Placemaking and Animal People: Why “Night in the Woods” Rocks

Night in the Woods is a video game about an anthropomorphic cat.

It’s also one of the most insightful explorations of the challenges struggling communities face today — and the hidden strengths that bring those communities together.

Closing businesses in Possum Springs

Closing businesses in Possum Springs

Night in the Woods tells the story of a college dropout named Mae who returns to her hometown of Possum Springs — a town on the decline ever since the local mine closed. Small businesses are boarding up their windows, and chain stores are opening closer to the highway that’s bypassed the town. Residents want to revive Possum Springs’ fortunes any way they can — sometimes in the most desperate fashion.

Placemaking and community are integral to this story. Bethany Hockenberry and Scott Benson, the game’s writers, based Night in the Woods heavily on their experiences living in small-town western Pennsylvania. Hockenberry grew up in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, and her family has lived in the area for generations. Benson grew up in New Jersey but moved to Indiana, Pennsylvania, when he was 18.

Those backgrounds helped them to create a game that uniquely humanizes issues like economic development and transportation that are normally reserved for wonkier circles. Yes, Possum Springs has some residents desperate for any long shot that might save their town — but it also has lovingly crafted characters invested in helping the hardest hit succeed.

Hockenberry and Benson took some time to talk with me about the placemaking issues that Night in the Woods highlights, as well as the unique approach games have to addressing those issues. The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

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James Warden: Even though your game is real stylized, I thought there was a lot more truth to it than even so-called realistic games like SimCity. What kind of real-world examples were you drawing from as you were writing this game.

Bethany Hockenberry: The town I grew up in — Lewistown, Pennsylvania — and just a bunch of towns in western Pennsylvania that I grew up in and we’ve lived in over the past couple decades. It had a big steel mill and it was the main stop on the railroad, so it was a pretty big town at first, which then kind of shrunk.

The real-world locations that inspired Night in the Woods

The real-world locations that inspired Night in the Woods

Scott Benson: I grew up all over the place, mostly in northern New Jersey, but I ended up moving out to Indiana, Pennsylvania — which is this little college town an hour and a half outside Pittsburgh in wester Pennsylvania. I ended up living all over western Pennsylvania — Indiana, Altoona and eventually Pittsburgh. So the game draws on Lewistown, there’s some Altoona in there, there’s some of the rural areas around Indiana, there’s Vandergrift, Bolivar, there’s a little Johnstown. Go from Lewistown to Altoona and then take Route 22 all the way to Pittsburgh, and you’re going to pass basically all the places that Night in the Woods is based on.

JW: Is there any one common thread among all those towns today?

SB: Sheetz the convenience store? [laughing] Every little place is different. It’s not like “Here’s the prototypical whatever.” It is where the Rust Belt and Appalachia collide into each other. Altoona was a huge railroad town, and that’s declined. Johnstown had a massive steel mill, and that’s declined. A lot of these towns — not all of them — but a lot of them grew up because there was an industry there, and that industry is what everything huddled around — and then the town grew out from there. And then once that’s gone, you get your population loss and the loss of your tax base and all the issues that come with that. A lot of people just want to hear about the ruin porn of it. They’re like “How bad was it?” We definitely did some interviews where the interviewer was like “Bethany, what was it like to know you’d never work in a factory?”

BH: I was like “My dad’s a well driller. Mom was a nurse. My grandparents were farmers.”

SB: So all these places are different, and they’re vibrant, and they’re cool, and we love the area.

BH: I think what we got a bunch of in the game — specifically like with Pittsburgh you’re penned in with three rivers and a bunch of steep hills —  so you do get a bunch of infrastructure that’s crowded in.

The Underhill area

The Underhill area

SB: There’s this area of the game, Underhill. You have these houses that are almost on top of each other. They’re kind of mismatched. In the background, you can see these giant staircases. That’s a little bit of where I lived in Altoona and a lot of southside slopes and Pittsburg. It kind of like all these places we’ve been or lived in are put into a blender. 

JW: One thing that really struck me was that when Mae comes back home, she’s got a big safety net to take care of her. She’s got the teacher. You see the sports fans taking care of each other at the bar. What do people overlook in towns like these that you really see having grown up in them?

Hanging out with friends

Hanging out with friends

BH: Everyone just thinks it’s a bunch of people sad and hanging out, but there is a very strong sense of community if you know where to look for it. Where I grew up, my family had lived there for generations. So it’s just one of those things where you walk around and people would know your grandparents and your parents and you. That was always nice.

SB: The thing I didn’t understand when I first moved out here originally was there was this — and I don’t mean this in a saccharine way, like “We take of our own.” It’s hard to say this in a way that doesn’t sound like a Hallmark Movie. But people are getting married, and having kids, and they have Little League team, and people are living and dying there and having fine lives. It’s not just a bunch of middle aged white guys with American flag shirts waiting outside a factory for Donald Trump to come along. There’s vibrancy. There’s life. And there’s people making do with a lot of situations that a lot of people from the outside, like when I first moved here, didn’t quite get.

JW: Transportation was pretty prominent in the game. I think the first dialog option was you could talk about the highway bypassing town. And Mae couldn’t drive. There was the talk about Gregg’s scooter.  Why focus so much on transportation? What do you think that has to do with towns?

BH: For me growing up — especially since I lived in the country — if you didn’t have a car, you didn’t get around because we had a very small taxi system of about two cars and there was no public transportation system. So it definitely does affect how you live there. One of the weird things with our game was just the fact that you can get around so easily — because you had to because it’s a video game.

