Patrick Fiorilli

Patrick Fiorilli is a PhD candidate in the Digital Media program at the Georgia Institute of Technology. As a comparative media theorist, he studies videogames through the lenses of continental philosophy and poststructuralist literary theory. His dissertation, "Imagined Fortresses: Video Games as Language," argues that videogames, as virtual worlds, are experienced as language, and that they function as textual and philosophical machines which deepen our understandings of phenomenology, writing, and finitude. He is due to defend in 2022.

Contact information:
patrick.fiorilli at

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Gods: Reading Night in the Woods through Mark Fisher

by Patrick Fiorilli


This article presents a close reading of the videogame Night in the Woods (Infinite Fall, 2017) [1]. Following literary critic Irving Howe's (2002) notion of the "political novel," this article demonstrates that Night in the Woods exists as a rare and audacious interrogation of Capital and its deleterious fallout in the rural United States. To make its case, this article draws from the critical vocabulary of theorist Mark Fisher, whose notions of "capitalist realism," (2009) "the weird" and "the eerie" (2016) serve to identify explicitly and categorically much of what the game in question represents implicitly and aesthetically. This article first examines how a pathological sense of weirdness is internalized by main character Mae. Next, it examines how eeriness pervades the playable and political environment of the gameworld. Finally, it examines the game's eldritch-capital antagonist in order to characterize the outlook of the game's protagonists as resolutely hopeful and reparatively queer in the face of an outwardly meaningless cosmos.

Keywords: Night in the Woods, Mark Fisher, Lovecraft, weird fiction, horror, close reading, capitalism, politics, queerness, hauntology


Introduction: Night in the Woods as a Political Game

I have always longed to be a part of the outward life, to be out there at the edge of things, to let the human taint wash away in emptiness and silence as the fox sloughs his smell into the cold unworldliness of water; to return to the town as a stranger.

- J. A. Baker (2004)

There is a difference between having politics and being political. The word "politics," according to political theorist Chantal Mouffe (2013), "refers to the ensemble of practices, discourses and institutions that seeks to establish a certain order and to organize human coexistence" (p.3). On the contrary, Mouffe defines "the political" as "the antagonistic dimension which is inherent to all human societies" (p.2). Politics, then, is something like the ground-level manifestation of higher-order, political antagonism. People live together because of politics, despite their disagreements over the political. The uncertain and unending conflict of "the political" emerges as the dominant mode of human activity and its meaning-making.

All games, as products of culture and labor, have politics. Because they're made in a time, in a place, and by people for an audience of players, the politics of games are inherent, even if they aren't expressed. One can imagine a thorough inquiry into the politics of Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo EAD, 1985) that has nothing to do with the Mushroom Kingdom, its monarch, or her mustachioed savior -- but rather concerns itself with the impact of the game on Japanese and North American techno-entertainment economies.

On the other hand, a game that is political must be reckoned with politically. Its aesthetic import must be analyzed or critiqued on that basis. But what is a political game? There is precedent for answering this question. Literary critic Irving Howe (2002) describes the "political novel" as a novel "in which we take to be dominant political ideas or the political milieu" (p.17). So long as "the relation between politics and literature," as it is expressed in a work, "is interesting enough to warrant investigation," Howe argues that we may consider said work a political novel (p.17).

The analysis that follows is a close reading of one recent independent game that -- by way of narrative and mechanics in equal parts quotidian and chthonic -- stands out as a rare and explicit critique of Capital and its deleterious fallout in the rural United States. Co-written by Scott Benson and Bethany Hockenberry, Night in the Woods is a narrative adventure game developed by one-off three-person studio, Infinite Fall (2017). It is a game about ruins, hauntings, horrors, and the making of meaning therein.

Yet, on first impression, one notices the game's quirky, storybook art style. Autumn-afternoon oranges stand out against foreboding blues. Animations are simple, but expressive; filled with details like leaves that flutter in the wind as the player-character flits across the screen. Characters themselves are all represented as anthropomorphic animals: think Disney, but disaffected -- wide-eyed with what, in an interview (Ewert-Krocker, 2017), artist Benson describes as "the catatonic stare" of Richard Scarry's townsfolk. The protagonist and her parents are cats; her best friends are a fox, an alligator, a bear, and a bird. Notably, no mention of anyone's species is made. For all intents and purposes, the cast comprises human folks like us, living in a society much like ours.

Night in the Woods takes place in Possum Springs, a once prosperous mining community in decline. Unions went on strike and were busted; businesses moved, and the mines were closed; floods hit hard. The player controls Mae Borowski, a young woman returning here -- to her hometown -- after dropping out of her sophomore year of college. Every morning, Mae wakes up in her childhood bed, restless from one of her increasingly vivid supernatural dreamscapes. She can check the instant messenger app on her computer, head into town to chat down locals, or pop in on one of her now (un)gainfully employed old pals.

Talking to friends presents to the player the greatest opportunity to affect the development of the plot. At the end of most days -- as determined, not by a running clock, but rather by the onset of the player's own boredom -- Mae can ask each of her closest friends what their plans are that evening, and, subtly or not, invite herself to tag along. Thus, within a single playthrough of the game, players choose whether to loot the junkyard for broken-down animatronics with Gregg the anarcho-punk fox, or to wander the dilapidated shopping mall with Bea the goth alligator. Each option -- each "friend date" -- is generally exclusive of the others. You can't please everyone. Yet, in all cases, Mae begins to realize that her old friends have grown up without her. She has been left behind.

