I grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania. At the turn of the 20th century, Scranton was an industrial boom town, thriving on multiple industries—coal, steel, phonograph records, even the country’s first electric trolley system—but by the time I was born, all of that had pretty much ended. In 1959, the year my parents were born, the Susquehanna River flooded the mines in a disaster that toppled the mining industry, and the rest of the industrial jobs soon followed. Over the last 90 years, the population’s decreased from 143,433 at its height to 75,281. I’m two generations removed from Scranton’s heyday and can barely even imagine it from grade school trips to the anthracite museum. What I don’t have to imagine, however, are the people there now. Folks like my parents, blue collar workers fighting to make ends meet like in so many other damaged communities, and people like my high school friends who either abandoned Scranton long ago or have stuck around, reliving their parents’ lives and experiences. What happens to a city after the boom, when unions, mines and factories are replaced by retail, fast food and Walmart? What happens to people when the bedrock principle of their parents—work hard and you’ll be able to provide for your family—is ripped from their fingers a little more each year?
Night in the Woods attempts to answer these questions, and in so many ways it’s everything I’ve been waiting for. In college, I devoured the working class realism of literary writers like Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, Bobbie Ann Mason and Breece “D’J” Pancake. If you asked me at 20 why I liked these writers, I probably would have mumbled something about how I saw myself in their fiction, how their milieu of dive bars and abandoned mines and rundown city squares reminded me of Scranton and the way I grew up. But now, I understand that’s not really true. My friends obviously weren’t those 40-something heavy drinkers in Carhartts and Wolverine shit kickers, complaining over Yuengling about the Steelers and the mayor and taxes. My friends listened to Weezer and spent Friday nights playing Chrono Cross on PlayStation. My friends went to punk shows at Café Metro in nearby Wilkes-Barre and worked retail at KB Toys and struggled with how to survive in a city missing its industry. We were the second generation after the collapse and, unlike our parents, harbored no illusions whatsoever that we would actually find jobs in Scranton. We were born on dead end streets, and that’s an experience I never see represented in fiction. The downtrodden laborers of Carver are a popular and important trope, but their nihilistic punk offspring? You don’t see them too often, if at all, and that’s why Night in the Woods, is so necessary. That experience is foregrounded, and perhaps it’s because two of the three members of developer Infinite Fall grew up in Pennsylvania and currently live in Pittsburgh. But regardless of where they’re from, they’ve successfully made the millennial working class experience universal and downloadable, playable on PlayStation.
Night in the Woods’ protagonist is Mae Borowski, a 20-year-old college dropout who’s reluctantly returned to her post-industrial hometown of Possum Springs. You reconnect with her family, friends and neighbors, and these are mostly mundane moments that on a dime can cut toward the emotional core of the working class experience. Parents are saddled with predatory mortgages and fear losing their homes. The younger generation struggles under dead end service jobs that leave them exhausted and depressed. More and more businesses leave downtown every few weeks. Malls and mines and churches are abandoned, but the bar’s always packed, filled with workers cheering the Smelters, the Night in the Woods-equivalent of the Steelers. A father goes from working in a factory to working in a chain supermarket. Angry neighbors write poems about the brutality of the American economy and a desire to burn Silicon Valley and its babyfaced millionaires to the ground.
The genius of Night in the Woods is that it grounds its heavy themes not in the worn down characters of Carver, but in the queer anarchist punks of Mae’s generation. The game is a rare look at characters who balance all of the burdens above with a love for retro videogames and band practice and drinking in the woods while some blowhard from high school plays acoustic guitar. The game borrows tonally from a variety of sources—everything from the hyperkinetic Scott Pilgrim to the peculiar horror of Haruki Murakami or Blue Velvet back to the blue collar sob stories of Pancake. Plus, did I mention all the characters are animals? Like BoJack Horseman, this aesthetic allows the game to fluctuate rapidly between over-the-top absurdity and soul crushing sadness. In one moment, watch Gregg—the insanely lovable queer anarchist who’s consumed ten too many Pixie Sticks—and Mae break into a children’s museum and shout “Crimes!” every time they literally do anything. In the next, see Bea—the emotional anchor of Night in the Woods—drive ninety minutes to a college party where once every two months she can pretend to be middle-class with a real chance at upward mobility. It’s the most heartbreaking scene of the game, and it’s only amplified when Mae—her de facto best friend since options in Possum Springs are so limited—spills the beans to the boy Bea likes and reveals she’s not a college student and actually runs a hardware store half-a-state away.
