I maintained my sanity during the pandemic by spending time outdoors in abandoned places. Some of these places exist in the real world, but most were virtual. One of my favorite haunts has been Possum Springs, a depopulated town in western Pennsylvania that serves the setting of the 2017 story exploration game Night in the Woods.
In Night in the Woods, you play as Mae, an anthropomorphic cat who has dropped out of college and moved back to Possum Springs to live with her parents. With no job and nothing better to do, Mae decides to investigate the disappearance of several local children. It turns out that there is a monster living in the abandoned mine tunnels under Possum Springs, and a cult of town residents has been feeding young people to this creature in return for a promise that it will prevent the town’s economic decline. When Mae and her friends catch the cult in the act of sacrificing one of its own members, its leader tells the group of teenagers that these rituals aren’t easy for them, especially now that they’re getting older. It’s time for a new generation to take over and ensure the prosperity of Possum Springs, however modest this prosperity might be.
Mae and her friends don’t join the death cult, of course. They escape from the monster, and the mine tunnels collapse and trap the remaining cult members underground. At the end of the game, Mae reflects that what she’s taken away from this experience is the conviction that, if there is no benevolent higher power in a hostile universe, then she and her friends will have to help each other while doing the best they can for themselves and their community.
The elements of cosmic horror in Night in the Woods are genuinely creepy, especially during Mae’s interactive nightmare sequences, but the purpose of the cult is to serve as a thematic juxtaposition to the true terror of Possum Springs, a large and impersonal set of interlocking systems that collectively exploit hardworking but vulnerable people – namely, capitalism.
Mae’s parents are afraid of losing their house to the bank because of an usurious mortgage they took out to finance Mae’s college tuition, and entire neighborhoods in Possum Springs are filled with repossessed, unsold, and subsequently abandoned buildings. The pastor of the local church wants to open a shelter for the newly homeless and the railroad drifters who camp out in the forest next to town, but she fails to obtain a permit from the city council due to concerns that lowering the property values in the neighborhood will fatally disrupt an already struggling real estate market.
The horror of an absurd and uncaring universe in Night in the Woods has very little to do with the unfathomable monster lurking in the mine tunnels, although the cult of older people who sacrifice members of younger generations for the vague promise of being able to sustain an imagined standard of living comes uncomfortably close to allegory in the wake of the 2016 American presidential election. Forces beyond our control and comprehension are indeed destroying individual lives and modestly thriving communities, but these forces are nothing as quaint as a stygian tentacle beast that eats children.
According to Scott Benson, the lead writer and artist of Night in the Woods, Possum Springs is located in western Pennsylvania just outside of Pittsburgh. This situates the town in the Rust Belt, an economically depressed region stretching around the Great Lakes from Buffalo to Detroit. The cities in the Rust Belt were centers of American manufacturing until the 1980s, when international free trade agreements incentivized companies in sectors like natural resource extraction and the automotive industry to outsource materials and labor. Formerly bustling mines and factories closed, resulting in a dramatic decline in population that in turn resulted in the bankruptcy of many smaller businesses.
It’s currently possible to accrue a sizeable following on social media by posting urban exploration photos of shuttered factories and other ghostly relics of infrastructure, such as empty schools, hospitals, movie theaters, and shopping malls. There’s a certain poetic charm in high-contrast photos of healthy green weeds stretching up through the cracks of ash-gray concrete and leafy vines twining around rusted iron support pillars. Images of the remains of modern civilization devoid of human presence provide fertile ground for the imagination to run wild.
Night in the Woods denies its players the solitary pleasures of urban exploration, however. As a dialog-driven game, its story can’t be advanced unless the player participates in conversations with various people around Possum Springs. As the you learn more about the town, you begin to understand the problems experienced by its inhabitants, which range from poverty to alcoholism to severe depression. At the same time, you come to appreciate the people who care about each other and want to do right by their community even despite the financial and emotional burdens they carry.
Night in the Woods suggests that the fractures in the community cannot be repaired by any given individual action, like “going to college” or “owning a home.” Rather, the problem lies in the larger economic forces that steamroller over working-class people in small towns. None of the characters Mae interacts with are stupid or unaware of what’s happening, but most of them don’t have the agency to make any real choices about their lives.
Night in the Woods features a number of optional sidequests that tell an ongoing story about the historical tension between the former mine owners and the labor unions in Possum Springs, and it’s clear that the working conditions for miners were deplorable. The mines closed at least a decade before the story begins, but the labor of the workers in Possum Springs is still exploited. Mae’s father, who was laid off from his job at a small factory, now works at a large supermarket by the highway that forced the local grocery store in Possum Springs to be shut down. At the end of the game, Mae’s father considers starting a labor union at his workplace, which pulls money out of the local economy without benefiting the town or its people.
The game’s presentation of unions isn’t entirely positive, however. As Mae’s friend Bea explains, the unions are male-dominated, and homosocial labor solidarity lends itself to an atmosphere in which overt sexual harassment is swept under the rug. Mae’s friend Selmers, who started writing poetry for the rehab program she entered after becoming addicted to pain pills while working at the local pharmacy, performs a reading of an incredible piece about how even unionized jobs are becoming unsustainable in the face of global capitalism.
Night in the Woods is ultimately about accepting uncomfortable realities while moving forward and finding friendship and community in difficult times and circumstances. The game isn’t just a protest against the violence of the global neoliberal capitalism that destroys local economies; it’s a model of resistance on a small and personal scale, as well as an argument for the quiet beauty of allowing outdated structures to fall gently to ruin.
Small town life isn’t for everyone, but neither is building a community from scratch in a big city. If nothing else, it’s good to have choices. The gameplay of Night in the Woods is centered around making choices, and the choice Mae and her friends make is to bury the monster in the mine, sacrificing short-term gains for long-term stability.
Although Night in the Woods is set in the days leading to and following Halloween, its advocacy for regrowth and positive change is a welcome message as society gradually begins to recover from the effects of the pandemic. If nothing else, Possum Springs is a great place to find surreal and spooky chills, and Mae’s homecoming is a crash course on how to make conversation with other people in real-world places that will be hopefully be not so abandoned in the future.
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This essay was originally published on May 18, 2021 in Entropy, a digital magazine about the fringes of art and culture. Entropy closed its website in late 2022, and I am reproducing this publication with the kind permission of the editors.