One day, I came across a small indie title on Steam called Night in the Woods by Infinite Fall. It told the story of Mae, a university dropout returning to her hometown after a while away, finding things very different on her arrival.
The art style spoke to me, and trips to YouTube to look for the soundtrack convinced me enough to get the game, and I slowly changed as a result of playing it. I resonated with Mae, as her decision to drop out of uni was one I had briefly considered at numerous points throughout my uni life, and her hometown, a former industrial town with its glory days far behind it, resembled my own. However, it was Mae’s conversations with her friends that stuck with me most, and I’m finally starting to grasp why.
Dialogue is a simple concept to learn while making any work of fiction; write like it’s believable and it’ll generally work. But NITW, and two other games I’ve been playing recently, Oxenfree and Kentucky Route Zero, have proved that there is so much more to writing an enthralling narrative than general story beats. It’s the in-the-moment things, the way it all adds up as a collective by stacking lots and lots of little nuances into a tightly crafted package. You can write a decent story with uninteresting characters, or stale dialogue, but get those little moments right and you might land on something truly special.
As a fan of the Persona series, I’m no stranger to sequences between a protagonist and secondary characters being primarily made up of dialogue exchanges, and a lot of them can feel boring or worth skipping to get to the gameplay. These three games, on the other hand, were the complete opposite. Maybe I can put it down to ‘right place, right time’, but I found myself totally engaged with what was on screen, very rarely feeling compelled to skip the dialogue, the exceptions being parts that I’d already seen on YouTube when deciding whether to get the games in the first place.
But back to Mae and Night in the Woods. Why does it convey a sense of wistful retrospection that hits home in all the right places? Because it’s written believably. There aren’t any world threatening villains, and while there is an overarching mystery that serves as the driving force behind the plot, the main focus is on Mae and the relatable discovery that the best times might be behind you.
In contrast with so many other games nowadays, the problems that you face in NITW are central to Mae and her friends, from psychological issues to the pains of growing up. There are so many quotes to pull from with NITW, but one of my favourites comes from Bea, your alligator pal who says: “I stayed here and got older, while you went off and stayed the same.”
Balance is so important to get right as well. Both NITW and Oxenfree contrast lighter moments with hard-hitting truths very well, walking the tightrope between humour and seriousness to a degree I found impressive. Kentucky Route Zero strays more towards the latter than the other two games, with playful banter between supporting characters serving as brief respites from the constantly evolving journey that makes up the central narrative. However, it’s not a simple case of even quantity; KRZ’s approach to character building is markedly different.
Playing as a series of central characters, you ultimately don’t build a character story over the course of your playthrough like you do in most games; instead, the characterisation is portrayed by not just what dialogue responses you choose, but also by what you don’t. You’re often given the chance to choose what protagonist Conway says, but there’s little recourse on choosing one option over another. Most don’t get picked up on later; it’s pick and move on. And yet, each time they come up, it gives you a little extra insight into Conway’s personality without the game having to dedicate any extra time shoving backstory down the player’s throat.
You see, each of the many responses go down the same route; you don’t get to necessarily change the way Conway thinks, just how he delivers it. It creates a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it approach to developing the character; giving the player enough choice to feel in control of the narrative to an extent, but rewarding the extra-attentive player with added nuggets of character exposition. This approach doubles up as a way to ease the player into making choices naturally, preventing the dichotomy between playing for fun and strategising in order to get a particularly desired ending.
Whereas in NITW and KRZ, characters patiently wait their turn to speak, Oxenfree casts you as a participant, rather than a distant observer. During dialogue exchanges between protagonist Alex and her accompanying cast of friends, the conversation is on autopilot, giving you opportunities to butt in with your selected quip. This approach ends up capturing the faster paced conversational style of the group of friends that it’s trying to portray compared to the styles in the other two games, benefited by the use of voice acting, making it easier to follow exchanges while constantly moving forward. Like NITW, you’re dealing with a younger cast of characters, and during the excellent opening, you’re allowed to guide the conversation through a series of enjoyable and relatable topics, such as love confessions and fears. Even before that, with Alex meeting up with each of the other characters, sets up this “kids on an adventure” feeling while simultaneously revealing the prior history between everyone, elements that factor into choices later down the line.
While many games are often lauded for their bombastic set pieces or amazing graphics, games like these showcase the success that can be achieved by focusing on what makes character interaction interesting. Now and again, when it’s time to unwind and relax, maybe give one of these games a look, they might just click.