Part 2 of 2. This article is a follow-up, please click here if you are interested in the (spooky) first article (about Poe and Oxenfree)! In this article I’m going to put in relation a Gothic short story by Brown and a mini-game in Night in the Woods. In both cases, a whole new story can be seen between the cracks of the texts.
“Somnambulism” by Charles Brockden Brown is one of the founding texts of the American Gothic genre. This short story tells the tale of a young man from a good family who has reportedly murdered a young woman for whom he had started to develop an unrequested romantic interest. The strange part of this story is that this murder is supposed to have taken place while the young man was sleepwalking, somnambulism being considered a major dangerous mental disorder at the time of publication (1799).
Although the story is interesting in itself as it provides depictions of gender and madness at the beginning of the nineteenth century in the United States, I want to focus here on its narrative structure, in order to demonstrate how the gothic text can easily become a game.
“Somnambulism” is composed of two different parts separated by a total shift in focalisation and a major chronological disruption. There is the first part, an extract from the Vienna Gazette in which the dreadful events taking place in the rest of the short story are summarized in a journalistic style. Then, the rest of the short story is narrated internally from the first person’s perspective in the form of a diary; we go back in time and we follow the actions from the point of view of the young man who is supposedly the murderer. With this structure, Brown clearly rejects the interest for suspense and first reading: he “mistreats” his own narrative (to borrow Barthes’s terminology), and invites the reader to have plural readings.
The “diary” and the “gazette” are two different ways of telling the same story, both in form and in content. Their juxtaposition constitutes a narrative which puts an emphasis on the ludic. If we consider the extract of the Vienna Gazette as a hub of information, a homepage for the reader, the whole short story starts to look like a game. We can isolate journalistic items of information and try to find them in the diary, the same way that we click on links in hypertexts to access further content. If we play with the text in this way, the whole primal temporality is shattered, and the text becomes a fragmented mythical entity—plural.
The interaction between the items of information in the diary and the gazette can either be contradictory or complementary—and it is in this process that lies a great amount of mystery, and therefore, more story to read. This is an uncanny text, to which the reader has to grow acquainted in order to exhume unfamiliar, new items of meaning.
NIGHT IN THE WOODS
Night in the Woods is a videogame that offers a similar experience to “Somnambulism” in one of its sequence: “The Library.”
This narrative adventure game is heir to the long American Gothic tradition. One of its writers, Scott Benson acknowledges the influences of this genre on his writing, and talks especially about the Southern Gothic.
The game deals with notions of alienation, inheritance, decay of the social fabric, and lack of meaning while still highlighting moments of care and kindness between its characters. The story takes place in the little town of Possum Springs, a town hit by unemployment and boredom, and populated by zoomorphic inhabitants. We play as Mae, a young cat who returns to her family after having dropped out college. Mae spends her days idly exploring the city, talking to the members of her moribund community, and interacting with her friends and family. The gameplay mirrors the alienation felt by Mae and her whole town: every action the player takes will not have massive consequences—as an example, failing or not at playing the bass in the musical mini-game will not lead to any “game over” or “success” screen. On the surface, the game does not explicitly punish or reward the player. The message is clear to the person behind the game controller: what you do is useless, this world does not care about you, and you are unnoticed. A philosophy which is a clear artistic stance in game making, since it goes against the tradition of the action-reward gameplay loop present in most videogames.
THE RUST BELT GOTHIC
Night in The Woods is, according to Benson, part of a new subgenre of American gothic : The Rust Belt Gothic. The Rust Belt is a part of the United States that used to be referred to as the Manufacturing Belt, but today, its economic heart, the heavy industries, has stopped to beat; the whole region has progressively fallen apart. In Night in The Woods, Possum Springs used to be a mining town. Today the mines are closed, under the surface of the earth lies an abandoned unstable crumbling maze, and because of that, holes are opening up in the ground, swallowing houses, and people. One can easily see the metaphorical extent of this situation, coming from a studio named “Infinite Fall”.
