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Hugh Likes Video Games: Night in the Woods

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Night in the Woods
Created by Infinite Fall
Published by Finji
Played on Nintendo Switch

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The Skinny: A brilliantly designed existential horror game

Night in the Woods is a game that struck very close to home for me. It is about a girl who returns to her dying hill town after dropping out of college and discovers that the home she left has changed. And there’s something in the woods at night…
An indie game that was originally published thanks to a 2012 Kickstarter, NitW has the most effective and well-crafted atmospheres I’ve seen in a long time. And considering that this is a 2-D point and click adventure game with some light platforming elements staring cartoon animals, that is really saying something. But the visuals are so on-point in this game, and they are propped up by witty, charming dialog that is the most natural I’ve seen in a long time. If you can’t fall in love with Mae, Gregg, Angus and Bea by the end of their adventure, I’m not sure you have a heart.
The mechanics of the world reinforce this. Following the story, most of the player’s decisions involve choosing which characters to follow, and talking to everyone. There are a lot of dialog options, and while they don’t seem to effect the story much, they do a great job of revealing character, and lead to so many rewarding character moments, they are worth replaying for them alone. The platforming in this game also feels really good, and walking around on the power lines feels transgressive in a way that reinforces character, and leads to lots of cool exploration and interaction moments, like finding hidden musicians and secret rooms. Going too much further into this game will ruin it, but let me suffice to say that everything in this game works together in a way that makes it more than the sum of its parts.
One of the reasons that his game struck me so profoundly, in addition to the fact that the writing is excellent, the art is eye-catching and endearing, and the mechanics just feel good, is that this is a story that happened to me. Not the mysterious disappearances and hostile forces bits, but I didn’t do so well my first year of college, and had to return to my own rustbelt hometown after a year away.
Mae’s reasons for leaving college and coming home aren’t made fully explicit until the end of the game, but I already understood them, because her experience was so similar to mine. I never hit anyone with a bat, but I felt so many of the same things she did, and playing this game gave me a bit of catharsis for those old wounds.
Night in the Woods is less a horror game than an existential horror game, and you can find it on Steam and the usual consoles. These versions also include Longest Night and Lost Constellation, two microgames the team made as Kickstarter bonuses and to test game elements. The whole package is wonderful, and this game is well worth your timeand attention. And Gregg rulz, OK?

