An Interview with Scott Benson (Night in the Woods)

In  Night in the Woods, you play twenty-year-old Mae Borowski upon moving back to a hometown in decline. Her parents want to know why she just dropped out of college, her friends have all gotten jobs, her dreams keep getting weirder, and she believes there’s a mysterious threat lurking in the woods. NITW has won the BAFTA Game Award for Narrative and the Seumas McNally Grand Prize at the Independent Games Festival, among other accolades.

Scott Benson is the co-creator of  Night in the Woods. Below, Scott talks with Cartridge editor William Hoffacker about gothic horror, researching town histories, how Twitter helped him write dialogue, and more.

Night in the Woods begins with white text on a black background, with language and lineation evocative of poetry. Some lines are chosen by the player out of a few options, and some lines that follow reflect those choices. Although selecting words turns out to be a fundamental mechanic in the game, this prologue stands apart from the rest, as nothing else in the game looks quite like it.

What is the intended purpose that necessitates this opening? What expectations is it meant to create? Why not just drop the player immediately into the first scene at the bus station?

The mini interactive fiction bit at the start was sort of a statement of purpose, setting the tone of the game. We were about to put you right into the bus station with Mae, and things are colorful and funny and you’re learning to jump and run around for a while. But the game has other things on its mind, and we wanted to say up front, “Hey, this game has some preoccupations and context, let’s start thinking about that right from the jump.” The intro bit also gets across a lot of info in a very short amount of time, too. We wanted to give people a sense of where they were about to go, and who these people are, and what their context is. It feels out of place almost the first time you play the game, but I think eventually it fits right in as you get deeper into it, and especially if you do the recommended second playthrough. I’d say the game catches up to the info right around where Mae and Bea go the library and you start getting a lot of information about the town, and the themes of the game, which have been building through the first half, start emerging and interlocking in a way that matches up with that intro. That was the idea at least! Also it’s fun seeing Mae being all articulate and poetic, which she certainly is not for much of the game.

What sorts of literature do you most enjoy reading? What books (or other texts) had the most profound influence on the writing of  Night in the Woods?

There are two parts of the answer here—the literary influences and the research. Bethany did a whole lot of research for the history of Possum Springs. The game is based a lot on where she grew up, and she dove into old books detailing the ups and downs and struggles of towns like hers and Possum Springs. The history of labor struggle and exploitation, the out and out wars fought against bosses and police by workers, and the atrocities committed on entire towns by capital and the state, is often … well, suppressed maybe? We don’t learn a lot about it. But it’s there, and it’s not that long ago, and we still deal with these conditions today. Bethany is now practically an amateur historian of this kind of thing, and a lot of the details of the town’s past are pulled very much from real life.

As far as my end of things goes, I tend to read a lot of short story collections. I’ve been a pretty voracious reader all my life and I’m not sure why I have such a hard time getting through longer texts these days. Probably the untreated ADHD thing or something. So I take in a lot of shorter works, mostly horror or something lurid, folklore, and some general gothic lit.

Flannery O’Connor is an ever-present influence in the brand of gothic the game trades in. Her ability to explore the horrors lurking in southern Americana while suffusing the entire thing in this overarching, terrifying presence of grace, is an inspiration. I was a Christian for much of my life, was even in ministry, but lost my faith completely. But I connect with O’Connor’s “Christ-haunted” world. God is utterly gone for me, but the moments of grace remain in a beautiful naturally-occurring way, and exploring faith as a purely human phenomenon without anyone on the other end of the phone, so to speak, is interesting to me. A Good Man Is Hard To Find and Wise Blood were definite indirect influences in that arena, though O’Connor and I would disagree on the ultimate truth of God’s presence.

Some weird fiction and cosmic horror makes it into the game as well, and it’s tough to get out from under the shadow of Lovecraft there. From Beyond was a pretty direct influence on one pivotal scene. And we of course had our own plans for Lovecraft’s reactionary, racist, nationalist bullshit that pop up later on in the game. We do kind of a humanist, leftist cosmic horror, I guess.

I’d also shout out a little known weird fiction story called The Dead Valley by Ralph Adams Cram. It’s one of the best “something weird is going on out there in the woods” stories ever.

Night in the Woods frequently gives the player the opportunity to choose what the player-character, Mae, will say next. Such choices feel consequential, yet Mae is not some blank slate of a protagonist. She is an individual with a distinct, recognizable personality.

So how did you strike that balance? What did you do to ensure that Mae would seem consistently herself while still giving the player a real sense of agency in directing her conversations?

We weren’t interested in empowering the player to roleplay. Alec and I decided from the start that this was Mae’s story, and she was her own person, and not a shell for the player. I really love exploration in games, and I think it’s maybe one of the best things you can do in a game both as a player and a designer. So navigating Mae’s life and navigating the dialogue is a type of exploration, just as running and jumping around the world is exploration. We were big on branching dialogue that felt organic and went on tangents, and were very anti Big Moral Choice moments. If anything we wanted to undercut any sense of the player being able to game her dialogue or character. This isn’t a game about making the Mae you want. It’s about exploring the Mae that is, and the world she lives in.

If you could adapt any literary work into a video game (of any type, any scale), what work would you choose, and what might that game look and play like?

