are remnants of her childhood. Mae comes across an old playground—a multi-purpose boat/castle—that is now a reclaimed shelter for forest animals. The game continually highlights this sort of reinvention, of taking something from the past and recontextualizing it as something useful for the present.
There is a stock narrative of the Rust Belt—the former industrial bedrock of the United States which stretches from the Great Lakes to the upper Midwest—that has taken hold in American popular culture. It's in every "ruin porn" photo montage that seductively lingers on the desolation of crumbling downtown districts and finds "beauty" in privileged detachment. It's in every reductive editorial that place the entire blame for Donald Trump's victory on the Rust Belt's white working class.
And, most memorably, it was alluded to in Trump's inaugural speech. He described, in dark, evocative language, the "rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation."
There's an undercurrent of condescension in this portrait. Yes, it highlights the undeniable struggles of a region that, once in a boom, is now experiencing an equivalent bust. But it's also a maudlin simplification of people's despair, as if the entire region is comprised entirely of aging, disillusioned factory workers who are out of work and waiting to die.
But people endure. And as is the case with all popular, overarching narratives, the truth is complex. Night in the Woods co-writers Scott Benson and Bethany Hockenberry, along with game designer Alex Howolka, tell a nuanced story of small-town America from the perspective of younger characters. The husband-and-wife team speaks from personal experience; Hockenberry was born and raised in Lewistown, a rural town in central Pennsylvania. Benson moved to western Pennsylvania three days after he turned 18, and has always been fascinated with the histories of regions.
"On the weekends, when I used to live in northern New Jersey, my friends and I were a bunch of teenaged, punk kids," recalled Benson in an interview with Motherboard. "We'd break into abandoned buildings and sift through them, figuring out what they had once been. Beth and I get really excited about regional culture, travel, and differences between places. History and folklore fascinate us."
Part of knowing one's history is correcting other people's misconceptions.
"When I went to college, I met a lot of people who assumed that because my hometown is in the Rust Belt, it's a small town, there's nothing there, and everyone is completely ruined," said Hockenberry in an interview with Motherboard. "It's weird to [to have lived here], and have someone else tell you what it's like."
From their perspective, Rust Belt communities are active, rich environments. To dismiss old buildings as evidence of stagnancy is to misunderstand a regional philosophy; it is better to reuse what is old and deepen its history rather than knock it down. It's a 'stiff upper lip' mentality that the region's people shares in common with the British; when the jobs leave and the flood waters roll in, one makes due with what one has.
People carve out lives and survive among the ruins, and this sort of resiliency is integral to the Rust Belt ethos. Benson and Hockenberry recall a formative moment from when they lived in Altoona, PA, that encapsulated this approach.
"We went to this one wedding near this old giant bank that had shut down," said Benson. "At the reception, we wandered off; it was night, and there was no one at the bank. We wandered down through it, where the old vault door was hanging open."
"All these abandoned buildings were connected through this giant basement," recalled Benson. "Some of the buildings still had a few tenants in them, but there was also an old web server from ages ago on one floor, and a travel agency that had gone under [on another floor]. There was a time when there was a lot more people, a lot more capital, and a lot more industry going through this area."
So much of Night in the Woods conveys this wanderer's curiosity, should the player be patient enough to explore Possum Springs. There are numerous prompts for Mae to observe and comment upon her surroundings, which she does it with a combination of love and dry detachment:
"We like our war monuments in Possum Springs. There are two really ancient ones in Olde Possum Springs. Three in town proper. And I think they put a new one up on Pill Hill. There's one up by Possum Leap, but that one's spooky."
"Pastabilities is gone! No more pizza delivery! No more Big Sal. No more special birthdays. This is the worst thing that's happened to this town since the flood that took out the petting zoo."
All around Possum Springs, there is evidence of the town's former prosperity. The subway tunnels are a celebration of the coal mining industry. A group of sarcastic, lax teenagers juxtaposes with the mural behind them. It must be difficult to live in the shadows of past glories, raised by an older generation that bore witness to them.
The conflict, between the older generation and the younger generation of Possum Springs, reaches its head near the end of the game. There is a plot swerve that raises interesting questions about overcoming hardship. Does one advocate for one's self-interest, or for the interests of society as a whole? Selfish or selfless?
These questions have resurfaced in America's political forums. Should the government privatize public education? Should the government roll back far-sighted environmental protections to incur short-sighted industrial benefits? By and large, baby boomers are spearheading these reforms. But millennials will live with their consequences for decades to come.
The war between selfishness vs. empathy, between instant gratification vs. stability, matters more than ever. Benson and Hockenberry do not shy away from the inherent politics of their game; in their view, there is no 'magic bullet' quick fix that will make the Rust Belt "Great Again." The reforms has to be careful, considered, and far-reaching.
"My family has been in Lewistown for generations, and this isn't the first boom and bust cycle," said Hockenberry. "This has been going on since the 1700's and 1800's. And even when a place is having a boom, you have to look at who is benefitting from it."
"Pittsburgh is undergoing a revitalization," added Benson. "But what that really means is that there are a few tech companies attached to the city through Carnegie Mellon. I hope Google never leaves town, because if they do, we're going to be in the same position we were before."
"We have a dependency on one industry to buoy an entire community," continued Benson. "Even if there is a boom, I don't know if that's a sustainable thing to hope for."