Things worsen when, on the night of the annual Harvest Festival, Mae witnesses a kidnapping. She soon convinces herself that a ghostly presence is responsible. Mae ropes her friends into the mystery after her reports of the incident to her aunt, a local cop, go unheeded. The gang's investigation reveals not a ghost, but a secretive, sacrificial cult of worshipers to a cosmic horror lurking at the bottom of an abandoned mineshaft. At this juncture the game's politics sharpen. The cult, Mae finds, comprises local good-ol' boys alleging to be doing right by their community. For generations, they've sacrificed those they consider worthless to their vile god. In recognition of their deeds, the cultists pray that the Thing in the mine -- Black Goat, as they call it -- will by its great power return Possum Springs to its former All-American glory. Indeed, they want to Make Possum Springs Great Again. "The politics of the game became more overt as we went," notes Benson in an interview (Ewert-Krocker, 2017). Following a last-act confrontation, Mae and her pals escape by inadvertently trapping the cultists in a mine collapse. The next day, they reconvene for band practice.

Among the themes evident in this plot, one finds a notable resemblance -- uncanny, really -- to those recurrent in the theoretical work of Mark Fisher. In fact, so clear is this thematic kinship that Benson (2019b) recently had this to say on Twitter: "For various reasons I've been back in the NITW headspace lately and approaching it years later I'm kind of amazed I hadn't read Mark Fisher before we made that game. I only got around to reading Capitalist Realism last year." In the interest of articulating the political significance of the game, this article posits that the work of Mark Fisher serves to unpack explicitly and theoretically much of what Night in the Woods represents implicitly and aesthetically.

Capitalist Realism

What may be the definitive expression of Fisher's (2009) peculiar outlook on what's generally and generously called Late Capitalism comes from his first book, Capitalist Realism, subtitled, Is There No Alternative? The book charts an interrogation of the forms and furrows of Capital, likening it, in the critical tradition of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, to a shapeless and lurking monster (Fisher, 2009, p.5). Capital, for Fisher, is something we can never behold in full. Rather, we sense it like a "pervasive atmosphere" (p.16) -- and like our atmosphere, it disappears from perception. The "centerlessness" (p.64) of Capital precludes it from taking any kind of responsibility. Consequently, it foists the ire of a working class that supports it onto individuals held to be at fault for their troubles: like cultists eager to toss lives into a pit. Fisher describes the problem like so: "it is only individuals that can be held ethically responsible for actions, and yet the cause of these abuses and errors is corporate" (p.69).

The disappearing of Capital becomes Fisher's main target. The book's eponym, "capitalist realism," is Fisher's term for the atmosphere that makes it -- in a quote attributed both to Frederic Jameson and to Slavoj Žižek -- "easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism" (p.2). The stakes become personal as Fisher intends not only to outline the shape of Capital, but to call to our collective attention to the strain and injuries it inflicts upon us, upon our minds, and upon our mental health. Fisher writes that "the task of repoliticizing mental illness is an urgent one" (p.37). To deny the social-economic influence of Capital on mental health is to give Capital exactly what it wants: more individuals to blame, more outs to disappear into.

But whereas Capitalist Realism focuses on the effects -- physical and mental -- of Capital, Fisher's (2016) later work, The Weird and the Eerie investigates the affects through which it is channeled. Capitalist Realism shows us a monster; The Weird and the Eerie shows us how and where that monster hunts. Fisher's definitions of the weird and the eerie refer to a variety of phenomena. Among them: genres of fiction, literary styles, atmospheres, and methods of inquiry. Above all, however, the weird and the eerie are "modes of being" (p.9). Although Fisher doesn't immediately jump to this word, they are ontologies we recognize and embody.

But how do I know if a feeling is weird, or if it's eerie? In Fisher's (2016) framework, what do these words really mean? The weird is "that which does not belong" (p.10). This is simple enough to understand; but it can also mean that which, in our limited and fallible capacities, we merely think does not belong (p.15). The eerie is more complex. It is a kind of uncertainty "constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence" (p.61). Fisher explains in other words: "The eerie concerns the most fundamental metaphysical questions one could pose, questions to do with existence and non-existence: Why is there something here when there should be nothing? Why is there nothing here with there should be something?" (WE, 12) Thus, questions of the eerie extend well into the metaphysical realm of will and agency. "What kind of agent is acting here? Is there an agent at all?" (p.11)

Connecting the two works, Capitalist Realism and The Weird and the Eerie, is a shared vocabulary. In the latter, Fisher (2016) writes, "Capital is at every level an eerie entity: conjured out of nothing, capital nonetheless exerts more influence than any allegedly substantial entity" (p.11). In the former (Fisher, 2009): "The most Gothic description of Capital is also the most accurate. Capital is an abstract parasite, an insatiable vampire and zombie-maker; but the living flesh it converts into dead labor is ours, and the zombies it makes are us" (p.15).

Inasmuch as Fisher's supernatural metaphors here are indebted to Marx's frequent comparisons of capitalism to vampirism, they draw upon the works of H. P. Lovecraft, undoubtedly the preeminent (and, as we will explore, most problematical) name in the genre of "weird fiction." Describing connection between Lovecraft and the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari (themselves a point of reference for Fisher), Patricia MacCormack (2010) writes that, through Lovecraft, "we are forced to think, first, potentiality as an encounter with alterity, and, second, the political risks and imperatives of ourselves becoming other." She continues, "the quality of one's journey toward Lovecraft should take into account the definitions of such terms as 'life,' 'human,' and other early tenets of thoughts, apprehensions of form and perceptions of states." Indeed, such are the very terms of the conversation proposed here between Fisher and Night in the Woods: the other, the inhuman, the formless.

Using Fisher's vocabulary, then, we can approach Night in the Woods from a critical and theoretical angle appropriate to its own spooky aestheticization of the political. First, by examining how a pathological sense of weirdness is internalized by the main character Mae. Second, by examining how eeriness pervades the playable and political environment of Possum Springs itself. And finally, by examining the game's horrific antagonist, Black Goat. Through these analyses we can characterize the outlook of the game's protagonists as resolutely hopeful and politically queer in the face of an outwardly meaningless cosmos.