I’d love to see a good atmospheric horror post-point-and-click adventure game based on the Silver John stories by Manly Wade Wellman. Appalachian weird fiction. It’s dynamite and criminally unknown. The combo of easygoing wandering occult expert John The Balladeer and the devils lurking in various hollers is just so pleasing. Maybe just pick a handful of stories from Who Fears The Devil and run with it? And do it right. Actually wait don’t do this, I want to someday. I got dibs.

I assume that while you were writing dialogue for  Night in the Woods, you knew that the game wouldn’t have voice acting, and instead the text would appear inside speech bubbles above the characters’ heads. Though the speech bubbles vary in size and shape, they never occupy a whole lot of real estate on screen.

How much of a challenge was it to write all dialogue knowing it would be read within those confines? How did spatial limitations alter the content and/or the process of your writing?

Early on Alec and I knew we didn’t want to just do like a dialogue box at the bottom of the screen or something, and I sketched up some ideas of these fun little word bubbles and Alec implemented all of these expressive systems for making them wobble and boil, and animating the text and so forth. Writing for them became second nature very quickly, in part because I basically wrote everything in tweet length. I do a lot of twittering and it’s a platform that is underrated as far as style goes. You sort of learn how to segment longer thoughts, add pauses and single word tweets for humor and tension, all that kind of stuff. Twitter culture itself wasn’t a big influence on the dialogue, but the way Twitter trains you to work within strict character limits definitely was. So in the game we just learned to use that to our advantage. Also there’s nothing worse that opening up a conversation in-game and it’s just like paragraphs of unbroken text on screen. Chopping it up into smaller bits let us play with rhythm and pauses and personality and so forth. Also I think it feels better to click through a strategically segmented and timed series of bits than get hit with one big slab of dialogue.

If someone played  Night in the Woods and loved the experience so much that they just wanted more, more, more, what would you recommend they do next? (Recommendations might include other video games, but please feel free to answer however you like: books, movies, music, any activity, etc.)

Kentucky Route Zero. It’s a very clear influence on NITW. Seriously, drop what you’re doing and go play it. We owe a lot to that game. Similarly, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery has some DNA we swiped for our game. God, that game is a rare gem.

As large as religion looms over  Night in the Woods, it wasn’t until my second playthrough that I noticed sun-shapes where I’d expect to see crosses. I realized that Christianity apparently doesn’t exist in this world because none of our cultural touchstones do. The characters speak of holidays different from ours. Saints and myths are recalled, but none we would recognize from history. Wars are invoked, but never by name. Even the constellations are invented. Also, the movies at the video store are made up (though  The Shape of Water seems derivative of  Swamp Husband), and I can’t recall any allusions to real-world celebrities (unless the Chris Evans run over by Mallard is that Chris Evans).

Why was it important to you that the game’s world be cut from whole cloth? How was your experience of originating so much at the cost of relying on established reference points—difficult, fun, both, something else?

(Side-note: Writing this question brought to mind another game with anthropomorphic animals:  Star Fox 64. If the player shoots teammate Falco, he may respond, “Hey Einstein, I’m on your side,” which begs the question of why he uses the name Einstein in the same pejorative way that we do. One might ask, “Is their universe actually ours in the distant future? Do they have their own brilliant Einstein by coincidence?” Did you design  Night in the Woods to try to circumvent this sort of line of questioning?)

We had a pretty strict No Memes/No Reference Humor policy but we played the relationship to real world culture pretty loose. There are a very small handful of visual references and we mention like Shakespeare and a few other things from IRL culture here and there, but otherwise we wanted the world to exist on its own without propping ourselves up on some HEY REMEMBER THIS stuff. Like it’s fine to acknowledge or shout something out but we’ve had decades now of humor and culture that leans heavily on reference, and videogames are just rife with it. I think the Lovecraft material is the most blatant cultural riff in the game but that was because messing with cosmic horror stuff and his legacy in particular was a small part of what we were doing in the background. It was important for us to do as much as we could to create things that could stand on their own without having to fall back on reminding the player that they like Star Wars or whatever. A really clumsy overt reference in a work of fiction can throw me right out of it. And it’s just more fun and more interesting to create cultural touchstones that originate from and exist within the world you’re creating. It’s just a more satisfying way of doing things, and it feels more honest for lack of better words. That’s very much a your-mileage-may-vary thing but that’s where we came down on it.

Also, as far as the religious symbology you mentioned, the church symbol in particular is part of a larger visual theme all over the place in the game, in a way a standard crucifix could never be.

What new games are you most anticipating right now? (Answers might include not only upcoming releases but also games already out that you haven’t gotten to play yet.)

I’m really looking forward to the final episode of Kentucky Route Zero which I believe drops this year. I played The Witcher 3 for the first time earlier this year and was blown away by it, so I’m looking forward to the studio’s next game Cyberpunk 2077. Whenever that comes out. Ooblets is looking really cool, and Wandersong seems like it’s gonna be some cheerful fun. Uh … Dead Static Drive looks super rad, as does Knights And Bikes. I’m probably forgetting something. Oh right I think there’s a Bloodborne sequel out there somewhere. I’m a pretty big Souls games fan and I think the overall series could use a bit of a break but I’d definitely show up for a decent Bloodborne sequel.