SB: There’s two things in the game that are the most unrealistic — and neither of them are the fact that there are animal people. The two most unrealistic things are how many people are hanging out on the street at any given point. Possum Springs is hoppin’; there’s a lot going on in it. And a lot of smaller downtowns, you walk around in the middle of the day and there’s not a lot of people out. The other thing is just how easy to get around. In any other actual town like this, Mae’s neighborhood would be disconnected from the town by a good couple miles of road. A lot of games take place in these larger cities because there’s 15 different modes of transit you have access to at any time. If you play something like Grand Theft Auto, just go grab a car and drive because there’s a gazillion cars. When you’re doing a game that’s human scale with a character that doesn’t drive in a place like this, you have to try cramming things together a bit. [Benson, who didn’t get his license until he was 22, describes difficulties getting around when he didn’t have a car.] For me at least, that kind of hammered home the importance of, not just what’s there, but how do you get between those places. As much as we definitely compressed the area just for ease of getting around as a player, we actively mentioned the distances. “Oh, we’re going to go to the mall. Well, that’s 40 minutes away.” “Oh, we’re going to this party. Well, that’s two hours away because it’s two hours away because it’s out in this town that’s in the middle of the state.”

Possum Springs' mall

Possum Springs’ mall

JW: You set a whole level in a mall — and not just any mall, a decaying mall. What relationships do these malls — and specifically decaying malls — have to towns like Possum Springs.

BH: Growing up, we didn’t have a lot of places to shop in our town, so it was always a big deal to go. Then it was kind of weird when you’d go and they’d have stuff shut down because this was before the Internet and it was “Oh, my options just got a little smaller.” We put that in because it’s actually a pretty standard experience.

SB: There was the state college mall we went to one time, and we went to the Sam Goody, and it looked like a bomb had gone off. There’s a joke in the game where [Mae] says “It looks like something out of a failed state,” and I think I made that joke when we went there.

BH: Then there was the Indiana mall, and you’d just walk in and it would be so quiet.

SB: The feeling that you get through a lot of the game is “This thing that was there — and was a part of me — is gone now.” It’s like if you take someone back to your hometown and it’s the first time they ever went there and you’re driving down the strip. Then you drive down and half these places are gone and there’s this weird little pit-of-your-stomach-feeling like “Oh. That’s gone. Something has passed.” That feeling is throughout a lot of the game, and I think it was just our experiences with malls having been places that were destinations, that were possibilities, that were connections to this wider world. Then they just kind of go out like little lights.

"Harfest" -- one of many attempts to boost Possum Springs

Harfest — one of many attempts to boost Possum Springs

JW: I won’t get into spoilers, but the game ends with people willing to go to, say, extreme lengths to save their town. I know it was hyperbole in the game, but how much of that was inspired by attempts to revive towns in the real world?

SB: We started making this game three years ago, and a lot of the politics in it and the stuff that’s in it has become a lot more nationally talked about in the past year. So everyone is going to think we made a game about what just happened as opposed to things that we’ve seen for years and years and years. It’s a politics and it’s a world view where that loss and that desperation to keep everything from going out the door — and that trauma that is visited upon areas when industry leaves, when the Walmart moves in, when all these things happen, all these giant, uncaring, unthinking things that you can’t do necessarily anything about. For a lot of people, that can curdle into some really destructive and kind of nihilistic politics and views.

BH: You will also have people having different ways to fix the towns and bumping up against each other. I think a lot of times people think it’s just the one narrative that’s happening and everyone is just fine with Walmart coming in and other stuff to “fix the town.” But there’s people here who have different ideas, as well.

A mural remembering the good days

A mural remembering the good days

SB: There’s a town council that you see occasionally in the game that you can see they’re just kind of grasping at straws trying to lure business back to the town. You can see how they interact and who they are and their mindset in the way that they have a conversation with this pastor. Pastor K, she recognizes that the town has shrunk and that’s not going to get fixed anytime soon, so maybe they can use those old spaces to do some new things that are helpful to the people that are here. And that flies in the face of a lot of folks who are like “No. We can just restore what used to be. This is going to be what used to be.” And there are always — and I hope this comes through in the games — that aren’t like that. I’m hoping that we also portrayed that there are some people who are trying to do some really good stuff.

JW: You’ve seen some of these same themes in literature and in movies. What do you think games offer uniquely in terms of bringing this to a new audience or allowing people to address these themes in a new way? What can games do that maybe other media aren’t as good at doing?

SB: There’s a kind of exploration and tactileness that games have. We purposely wanted to structure it so that the player had to live in this place, had to traverse these streets, had to pass these neighbors a bunch of times, had to learn the landmarks. Alec [Holowka, the NITW developer], he and I talked early about the rituals in gameplay. We wanted it to be every single day there’s this ritual of “you have to get up, you have to go, and you have to do these things” and you end up falling into a routine. Falling into a routine in a small town that you, yourself, put together, that’s hard to do in other mediums because you’re just not let loose in a place to find your own way and make your own path. A couple of people have tweeted at me “I wish I could move to Possum Springs in real life,” and I’m like “Let me tell you how cheap it is to visit western Pennsylvania.” [laughing] It’s totally possible to go to Possum Springs. When it comes to talking about place, when it comes to talking these spatial and community relationships and this infrastructure, games allow you to poke at them and touch them and to have your time taken up by how you traverse them. Games do space really, really, really well.

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Night in the Woods is available for PC, Mac, Linux and PS4.


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