The college party and its aftermath are scenes that will stay with me for a very long time. The stark differences between Mae and Bea—the former the only Borowski to attend college, the one who squandered the opportunity her parents sacrificed everything for, and the latter the valedictorian trapped steering the doomed family business into the ground—are earned and emotionally honest, and it’s the most moving moment I’ve seen in a game outside of Gone Home or Final Fantasy XV. Its power is tripled because Mae is allowed to be immature and shitty. She doesn’t understand why Bea is lying to these college boys or what she even gets out of these parties, which to her seem so last year and stupid. And the player is left frustrated that their dialogue options during this stretch of the game are so limited, that no matter what you choose, you will hurt Bea. That’s what’s so refreshing about Mae as a character. She’s a female protagonist who’s allowed to make mistakes and be crappy. Like the aforementioned Scott Pilgrim or Don Draper from Mad Men or a hundred other male protagonists from Raymond Carver or Andre Dubus, Mae Borowski does some truly regrettable shit at points in the narrative, and, in other moments, I’m rooting for her so, so hard. The cast is complex and real and believable, and this makes their working class struggles hit home in a way mainstream fiction doesn’t always handle well.
My wife will tell you that I’m a total stickler when it comes to working class representation in fiction, be it in books, movies, TV, whatever. The moment a working class character is introduced in any of these things, I usually cringe or give up because they’re usually so poorly handled, so untrue. Take, for example, the critical darling Stranger Things, a pastiche mashing Freaks and Geeks with ‘80s horror, something I’d typically love. But I couldn’t make it out of the first few episodes because of the portrayal of Winona Ryder’s character and her two sons. Everything about the way they’re presented is stereotypically working class—the wood paneling, the bad retail job, the money struggles, the crappy car, outdated clothes, how they live outside of the “normal” boundaries of town represented by where the protagonist lives. I could go on and on and on.
This kind of representation infuriates me. It’s representation that feels born of a middle-class viewpoint, a representation that serves only to characterize the middle class protagonist—because in these kinds of stories, the working class character can never be the protagonist unless the fiction is literally about the working class struggle. In reality, characters like Ryder’s and her sons would try in small ways to pass as middle class, even if these attempts would almost definitely fail—one or two more expensive items of clothing, a patched up car, some nice decoration at home. What media like Stranger Things whiffs on is working class pride and shame. These people are proud, and these people are ashamed of their financial problems. They will go to great lengths to hide them. And yet, entire moments, hours, maybe even days go by when they’re not concerned with some kind of working class problem. Night in the Woods is the rare fiction that gets all of this so right. Mae and her friends and family are not political stand-ins merely meant to criticize neoliberal economic policies, nor are they background fodder that only shade middle class protagonists. They’re just themselves. Sometimes they worry about money, and sometimes they just want to rank the best kinds of pizza. It’s so, so refreshing, and it’s so, so sad that this kind of representation feels refreshing.
In the end, Night in the Woods leans into its cosmic horror and away from the grounded realism that makes up the bulk of the experience. But even here, Infinite Fall uses this thrust of sudden, overt plot not to launch us into an over-the-top, traditional videogame storyline—like how Firewatch spends hours building a complex human story only to finish it off with an absurd murder mystery in the final 45 minutes— but to make one last stab at assembling meaning from the millennial working class experience. The tagline of the game is, “At the end of everything, hold on to anything,” and the ending doubles down on this rhetoric. The ending clearly lays out the divide between the old working class generation—represented here by red state hard liners taking out their anger over a crooked system on immigrants and anyone they think is getting a better deal—and the new—extremely bitter, anti-capitalist punks. This argument which has no doubt played out across dinner tables all over this country this election season is represented in Night in the Woods by magic, by evil if well-intentioned cults, by a gaping hole at the center of everything. What that hole represents—the emptiness of the abandoned mines, the uncaring center of capitalism, some inherent darkness in ourselves—is left open to interpretation, but Infinite Fall chooses to leave us with hope, with a new generation taking the reins from their parents and deciding to plot a new path forward even if their chance at success is slim at best. Night in the Woods completely shook me in the rarest and best possible way. It’s the working class fiction I’ve been waiting for my entire life.
Salvatore Pane is the author of the novel Last Call in the City of Bridges in addition to Mega Man 3 from Boss Fight Books. His writing has appeared in American Short Fiction, Hobart, New South, and many other venues. He teaches English at the University of St. Thomas and can be reached at www.salvatore-pane.com or @salpane.