The Weird

All returns are marked by a weird alienation. Returns to places -- think of going back to your elementary school -- are especially charged with what Fisher (2016) calls the "peculiar kind of perturbation" that comprises the weird (p.15). He writes, "a weird entity or object is so strange that it makes us feel that it should not exist, or at least should not exist here" (p.15). Fisher introduces the weird as it relates to objects outside ourselves. But Night in the Woods emphasizes a painful kind of nostalgia that subverts this notion and directs it inward, namely, the nostalgia by which we wonder, upon returning to a place, whether we should have. The weird becomes us. Mae is one such weird alien traversing her own reductive and toxic nostalgia. Upon her return from college to Possum Springs, Mae expects the town to be exactly the way it was when she left. The same trees, the same trains, the same people. Her first words upon seeing her father: "Hey! Remember me?" The title card that marks the game's first chapter: "Home Again."

Of course, things are different. But things aren't just different because Mae is different; things have changed on their own. Highschool, that fabulous and terrible unifier of teenage angst, is over. With it went the rigid structure by which friendships were fostered by circumstance. Mae's friends didn't go to college. They've gotten retail jobs or taken up managing the family business, and now they convene for band practice as an excuse to hang out, rather than in pursuit of the next big gig. Moreover, those friendships have evolved in Mae's absence, and they work across social dynamics that Mae (and the player) must learn anew. Likewise, her parents -- as comes as a surprise to many young adults -- are newly comfortable expressing their personal anxieties to her: money is tight since her father was laid off, and the church her mother works at isn't doing so well either. As Fisher (2009) reminds us, "capitalism requires the family… even as it undermines it" (p.33). Things are weird.

But Mae's estrangement is still deeper. She becomes weird not just outwardly -- but utterly unto herself. She sees herself not merely as someone who does not belong locally, neither here nor there -- but as an entity that essentially and forever cannot belong. Tragically, her solution to this dilemma feeds back into its cause. If she comes home, Mae figures, maybe she isn't really the person she was while she was away. Perhaps she can belong, or can belong again, if only in Possum Springs. "The sense of wrongness associated with the weird," Fisher (2016) writes, "is often a sign that we are in the presence of the new" (p.13). Indeed, the infinite novelty of the self is at its weirdest when it encounters that which reminds it of its own past. Mae clings to this weird tension even as it hurts her.

For most of the game, the player doesn't know why Mae decided to drop out, largely due to Mae's own reluctance to talk about it. It's clear that Mae left school (and is ashamed of having left) not because of some singular, secret tragedy, but because of the same anxieties she expresses throughout the game. Late in the narrative, as she recovers from a penultimate run-in with some of the Black Goat cultists, Mae reclines on a dingy sofa alongside either Gregg or Bea -- the punk fox or the goth gator -- depending on which character the player has spent more time with. During this conversation, Mae opens up about certain episodes characterized by debilitating dissociation. Sometimes, she says, people appear to her like mere assemblages of meaningless patterns and shapes: weird bodies eerily moving around.

The apparitions of this incomprehensible geometry utterly displace Mae, remove her from her surroundings, and strand her in an unconscionable exterior. They weird her to the world as they weird the world to her. Without attempting to diagnose a fictional affliction, we may yet recognize that such dissociation echoes themes common to queer theories of embodiment (to which we will return). Critical theorist Nikki Sullivan (2017), for instance, examines the very real condition of Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID), whereby a person desires "the amputation of a healthy limb or limbs," oftentimes due to a "feeling of disjunction between the selves they are and the bodies they have" (p.127). Sullivan deconstructs BIID as a "queer (dis)orientation" of the body, characterized by a breakdown of the "boundaries and borders between 'us' and 'them,' between proper and improper bodies -- both individual and social" and the societal idealizations thereof (p.128). During the episodes described by Mae boundaries and bodies similarly dissolve into meaningless shapes, impossible to cohere into form. In these instances, Mae confronts a materialism antithetical to meaning itself. She confronts what Fisher (2016) calls "hypernaturalism -- an expanded sense of what the material cosmos contains" (p.17): a trademark of the weird for which our human conceptions are never adequate.

As Mae drifts into an anxious sleep on the couch, she reveals to her closest friend that she first experienced this dissociation when she was, of all things, playing a videogame about "dating ghosts or something." One afternoon, Mae says, "suddenly, like, something broke." Her friend asks her to continue. Mae's monologue proceeds:

It was just like… pixels. The characters onscreen… I felt like I knew them. They weren't people anymore. They were just shapes. And their lines were just things someone had written. They never existed, they never had feelings. They never would exist, either. And it felt so sad, like I'd just lost these real people, and this whole thing we had, it was just… me. Alone. And like that realization like dumped out of the screen and into real life, went outside and the tree out front, I looked at it every day, it was like a friend outside the window, now it was just a thing… just a thing that was there, growing and eating and just being there, like all the stuff I felt about the tree was just in my head, and there was some guy walking by, and he was just shapes, just like this moving bulk of… stuff, and I cried, because nothing was there for me anymore, it was all just stuff. Stuff in the universe, just… dead.

Mae knew she had to drop out of college when she looked up at the statue of the institution's founder and could see nothing but those same shapes again. She continues, "And I came home. Where everything was fine. Where I knew everyone, and it wasn't just… dead shapes. Watching me. Something broke. In my head. In my life." Faced with such a rupture, Mae's anxieties offer her a choice: is the world weird, or is she herself the weird one? Fisher (2009) emphasizes that "the current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness" (p.37), because to do otherwise, in Mae's case, would be for Capital to take on responsibility for an existential angst founded on the disinterested movement of inert matter for reasons beyond our reckoning -- that is, founded on its very mode of production, its logic of the assembly line. The only position left for Mae is an ontologically weird one. "There is no inside except as a folding of the outside; the mirror cracks, I am an other, and I always was" (Fisher, 2016, p.11-12). This conclusion produces a thematic claustrophobia that becomes echoed and amplified by the spatial dimension of Mae's environment and the player's interactions therein. Mae feels trapped in Possum Springs. The player is guided to feel the same way.