Even though the beginning of the game is rather peaceful, we have clues of the violent, gothic events to come. First, Mae and her friends find a severed arm outside of a dinner, and a boy named Casey is reportedly missing in town (his spectral presence is felt through a “missing” poster on the town’s news board). No violent events will re-occur until the middle of the game, where Mae witnesses a mysterious murder and abduction scene. From this moment onwards, the pacing of the game changes, and there is more action: the stasis is shattered. Mae thinks the murderer is a ghost, and therefore goes on a paranormal inquiry with her friends in order to find more about spectral activities in Possum Springs. This will lead Mae to the library, where she will search for information in the journalistic archives.
Before getting to the microfiche, Mae and her friend Bea have to cross the library, where they stumble upon a mural praising the fraternity of the workers in the heavy industries, a lonely library clerk, and a computer where they read the CV of an unemployed senior worker. Mae and Bea also recognise one of the book sections: some children’s moral tales that “look really hateable.” This path to the microfiche underlines the context of economic and moral anxieties which gave birth to this gothic mood in the Rust Belt region. It also introduces the players to the themes of the articles they are going to read.
The Microfiche is a mini-game where the player has to find the three articles (out of more than fifteen) that talk about spectral activities in Possum Springs. The player does not really need to read the articles, they can just click on them until they find the right one: the mini game comes to an end, and the story resumes. But the player can also become an active reader, and experience this whole microfiche section as a reading-game.
Reading all the articles together, we see four main themes emerge: 1) spectral activity, 2) bigotry and conservatism, 3) decay of the community, 4) the power struggle between the miners and Possum Spring’s mine’s owners.
All of these articles inform each other, create a lore and prepare the player for the denouement of the story. Indeed, Night in the Woods ends by revealing that the gruesome severed arm, the disappearance of Casey, as well as the spectral abduction and murder scene are linked to the mine’s history, the moribund economy of Possum Springs, as well as mindless conservatism. And all of this was foreshadowed in the gaps between the different articles, in the same way a lot of the interest of “Somnambulism” relies in the juxtaposition of the gazette and the diary.
There is actually a secret cult in the city, which worships a Lovecraftian god that is supposedly residing at the bottom of an endless pit in the abandoned mine. The cult believes that, in order to “bring back jobs” to Possum Spring, people have to be sacrificed by being thrown into a pit. This process of scapegoating is reminiscent of “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, a short story in which, every year, in a small village, an inhabitant is picked randomly and stoned to death. In Night in the Woods, though, the scapegoats are not picked randomly: the members of the cult pick people “that no one will miss.” Casey, who used to be in Mae’s group of friends was one of those people; he was picked because he was regarded as socially worthless by members of a Cult that nostalgically mourns the good-old-days when they had a job, and the shops in town were opened.
Mae and her friends are pursued while fleeing the mine, a lift breaks down in their escape, trapping the cult behind in the depths of their destructive nostalgia. The game ends before we know whether these men were rescued or not. However, the reliability of the narration of the ending of the game is put to question by a single article in the microfiche mini-game which happened a few hours ago, and entitled “Underground Gasses Afflict Many.”
This article questions the whole reliability of what is shown in the game. The aim of Night in the Woods is for the player to be put in Mae’s shoes; thus what is shown is but Mae’s perception. And her house, the house of her friends, as well as the house of the cult member could have been infected by the hallucinatory gas mentioned in the article, hence explaining Mae’s dreams, the apparition of the ghost of Mae’s grandfather, the Lovecraftian god, or other supernatural events. This interpretation is one among many, in the very tradition of the American gothic.
THE VALUE OF REPETITION
These many interpretations allow the story of Night in the Woods to resonate with multiple players, in the same way the multiplicity of narrative paths allowed the player to invest himself or herself personally in Oxenfree. We are therefore in front of two games, that rely on two different methods to hook the player, and which avoid the main drawbacks of narrative games – shortness and forgetfulness – through intelligent incentives to replay and a stunning and unique visual and authorial identity.
(This Bibliography covers part 1 and 2)
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Benson, Scott. Nuke Possum Springs: A Night in the Woods Design Postmortem . Retrieved April, 10, 2018, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xzhe45Q8780
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Oxenfree. Developed by Night School Studio. Glendale, CA: Night School Studio, 2016, Nintendo Switch.
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