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Fiction: Monster Hunting

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Monster Hunting

Shauna wakes up with a start. It’s dark in the cell-like dorm room. She hears her roommate snoring in the bunk above her and realizes it must still be the middle of the night. She raises her head and looks for her phone. It sits charging at the foot of the bed. Its diffuse screen is the only light she can see. Shauna is sure something just bit her. She brushes a hand down her leg. She feels a welt, but no bug. She listens in the dark for the whine of a mosquito, but all she hears is Kara snoring above her. Maybe she dreamed it, she thinks. She spent all day outside playing “GO Monster Hunting.” She must’ve gotten bit by something earlier and just noticed it now.
“GO Monster Hunting” is the hottest Augmented Reality game out there, and Shauna is addicted. So is the rest of the zoology department. So is half of campus, from what she can see. What she really likes about it is the game’s sense of realism. Not the monsters themselves, of course. They’re all Saturday-morning-cartoon kid friendly, with big, glassy eyes and toothy smiles. But the behavior and physiology of the monsters is actually quite advanced. Every kind of monster has its own territory, its own preferred food, its own habits. And they were getting more refined and realistic with every update.
She feels another bite. This one is sharper, more painful. She draws her leg up and grabs it. She doesn’t feel anything, but something’s there. Maybe a spider or an ant got in. She reaches for her phone to use as a flashlight. She prays that the dorm hasn’t been infested with bedbugs.
In the harsh glare of the flash, she sees a pair of small, circular welts above her left ankle. There is no sign of what made them, though. She moves to get up see if she can’t flush the thing out by shaking out the covers. She’s bit again before she can stand up. There is a stab of needle-sharp pain on her right thigh. She’s instantly on it with the phone, but there simply isn’t anything there. She doesn’t see anything, doesn’t feel anything but the sting. She watches as the welt rises as if by magic. And then she notices the flashing green light and the forgotten notification.
‘An app has just updated! Tap here for more information!’ She taps.
‘GO Monster Hunting Update #13!’ the update reads. A tiny blurb underneath brags that the engineers have added ‘a whole new level of realism to the game. Interact with your favorite monsters in all new ways!’ She knows she should be getting up, running all her bedclothes through the wash, and try and find the bedbugs or whatever it is, but Shauna decides to load the app first, just for a second.
The camera activates the second it loads. There’s a monster nearby. There’s another little bite on her leg, and as she’s trying to find it, she lets the phone fall on her leg. Which is when she sees it.
“Mos-ki-ki!” A synthesized voice chirps from her phone speaker. There’s a monster on her leg. It looks like a mosquito, although it has a pair of huge anime eyes and an improbable, goofy grin. She almost thinks it’s looking at her. “Mos-ki-ki!” It calls again, and cheerily plunges a needle-tipped proboscis into her thigh.
She feels the bite.
Shauna shrieks, brushes her hand down both legs in panic, but there’s nothing there. Not in the real world, anyway. Onscreen, the monster chirps again.
“Mos-ki-ki!” She backs away from it, and nearly falls off of the bed in her panic. A day-lit, rational part of her brain is screaming that it can’t be real. That the game has no way of hurting her in the real world. The cartoon bug turns and looks at her, the big compound eyes furrowed in animated annoyance. It hops towards her. Her thumb accidentally clicks on it, bringing up a helpful description from the game.
“Moskiki. Insect Group. This small, blood-sucking monster is easily defeated individually, but known to travel in swarms.” It hovers towards her, undeterred by the bed’s topography, and settles somewhere offscreen. She feels a bite on her arm and finds it again.
Shauna knows this can’t be real, is sure that she must still be dreaming, but can think of only one solution. She pulls up her inventory screen and selects a net. Drawing a quick circle around the monster with her finger, the net appears over it, and it cries out before being engulfed. The net shakes a few times in cartoon struggle before a tinny fanfare plays. ‘You captured a Moskiki! Battle Power 16!’ A text box informs her. She breathes a sigh of relief. The thing is gone.
She tenses again when her phone beeps with a new notification. There is another monster nearby. She recalls the behavior tip the game just gave her. Moskiki move in swarms.
Trying to remain calm, still hearing nothing but her roommate’s snores, she raises her camera phone and sweeps it across the dark room. Over the bed, the two matching desks, the closets, the knee-high brown dorm fridge. Dozens of cartoon eyes stare back at her through the screen. She sees a whole microcosm of small monsters: Insects, mice, plants. They are all newbie fodder; low-level and hardly threatening. But they are all carnivores, and they can all see her.
She spends the next hour defending her position. She runs out of nets twice, but makes use of the handy online store until it stops accepting her credit card. Finally, with all her in-game resources exhausted, the tide of tiny, biting monsters subsides. She is covered in welts, scratches, bites and sores, but none of them are life-threatening. The first rays of dawn peek in through the gap between the dorm blinds. The nocturnal creatures retreat. She heaves an exhausted sigh. Maybe now she’ll have a chance to figure out how this happened, and if she can stop it.
And then her phone beeps excitedly. EPIC MONSTER DETECTED! It exclaims. The speaker lets out a digitized roar.
“Dragocorn!”
It stomps in through the wall. The game runs off of GPS data. Construction means very little to it. The dragon is huge. It takes up the entire screen no matter how she retreats. There is something decidedly cute about the design, but the zoology student is more worried about the massive horn, huge fangs, and wicked talons reaching out for her.
Shauna is out of nets.
***
Shauna’s roommate Kara wakes up around ten. She pulls off her sleep mask, takes out her earbuds, (she can’t sleep a wink without the sound of ocean waves cranked up to eleven) and climbs down from the top bunk. She looks around for her roommate, but doesn’t see a sign of her. They usually catch a late brunch on Sundays at the good dining hall on the other side of campus. Her area of the dorm room looks a bit more rumpled than usual, but there is no sign of her.
“Must be off chasing monsters in that dumb game of hers again,” she mutters as she gathers her towel and supplies to take a morning shower. She doesn’t notice Shauna’s phone, still nestled half-hidden in the covers of the lower bunk. Onscreen, a huge, full-bellied dragon snoozes happily on top of the satellite map outline of their dorm building. She doesn’t see it open a single red eye and follow her out of the room.

Cover image by Faris Algosaibi, shared under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

Hugh Likes Fiction: The Turn of the Screw

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The Turn of the Screw
By Henry James
Read by Emma Thompson with Richard Armitage

The Turn of the Screw is a classic suspense novel and ghost story, but perhaps it suffers from being too firmly rooted in the time of its creation.  The short novel is the story of a young governess sent to care for the orphaned niece and nephew of a rich London gentleman.  Her employer wants nothing to do with the two small children, but that is only the start of their troubles.  The governess is soon convinced that they are haunted by a pair of ghosts.
James’s short novel is preserved as a primary example of Victorian suspense, but the style would be way too wordy and anticlimactic to best-seller readers today.  But the nouvelle is both steady and deliberate in the application of suspense as the main character attempts to unwind the layers of mystery surrounding her two charges.  The opening section, in which the James claims to have heard this story from a friend one Christmas holiday serves as a statement of purpose to this effect, and also as a sort of carnival barker, stoking the nerves of the reader and daring them to turn the page.
But “The Turn of the Screw” is perhaps a bit too steeped in the cultural and social mores of Victorian England to be relevant to modern readers.  Class and gender relationships, with a clear hierarchy, are taken for granted throughout the work.  The narrator asserts that young Miles is either her equal or superior on the basis of his sex.  Also, class consciousness is central to the scandalous behavior of the two ghosts.  The novel asserts either a tryst between a common manservant and the well-born governess.  It also implies that their contact with the two children was inappropriate, and that their return from beyond the grave is to snatch the children.  James doesn’t seem to see any difference between breaking class taboos and pedophilia ,  which was troubling to my twenty-first century American morals.
I listened to this book on Audible.  Emma Thompson’s reading is quite good, and she manages to cut the dense verbiage of James’s style down to a manageable path.  Her performance keeps the modern listener invested and upholds the air of gothic suspense that may be lost on a reader unaccustomed to the style.  The Turn of the Screw is also available in print and digitally from a number of public domain sources.
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