The Eerie

Spatially speaking, Night in the Woods is a side-scroller, a kind of two-dimensional game in which the player guides their avatar laterally in front of a various backdrops. The backdrops of a side-scroller, or "screens" as they're typically called, can have entrances and exits not just at their boundaries, but in their midst. Additional entrances or exits can lead to complex concatenations of screens. A great appeal of side-scrollers is this spatial reckoning. Players need to know not just where to go, but how best to get there. Night in the Woods leverages the spatiality of its setting to foster an ever increasingly oppressive and eerie atmosphere over the course of its narrative.

The explorable world of Night in the Woods comprises about eight major screens of exterior townscape. Among them: the commercial town centre, the former underground trolley station, the parking lot behind the old supermarket. Additionally, the player can enter a handful of buildings, like the church and the workplaces of Mae's friends. Since the game progresses one day at a time, the player nearly always starts the day in Mae's bedroom. From there, Mae can walk out of her third-floor room, down the stairs, out of her parents' house, and down the street either to the left or to the right. The Borowski household is located on a residential street near the rightmost boundary of the game's map. Moving to the right, the player finds some woods, a bridge, and the sign marking the city limits. Attempting to continue rightward, the player provokes Mae to quip that she's not about to walk all the way to the next town over.

The player is similarly stymied by moving leftward from Mae's neighborhood, downtown through the various screens of the commercial district, and out to the chain-link fence that bounds the abandoned parking lot. Ambient noise dominates: wind over leaves, the ethereal crackle of the nearby woods. The game's camera similarly estranges the perspective by framing those woods with greater emphasis, casting Mae, who typically occupies the central real estate of the screen, into the far right of the shot. Not incidentally, it's along this latter borderline that, midway through the game, Mae loses track of the cultist kidnapper she chases down on the night of the Harvest Festival. In either direction, for the sake of apathy or fear, respectively, Mae -- and the player -- are stuck. Escape is only ever inward.

Between these boundaries, as the days of Mae's return go by, routines emerge. Mae's computer sits at the ready next to her bed. Hence, the player is likely to check Mae's chat windows daily, to see what her friends are up to. Early on, Mae's mother calls her over to the kitchen to catch up. Likewise, the player is liable to check in with her every morning thereafter. (But will the player do so the morning after a nasty argument with Mae’s mother?) Miss Rosa, an elderly friend of Mae's grandfather, eats breakfast by the pierogi stand nearly every day. It comes as a dreadful surprise when the player arrives to check on her, and she isn't there. (She returns.) Day in and day out, a routine -- routines. Down the stairs, talk to Mom, head into town, walk up to the church, out to the cliffside, chat with Bruce, back into town, down to the trolley station, steal a pretzel, hop back upstairs, go visit Bea….

Mae's routines, guided by the player, become the driving force by which, to lift vocabulary from Michael Nitsche (2008), the virtual space of Possum Springs -- its navigable backdrops and the sights, sounds, and characters who inhabit them -- slowly becomes a place in its own right. "Placeness is not a quality of a virtual space per se," Nitsche writes, "but one that can be achieved for it through the inhabitants: the games players. Virtual placeness has to be earned" (p. 201). Through Nitsche's framework, we can understand how the claustrophobia of Possum Springs, as a virtual space, becomes integral to the development of its placeness. It encourages the formation of habit, thereby cementing the organization of space into the player’s memory, and reinforcing forging an affective link between Mae's experience of the world and the player's. Here, Aubrey Anable's (2018) exploration of videogames and affect provides a useful touchstone. Anable contends that too often the discipline of game studies "looks for big emotions in a medium that seems to traffic more interestingly in the minor affects" (p. viii). Among these affects, these "forces that inform our emotional states" (p. xvii), Anable locates tension, relaxation, catharsis and -- most integral to our investigation of Night in the Woods -- boredom.

Through boredom, the narrative of Mae's own dissatisfaction regarding Possum Springs becomes totally supported by the player's own experience of it. Why is she, anyone, even here? A gnawing sentiment -- this town is dead, really dead -- is expressed outright by various characters, but all the more effectively through the motions of play itself. Whereas Night in the Woods is a comparatively lengthy game for its genre -- totaling anywhere from eight to over a dozen hours -- the investment of time is meaningful. What amounts to mind-numbing, claustrophobic boredom on the part of the player exists for the experiential expression of genuine sentiment. "Although many games arrive at boredom unintentionally," writes Bo Ruberg (2019), "boredom itself can communicate a powerful message" (p. 171). Indeed, for Ruberg, boredom is a powerful expression of a game's "affective rhetoric" (p. 165), especially when it produces "no-fun," or the opposite of what is traditionally expected from a videogame (p. 168). Through claustrophobia and habit, Night in the Woods leverages boredom, to draw again from Ruberg, as a queer experience: an "alternative form of pleasure" which works against the traditional equation of videogames and fun to "disrupt notions of desire, temporality, success, meaning, life, and death" (p. 15). Mae, an expressly queer character, is desperate to find anything to do with herself. So too is the player. Returning to the eerie: something should be here, right? Or perhaps what is here shouldn't be.

Far from being purely affective, however, the game's routinized and queer expression boredom has direct consequences for Mae's storyline. In many roleplaying games, the term "side quest" refers to a kind of optional objective unrelated to the "main quest" which begins and ends the game. Despite not being a traditional roleplaying game, Night in the Woods contains several side quests. The first has to do with an alcove blocked by cardboard boxes in the attic of the Borowski home. The player can come across this alcove early on, and Mae will comment that perhaps she can convince her father to move the boxes so that she can see what might be hidden there. A second side quest concerns Mae's discovery of a mischief of baby rats abandoned in the carcass of a rotting parade float. Their progenitors nowhere to be found, the baby rats come to see Mae as a kind of mother figure. In both cases, Night in the Woods is not explicit about what the player needs to do to see these side quests through. However, the player may discover their mechanisms themselves, by doing exactly what they were likely doing already.

