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Q&A: How Night in the Woods taps into a real sense of community

Gamasutra contributing editor Kris Ligman engages the devs behind the recently crowdfunded game Night in the Woods on its visual style, contemporary tone, and striking the right note with an audience.

Kris Ligman, Blogger

December 2, 2013

6 Min Read

The recently crowdfunded Night in the Woods brings together the programming talents of Alec Holowka (Aquaria) and the artistic stylings of animator Scott Benson (Late Night Work Club). Gamasutra contributing editor Kris Ligman engages the duo on the game's visual style, contemporary tone, and striking the right note with an audience. Gamasutra: Were you surprised the Kickstarter was so successful? Alec Holowka: Admittedly I do have a bit of a fanbase from when I did Aquaria, which won at IGF, and other projects I've been involved in like TowerFall. Scott also has a fanbase from Late Night Work Club and other projects. But that was only part of it. There's definitely something about the project itself that caught people. Scott Benson: Part of it was definitely that both Alec and I have a track record. And we have a community around us which supports us and which we support as well, when they do projects. So it was not just fans, but people we connected with on some level, and they told their friends, who told their friends. But I would say beyond that there was just something about the project -- the characters, the setting, the art, because that is a lot of what we're showing at this point -- that really clicked with people. There is a different sort of pressure this time around. Alec and I are more accustomed to going off, finishing a project and then presenting it to people. Work first, then outreach. And we both have solid portfolios of work, so it's not like people don't believe we're reliable, but this time we're coming out with all these promises and now we have to make good on them, you know? AH: Our backers seem to be pretty understanding and intelligent. No one is breathing down our necks yet. SB: We've attracted a certain crowd that has been very supportive and positive. One backer told us after the Kickstarter had concluded that this was the most 'feel good' campaign they'd ever seen. There's this real sense of community, that everyone is in this together, in a way that resonates with the game's setting. It is a fairly unique setting, this small-town life, the malaise of the underemployed, that a lot of people will recognize. Do you think it speaks to a particular cultural moment? SB: I think the overall themes -- that life changes, that we have to accept when things are over and deal with moving on, or fight for things that aren't yet over and are worth preserving -- that's something that is evergreen. I'm 32 and I still deal with all that. And moreover I think these coming-of-age stories are something that goes back forever [in our media], at least as far back as the early 20th century with the beatniks. That was a gigantic theme with them. That said there's also a lot that will probably seem closer to the last few years, particularly the collapse of not only national, but local economies. It's no longer necessarily true that you can stay in your home town and there will be jobs for you. That may not be something this generation alone faces, but it is facing it. We've had a lot of fans come forward really strongly identifying with the small town setting of the game, telling us that they were from that town. AH: A lot of people also find the characters to be really endearing, I think. They're the sort of personalities that I suppose aren't found in games very much, at least not in that way. I notice you also present queer characters among your cast in a very matter-of-fact way, which is something we don't see very often in a lot of these small town settings. SB: Admittedly, when I designed Mae's shirt I wasn't aware that the symbol could stand for non-binary gender identity. It was just your typical 'nullset' symbol, something that Mae would have simply put on her shirt because she thought it was cool back in high school. She's not overtly feminized, certainly -- partly because that's just the kind of character we wanted to do, but also because as she materialized on paper, so to speak, all the various associations with her started to become clearer. So we're not necessarily exploring non-binary gender with her, but the fact that she isn't traditionally feminized does come into her character a bit. It's not a main storyline focus; it's just who she is. Gregg and Angus [on the other hand] are very much a gay couple, and their experience is indeed going to factor into the game. The game isn't necessarily specific to LGBTIQA experiences -- in part because Alec and I don't want to speak on behalf of people with experiences we don't share -- but with respect to Gregg and Angus that is indeed a part of their story. And it's something that comes up, that experience, being in a small town and feeling disconnected from a larger gay or queer community. That is something that is part of their characters. You two recently recorded a podcast discussing your creative backgrounds a bit. Would you like to share a bit about your respective influences? SB: I know that particularly for Night in the Woods it comes down to a few big names. Chris Ware, the comic book artist, is a very huge influence on me. His design work, the way he creates deceptively simple artwork to tell what are actually very nuanced and very human stories. I would also name Mike Mignola, who does Hellboy. His use of contrasts, of foreground and background, negative and positive space, you can see a lot of influence from that in my work. And there's also a little bit of Mary Blair, the mid-20th century illustrator -- everyone's seen her work even if they don't think they have -- and a lot of exposure to Richard Scarry's Busy Town from when I was a kid. AH: In terms of music, DIIV was a big influence on the score for Night in the Woods. They really helped me figure out what I wanted the game to sound like. While there are video games that had an impact on me, there are really none that I go back to and say 'this is the one game that influenced me the most.' It's the weird thing about games for me -- movies, I'll go back and watch over and over again; certain games, I really can't go back and play. [For example,] Final Fantasy 6 made a lasting impression on me, but I'm not going to go replay it any time soon. The experience I got from it is very much time-locked. At that point of time, when I played it after its release, that was the best example of storytelling in games that I knew of. And it was inspiring to me not so much for what it was, but where I imagined you could take that. What it did well was in implying that there was more going on than there was: it created an atmosphere and the impression of a bigger world. Often in games the techniques that accomplish that are actually quite small. You can follow Night in the Woods' progress from its official website and on Twitter.

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