Night in the Woods shows us what good representation looks like...
WARNING! This article contains spoilers!
I did not know what to expect when I started Infinite Fall's Night in the Woods. I avoided looking up any information about it's premise. I pressed play, and the game drew me in. The art style was unique, and the story seemed almost crazy. The characters were real, and the world was so deliberate in it's execution. Oh yes, and 75% of the main cast is queer - and that made this game and it's subject matter all the more interesting.
Night in the Woods, you take control of Mae, a twenty year-old college drop out, who has just returned home. First, Mae reconnects with her old friends: Gregg, Angus, and Bea. Soon, though, she becomes tangled up in a mysterious game of cat and mouse with a ghost. And of course, she drags her friends along with her. It's all very mysterious, and let me tell you, this game takes some turns. You guide Mae on a journey of both self discovery and reclamation. You help her regain both her life and the friendships that have fallen to the wayside.
Mae Borowski seems like a typical layabout in the beginning of the game. She sleeps till four PM, she doesn't have a job, and she starts the game having just dropped out of college. She goes through her life without a care in the world, and feels a little detached from the people she's close too. As she moves through the town, though, you begin to learn of her troubled past. Six years before the game's start, she bludgeoned a boy with a baseball bat, and sent him to the hospital. She claims she could only see him and the rest of the worlds as "shapes" and that angered her. You find out, as her mental state deteriorates, that she had a dissociative episode. That same disassociation that forced her to leave her college. This disoriented her and forced her to live her life in a state of depressed fear.
It's never said exactly what's wrong with Mae, and that makes sense. We experience the world through Mae's eyes and she's never dealt with her issues. Something that a lot of people with mental illness can relate to. Whether it be your own misunderstanding, or the stigma surrounding disease, you may never know what's wrong. Mae is lucky, she has people who she can tell, and they will all be there for her. This is important to show in all media, because mental illness is still a huge stigma in our society. Still, Mae's mental illness is not the only thing that defines her. Another fascinating and important part of Mae's character is her bisexuality.
Yes, you heard it right here folks. The main protagonist of a video game is bisexual. Sounds the alarms! The world is falling apart! You may be asking yourself, is she hyper sexualized? No! She isn't. Isn't that wonderful? Well, surely, she must be predatory in some way? Nope, not that either. It's insane! The game itself has no focus on sex, which normalizes them in a way that's refreshing in games.
Yet, there is a downside to Mae's portrayal. She never explicitly confirms her bisexuality - a pet peeve that I know some members of the community have. Instead, you learn that from the fact that she wants to date or dated men and women. Her high school prom date, Cole, was a boy (it did not end well). And there are at least two moments in the game I played which I could actively flirt with women.
It shocked me. Only recently have we started seeing an influx of queer protags in video games. Most people can't even think of examples outside of Ellie from The Last of Us, because they have not been made yet. We've made strides. In most Bioware titles, you can pursue people of the same sex. The same can be said for the Bethesda's Fallout series. But these characters aren't set in stone, and rely on player choice. Night in the Woods is not like that, Mae is bisexual. One of her best friends, Gregg, is gay and in a healthy(?) relationship with another boy named Angus. That's three-fourths of the whole main team! And as exciting as that is, the game's openness in regards to their characters' sexuality can lead to darker assumptions.
This game puts almost zero focus on the character's sexual lives. Mae is simply bisexual. Angus and Gregg are gay. That is that, but the game is also about mental illness, specifically Mae's mental illness. Studies have shown mental illness affects bisexuals more than any other sexual orientation. This is due to rampant biphobia and lack of representation in media. This causes bisexual people a lot of distress.
Mae's storyline does not focus on this aspect of her illness. We never learn why she developed this feeling. The game states that it limited her life and debilitated her. She has frequent dissociative episodes, and these kept her from forming new attachments. Could this be a symptom of a larger issue in regards to Mae's sexuality? I can't say for sure. I know that I saw a lot of myself in her. Our experiences are different, I am a gay man, she is a bisexual woman. I know that I have a lot of mental health issues in regards to my sexuality and how people view me because of it. What's to say that Mae's problems didn't start there? Her parents love her dearly, but her father was also an alcoholic at one point. Her mother is a religious woman, who is very loving, but she also works for the local church. She seems fine with Gregg and Angus, but how would she feel about her own daughter? It's all something to think about, because the game has left this part of Mae's life largely ambiguous. And although I could talk about Mae for hours and hours, she isn't the only groundbreaking character in this game.
Gregg and Angus. What can I say about Gregg and Angus? I didn't get a chance to play as far into Gregg's story as I wanted (I was very into Bea's storyline). So, there are some things that I missed. Fortunately, what I did see was something too behold. Gregg is so interesting to me. He's impulsive and happy, but at the same time, he has a lot of fear in regards to his relationship with Angus. Angus cares for Gregg, and worries about his impulsive attitude. Their relationship is filled with a beautiful nuance from the beginning, even without exploring it to fullest extent.
In order from left to right: Mae, Gregg, Angus, and Bea. Infinite Fall
They resounded with me, because they were a real relationship. They had ups and downs, but they showed they cared for each other. There was no sex scene, and there was no melodramatic relationship drama. It was two people in love and proving that they loved one another. It's important to show this kind of relationship, because there just isn't enough of them. I can count on my hand how many positive LGBTQ+ relationships exist in most media today. And in video games, there are basically none. Gay characters can still be the butt of jokes, or they can be tossed aside for no reason. In video games, they are caricatures of real gay men and woman or they are hyper sexualized villains. Not in Night of the Woods. Gregg and Angus are Mae's best friends and they are there for her till the end.
That being said, it isn't all as perfect as I make it out to be. Again, Mae's sexuality is never explicitly stated. Some argue that it does not need to be, but I disagree. There is power in labels. Bisexual people need bisexual characters, just like gay and lesbian people need gay and lesbian characters. Without the label, what's the point? In fact, not having a label can feed into the stigma even more. How? It gives people an excuse to say, "They were just confused," or "They just haven't found the right guy/girl/person yet." It's a slippery slope. And yes, Night in the Woods isn't about the characters' sexuality, but every game should do their best in terms of representation. And while Night in the Woods hits the nail on the head most of the time - ot,
I could go on and on and on about what makes this game so great for LGBTQ+. To sum it all up, this is an important game. It needs to be played more and it needs to be experienced to the fullest extent. It's a crazy fun story, and the characters are so well written that you will be pinching yourself to make sure they're real. Believe me, they are, and you should not miss them. Night in the Woods is a special game - I would even call it life changing.
Shann Smith is a lover of video games and writer of plays and screenplays, based in NYC. Do you guys have a game that you think is significant to the LGBTQ+ community? Email me, and I'll give it a look!
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