In order to clear the boxes in front of the alcove, the player must periodically converse with Mae's father, who can be found at home watching TV every night after the completion of the day's events. Mr. Borowski, the player learns, has recently been laid off from his job. He now works, for little respect and less pay, in the deli section of the grocery store. While the player can ignore these conversations by heading straight up to Mae's bedroom, engaging Mae's father every night will eventually prompt him to move the boxes, allowing Mae to find a safe in which her grandfather stored a person's tooth. The tooth is a symbol of the old miner's union, dating back to an inspiring incident in which union workers literally knocked the teeth out of one of their bosses, in retaliation for a crackdown on their strike. At the end of the game, if the tooth has been discovered, Mae gives the tooth as a gift to her father in solidarity with his expressed frustration with the deli's management. This scene never occurs unless the player frequently checks in with Mae's father. In the absence of a routine, there is no payoff.

Likewise, Mae's rat children need to be fed each day with pretzels stolen from the local pierogi vendor who, to his own discredit, instantly and without cause presumes Mae to be a thief. The pretzels secreted into her pocket, Mae can return to the rat nest a provider. For the player who keeps to this ritual, the routine provides a day-to-day structure. Steal a pretzel, feed the rats. The loop, and the route by which the player efficiently completes it, become second nature -- even cathartic. Although the rats can't perish, the player who doesn't regularly feed them will miss another end-game scene: Mae reclining peacefully in the window of the abandoned grocery store, surrounded by the rats she's raised.

It's clear from both side-stories that Night in the Woods is a game that cares more about what the player chooses to do over time than about what the player chooses to do at any given moment. Change, or personal growth, the game argues, is something that happens through routinization; through the decisions a person makes day after day. If, as Fisher (2016) puts it, "behind all manifestations of the eerie, the central enigma at its core is the problem of agency," "the existence of agency as such," and "the particular nature of the agent at work" (p.63), then Night in the Woods responds by emphasizing an agency that develops in our actions over time.

By applying this agency to the end of habitual socialization, the game gestures toward what Murphy and Zagal (2011) identify as an "ethics of care," an ethics which "lends itself to focus on specific, concrete situations rather than formulating a more general set of principles," and which nonetheless does so in an acknowledged political context (p. 71). Such games as exhibit an ethics of care encourage the development of relationships between players and non-player characters, not for transactional or instrumental reasons, not because players want something, but because "building and maintaining relationships is an end in itself" (p. 76). In this respect, an ethics of care distinguishes itself from the ethics implied by other games which emphasize a character's social relationships -- for instance, those described by Todd Harper (2011), wherein the player-character's combat strength is linked to the maintenance of in-game friendships. Night in the Woods does nothing to signal that talking with Mae's father, or any other character, will result in any reward -- not even the revelation of additional narrative aside from the conversation itself. Hence, the experience of this kind of relationship stems wholly, per Murphy and Zagal (2011), "from the emotional connection to the characters and the investment that has been put into them" (p. 76). That is, the emotional investment, as Mae herself must eventually learn, is key.

Even the game's interface reinforces the theme of care and habit. As days pass, conversations flow, and events unfold, Mae records into her journal (originally prescribed by her therapist) crudely scribbled sketches of the people and places in her life. Since the player can access this journal at any time by pausing the game, the sketches become legible indications of the development of Mae's character. Moreover, they become reminders that fight against the terrible eeriness of Mae's world. Sometimes things just happen, but sometimes there's something left to remind us that their happenings both involved and affected us.


As a weird, small town, Possum Springs exists within a lineage of strange little American villages. Twin Peaks, a 1990 television show created by David Lynch and Mark Frost provides the most obvious touchstone. Upon its premiere, Twin Peaks founded a visual and narrative idiolect by which small-town Americana would be forever after filtered through the quaint, the quirky, and the supernatural. The eponymous one-horse town of Twin Peaks comes to be known by audiences for its for its cherry pie, surreal murders and cosmic spirits. But the show fascinates and terrifies most of all with its characterization of evil. The supernatural runs rampant, but its darkness is compounded by all too ordinary suffering: high school drug rings, sex trafficking, domestic abuse. So too the essential unease of Possum Springs concerns, as Fisher (2016) writes, the terrifying implications of "the opposition between the quotidian and the numinous" (p.30). Possum Springs hides secrets in the mines once used to make its fortune. But the Thing in the pit grew hungry when the digging of Capital that kept it fed had disappeared. Violence hitherto contained belowground seeped onto the surface. Cultic worship began, first to keep the beast sated, to prevent it from bringing about disaster -- but later, to make it happy, to convince it to make things right.

I quote Fisher (2016) regarding the work of the pioneering author of weird (and no less eerie) fiction: "Lovecraft's stories are obsessively fixated on the question of the outside: an outside that breaks through in encounters with anomalous entities from the deep past, in altered states of consciousness, in bizarre twists in the structure of time" (p.16). In many ways, this summation reads like a checklist of the thematic priorities of Night in the Woods -- so strange is the game's own reckoning with the "anomalous entity" of Capital itself: the horror in the mine, Black Goat. In the Lovecraftian tradition, the Black Goat at the heart of Possum Springs would be considered akin to an "Old God," a cosmic being of unimaginable power -- one for whom even the deific epithet of "god" is not just wishful, but woefully incommensurate (Fisher, 2016, p.18). To wit, these things aren't mere gods; gods we understand too well. For these reasons, with Lovecraft, we find an important point of comparison.

In most cases, the deification of the Old Gods has more to do with the traditional worship of the entity in question than with its natural existence. Lovecraft often examines this dichotomy linguistically; his cosmic horrors go by various names, some older than others. Lovecraft's (1982) own "Black Goat of the Woods" is elsewhere identified as "Shub-Niggurath." In the broader mythos, worship of the Old Gods occurs through cultic practices. Most of these cults are secret or otherwise -- in contrast to the one featured in Night in the Woods -- geographically and culturally remote from the anglophone purview of most Lovecraftian protagonists. Indeed, the Lovecraftian occult is outwardly and alarmingly orientalist and racist. Its fears are fears of difference, plain and simple. Its outsides are indeed the outsides of existence, but they are also the outsides of particular, situated existences. Its exoticism doesn't by chance happen to be the very exoticism of the imperial West, with its dark continents, its pagan rituals and its fears of miscegenation. As Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi (1991) writes, "In all aspects of his philosophy except this one, Lovecraft was constantly expanding, clarifying, and revising his views to suit the facts of the world; in race alone his attitude remained monolithic." Far from ignoring these prejudices, however, Night in the Woods makes them text.

Because much of Lovecraft's work has passed into the public domain, recapitulations of his work are eminently popular. However, many Lovecraftian derivations unfortunately replicate the author's biases. Simply remove them, and one also removes much that is integral to Lovecraft. Delicate operation is necessary to save anything worth saving. (Even etymologically speaking, the fear of the alien is difficult to decouple from the very notion of xeno-phobia.) To productively adapt Lovecraftian tropes today requires careful reflexivity that acknowledges the prejudices of their origin. Without it, an artist runs the risk of letting a dead man's looming biases consume the work from the jump. The Ballad of Black Tom, a novella by Victor LaValle (2016), for instance, recasts the Lovecraft story "The Horror at Red Hook" from the perspective of a Black Brooklynite. In revising and revitalizing this tale, LaValle's novella uses and reflects upon the tropes that inspire it. This technique is characteristic of postmodern fiction. With Lovecraft, however, it becomes all but necessary.

In its deployment of Lovecraftian tropes, Night in the Woods is similarly cognizant. The cult of the Black Goat comprises not foreigners with their strange religions, but working-class xenophobes themselves: Rust Belt right-wingers wearing silly hats. Their god is a corrupt incarnation of Capital to whom they feed the "useless" or "undesirable." Their goal is markedly anti-revolutionary. They do not seek, like so many of Lovecraft's cults, to birth into the world the terrible dominion of their god. Rather, they seek to maintain a certain status quo -- better yet, to reclaim the status quo of greatness they feel has been unjustly taken from them -- taken from them by whom else but the very souls they feed into the pit. Night in the Woods doesn't directly confront the issue of race, but the position of the cultists regarding it is clear. They witness an us that is eternally opposed to a them. "The Hartley kid?" One of the cult members asks Mae during their final confrontation, meaning Casey, a missing punk. "All he was gonna contribute to society, 'cept a buncha kids growin' up with no dad, was a rap sheet a mile long, before whatever sad end he'd wind up at. We did him a favor."

The cult's pessimistic and desperate desire to appease an utterly uncaring Capital Old One is most evident in the final monologue of the cult's leader, delivered -- orated -- to Mae and her friends as they stand, against the cultists, at opposite ends of the pit itself:

The Cult Leader: We lost what our world was built around, used to be you provided for a family, bought a house, now you're stockin' shelves at the grocery store, kids leavin' more than they're stayin… No opportunity here. Old people dyin', houses left empty, ever seen that? A *home* become a tumbled-in pile of wood and plaster? A *job* become a burned out brick box or a hole in the ground? But we can change that. We can put this place back together, where it won't be just…

Mae: Shapes... I'm going to die down here."

The Cult Leader: Everything crumbles. Possum Springs bleeds to death, and soon we'll all be dead, and this town will just be fields and trees.

What the cultists fundamentally believe, economically and spiritually, is that if they just send enough human bodies to their deaths in the mine, then the mine will reward them with happiness, with long lives and with sturdy, single-family homes. As Fisher (2009, 2016) demonstrates, Capital doesn't work this way. Yet, the essential eeriness of Capital consists of convincing us that it does work this way -- that it cares, and that we're at fault if it doesn't. One way of responding to this profound eeriness is to follow the lead of the cultists: to appease the monster, to be horrified by it. This is a particular kind of horror, however: one motivated by the thought of the erasure of everything, of the "bleeding to death" of the world as we know it. Such a kind of horror, experienced but fundamentally misunderstood by the Black Goat cultists, is precisely the one described by the pessimist philosopher Eugene Thacker (2011) in his book In the Dust of this Planet.

Thacker's (2011) definition of horror goes like this: "Horror is about the paradoxical thought of the unthinkable" (p.9). More specifically, Thacker argues, horror is a conduit through which we imagine a "world-without-us," or "that which remains 'after' the human" (p.7). Thacker's world-without-us is a loophole of thought by which we subtract ourselves from both sides of the metaphysical equation. The imagery of apocalyptic fiction illustrates this concept readily enough. Skyscrapers scaled by stubborn ivies. Alligators swimming through the atria of flooded shopping malls. Monuments worn down by roving dust storms.

Not to be outshone by apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, however, certain varieties of weird and cosmic horror imagine a similar world-without-us -- Night in the Woods and its Black Goat cult, among them. Work, die and kill for Capital, the cult argues, and Capital will ensure that the world stays put. It won't save you, but as they say, the devil you know is better. "Arguably," Thacker (2011) writes, "one of the greatest challenges that philosophy faces today lies in comprehending the world in which we live as both a human and a non-human world -- and of comprehending this politically" (p.2). Politically then, we find that the imagination of the non-human is precisely the mode by which Night in the Woods interrogates the violence of Capital. By defamiliarizing Capital into the form of a centralized, albeit apparently infinite, ontological personification of power -- as the game puts it, "a hole at the center of everything" -- Night in the Woods politically and paradoxically reckons with what Thacker calls the idea "that thought is not human" (p.7) -- that there are thoughts in the world which aren't ours and therefore can't be comprehended via positivistic inquiry.

Several scenes in Night in the Woods forge a dialectic from these themes, as Mae reckons with the futility of meaning itself. During one of her late-game supernatural nightmares, Mae finds herself stranded among the dunes of what appears to be an endless and starlit desert. Wandering, she comes across a figure blotting out the dim light of the horizon. Before her, atop one of the dunes, sits the silhouette of an enormous housecat. Two giant eyes, alike in feline shape to Mae's own, glow brighter than any star in the sky. The celestial housecat speaks: "Seconds ago, little creatures are coming, and they ask me if I am God, and I am asking what God is, and they are telling me, and I am not this God, and this God is nowhere."

Mae asks the space cat, "So what am I doing here?" The bigger cat responds curtly, "Monstrous existence." It continues:

The Sky Cat: I will tell you a second thing, there is a hole at the center of everything, and it is always growing, between the stars I am seeing it, it is coming, and you are not escaping, and the universe is forgetting you, and the universe is being forgotten, and there is nothing to remember it, not even the things beyond, and now there is only the hole.

Mae: So… does anything mean anything?

The Sky Cat: This is not a question worth answering.

Either way, the space cat reiterates, "Soon they are dying, soon they are rotting, you are atoms, and your atoms are not caring if you are existing, your atoms are monstrous existence."

It is monstrous existence that throws its atoms into a hole. Here we come upon the game's most explicit interrogation meaning as such. In an inversion of religion's traditional hierarchy, Night in the Woods posits that God is something like a synecdochal part of what we call meaning. God, far from being the metaphysical limit of Truth, becomes just one formulation of meaning as it exists, for real people, day to day. God is neither constant nor given. Nor is any kind of meaning. Meaning must be worked towards -- and worked towards always in relation to others. Thus, the question of meaning is necessarily a political reckoning. What matters matters politically. Where and how one finds, invents, or shares with others what is meaningful are essential concerns from which Night in the Woods doesn't shy away.


By taking seriously the possibility that meaning remains to be engaged genuinely and politically, individually and collectively, Night in the Woods reappropriates the horror at its centre. As part of its critique of the cult of Capital, the game positions a related horror: a haunting of weird and eerie spirits, spirits of history, not so much believed in as recognized and felt. In a choose-your-own poem that begins the game, Mae recalls that her grandfather's last words were, "This house is haunted." But what house? Which hauntings? He was, after all, sitting up in his hospital bed, staring out the window. Mae wagers, in one version of the game's last conversation, that she understands what he must have meant. "This whole… place," she says. "Everything is extremely bad here right now," she concludes. "Everything is bad in the world." The haunting isn't somewhere. The haunting is everywhere. There is a haunting. To riff on Fisher (2009): a haunted realism.

Bea, laconic as ever, chimes in to connect the sentiment to the Black Goat cultists. "Guys last night," Bea says, "they're like ghosts in an old mansion, don't know they're dead, just stalking around killing whoever moves in." Their house is haunted, and they don't even know it -- much less that they've become the ghosts haunting it. In fact, they'll keep on adding ghosts until the end of the world stops them. Mae replies, "Like Granddad said. It's haunted." It's haunted: like saying, it's raining, or it's cold. An "atmosphere," so to speak (Fisher, 2009). Mae's grandfather decries life as being essentially haunted by bad things. Disasters, deaths, decay. In this regard, the haunting is a form of history that is, itself, meaningful. To remain ignorant of either the existence or the meaningfulness of the haunting is to end up like the Black Goat cultists, forever seeking a tomorrow like the long-dead and ghostly yesterday.

But if this is the situation, if we can't ignore the haunting, because it would be unjust to ignore injustice and suffering; and if we can't get rid of the haunting, because we can't get rid of history; and if we can't even fully comprehend the haunting, because to do so would be to answer the impossible question of what really matters; then what can we do about the haunting? The haunting is horrifying! The haunting is horror! How do we live with the haunting?

Haunting, for its ontological and political implications, was likewise a concern of Mark Fisher. A collection of Fisher's (2014) essays and blogposts, Ghosts of My Life, provides the clearest insight into the theorist's approach to hauntology, a play on words coined by philosopher Jacques Derrida to describe the curious effects that absent things have on the world. Fisher writes: "Is hauntology, then, some attempt to revive the supernatural, or is it just a figure of speech? The way out of this unhelpful opposition is to think of hauntology as the agency of the virtual, with the spectre understood not as anything supernatural, but as that which acts without (physically) existing" (p. 18, emphasis in the original). In a way, Fisher's (2014) application of hauntology to virtual agency -- what acts without being present, effects without a cause -- anticipates the political and affective forces he would later (Fisher, 2016) codify as "weird" and "eerie." Fisher (2014) even extends the thought to his earlier (2009) work. "The era of what I have called 'capitalist realism,'" he writes, "has been haunted not by the apparition of the spectre of communism, but by its disappearance" (p. 19).

What was once, for Fisher (2009), a question -- capitalist realism: is there no alternative? -- has itself become haunted; it has become "a failed mourning," a symptom of the total absence of an alternative (2014, p. 22) He continues: "The spectre will not allow us to settle into/ for the mediocre satisfactions one can glean in a world governed by capitalist realism" (p. 22). The Black Goat cultists of Night in the Woods have succumbed totally to a haunting they don't even recognize. In the pit there is an absence which nonetheless governs their lives. What they throw in doesn't come out. In fact, nothing comes out. But that doesn't stop them. The haunting, above all, "is about refusing to give up the ghost or -- and this can sometimes amount to the same thing -- the refusal of the ghost to give up on us" (Fisher, 2014, p. 22). The haunting always remains, whether it takes the form of Marx's spectre of communism, Derrida's spectre of Marx, Possum Springs' own spectre of capital, or, as Fisher (2014) puts it, the United States of America's haunting "by haunting itself," its "anxious hankerings after an 'innocence' it can never give up on," and the "atrocious heart" of its genocides (p. 128). Mae's grandfather had it right. "This house is haunted."

But doesn't Fisher himself leave open the possibility that the haunting provides, in its own way, an opportunity? "The spectre will not allow us to settle," he writes (2014, p. 22). And settle we shouldn't! Where there is haunting, it seems, there may yet be space to maneuver. A vacuum, so to speak. Night in the Woods and its protagonists confront the horror of the cult of Black Goat Capital with their own alternative: a reckoning with the haunting. "It's haunted," admits Mae of the world. "But there's also a lot of witches in it. And that makes me feel a tiny bit better." Mae means witches like the three weird goths she meets, who tell her to be on the lookout for three spooky pentagrams -- which, to their credit, she eventually does uncover, and by their uncovering feels better. She means witches like her friend Germ's grandmother, who prophecies Mae's future after taking one good look at her. Mae corrects herself, "Not like an actual witch. The teens aren't *real* witches either." Because she also means witches like Lori, a teenage girl who lays metal toys across the railroad tracks and makes monsters out of their train-flattened forms. Even herself, Mae supposes: "I'm like spooky magic all the way." Even Bea. Even, as Bea suggests, the whole of the American Rust Belt!

To be a witch, it would seem, means to make do -- to get by in the face of the awful and horrific haunting of life and the world. Moreover, it means acting on what's around you. The making do of being a witch is particular in that it's devoted to a certain attention to patterns. The teens seek out hidden pentagrams. Germ's grandmother sees the future in a face. Lori makes beautiful, subversive monstrosities out of the paradigmatic engines of Capital. Mae keeps putting two and two together until she uncovers a cosmic conspiracy, operating on a local scale. "Witchiness" becomes a function of pattern recognition -- not in a dry, semiotic and patriarchal sense -- but such that life might be sought rather than suffered, lived amidst the haunting.

By pattern-seeking, Night in the Woods suggests, witches make the horror matter. In practice, this approach is not dissimilar to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's (2003) notion of "reparative reading," albeit modulated from text to world. Sedgwick writes, against the prevailing critical apparatus of the "paranoid" reading, that "to read from a reparative position is to surrender the knowing, anxious paranoid determination that no horror, however apparently unthinkable, shall ever come to the reader as new" (p.146). The reparative position, as act and organization, becomes our best -- and maybe only -- hope against the horror, the haunting. On this point, Sedgwick: "Hope, often a fracturing, even a traumatic thing to experience, is among the energies by which the reparatively positioned reader tries to organize the fragments and part-objects she encounters or creates" (p.146).

Like Sedgwick, Night in the Woods proposes that this reconciliation is at once vital, essential, natural, and resoundingly queer. Queer, that is, as Bo Ruberg and Adrienne Shaw (2017) explain in the introduction to their scholarly anthology Queer Game Studies, "defined as the desire to live life otherwise, by questioning and living outside of normative boundaries" (p. x). Above were outlined two key approaches to queerness taken by Night in the Woods, namely, bodily disidentification and boredom. Here, at the heart of its reckoning with horror, we encounter the game's most poignant expression of queer praxis. "Queer theory -- and queerness itself -- through its inherent variance and fluidity," writes Derek A. Burrill (2017) in the same anthology, "serves as a model for the productive and radical possibilities of virtual worlds that resist formations of control, predictability, and homogeneity" (p. 31). Given that the horror at the center of Night in the Woods is, explicitly, one such formation, the resistance of its protagonists becomes emblematic of wider ideological struggle.

This is made clear by the game's rhetoric, but far more essentially, by characterization. Mae herself is bi- or pansexual; her two friends Angus and Gregg are in a long-term relationship and are planning to move out to the big city; a pivotal scene in Bea's storyline takes place at an anti-fascist warehouse rave; and the four of them form a punk band sans any intention to ever play a live show. These identities, far from being just backstory, are active in and fundamental to how each of these characters confront the suffering -- and the joys -- of Possum Springs. They seek out and make reparative patterns. They figure witchiness as a necessary queering of horror: a queering of the haunting.

Angus' outlook is perhaps the most forthright in this respect. During one of the game's optional activities, Mae and Angus take a trip to a nearby park in search of a ghost they do not yet know is actually a perfectly mortal cultist. Sitting on a bench atop the tallest hill in the park, Angus and Mae identify constellations in the starry sky. Angus, the only one of Mae's friends with whom she didn't grow up, takes the opportunity to open up to Mae. He explains that he was abused as a child by both of his parents. His mother would lock him in the pantry for hours, during which time he would try to hone what he hoped would manifest as latent psychic powers. When this psychic pubescence never materialized, Angus became disenfranchised with all forms of the supernatural: clairvoyance, telepathy, fate, God. After identifying a constellation of a giant whale, Mae asks Angus frankly, "Do you believe in anything at all?" Angus responds with a characteristic ponderousness:

Angus: Um well so like the constellations, I don't believe there's a whale out there, but I uh believe that the stars exist, and that people put the whale there, like I dunno, we're good at drawing lines through the spaces between stars, like we're pattern-finders, and we'll find patterns, and we like really put our hearts and minds into it, and even if we don't mean to. So I believe in a universe that doesn't care and people who do.

Mae: Pattern-finders. I feel like a lot of people don't think they found God, but like God found them, like, when they were having bad times like you did.

Angus: God never did. I was completely alone in the pantry, but a few years later, Gregg did. So like, the stars can stay up there and not give a shit about us, but this whale is pretty cool.

The notion of "a universe that doesn't care and people who do" is key. Thematically, it works to counteract the horrific notion of "monstrous existence," that our atoms might care to exist more than we ourselves do, that Capital and its sacrifices must persist. Optimistically, Night in the Woods refuses to leave off at subtracting the human from the World, as Thacker (2011) argues horror capably reveals. Maybe the universe is just one big haunting, divided into ghosts. But, if so, what we make of the haunting becomes what we make of the ghosts that comprise it, the patterns we find in them. Life becomes a matter -- a mattering -- of what lines we draw to connect its parts. Sometimes those lines make a pretty cool whale. Other times, the lines are just there to show us that other people are out there making lines.



[1] The author acknowledges that the subject of this analysis was developed, in part, by a serial abuser whose offenses have been widely reported. The primary interests at hand are the writing and themes portrayed in the game, rather than the gameplay programming and soundtrack for which the individual in question has been credited. For additional context, readers may refer to writings by Benson (2019a), by Carpenter (2019), by Gurley (2019) and by Holowka (2019).



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