For many people, few philosophies are quite as scary as nihilism. It’s a set of beliefs that seem determined to take away everything that you thought you knew about yourself – your place in the world, your identity, your raison d’être – and leave you stranded in a cold, unforgiving universe. It’s likely a philosophy that will gain popularity again in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic just as it did in post-Second World War Europe. If there’s one constant about nihilism, it’s that it seems to raise its head when the general populace feels at its lowest. It’s easy to understand why, too. How can one look at the horrors of war, the randomness of coronavirus, and believe that the universe has some kind of meaning in mind for us individuals? It’s a mental path that many people try not to go down, outright avoiding it most of the time, because it makes us uncomfortable and undeniably, unequivocally mortal. However, some people do try to grapple with those thoughts, instead trying to find meaning in our lives through their art. Night In The Woods, a game released in 2017, is one such piece. Developed by Infinite Fall, the game tells the story of Mae Borowski as she returns to her hometown after dropping out of university and reuniting with her friends and family. It’s a game that deals with a number of themes, from the maltreatment of the millennial generation to the disenfranchisement of small town America. One of its biggest themes though, is how we find meaning in our lives, and the part we play in the world around us. This essay will take a look at what exactly nihilism is, how it’s represented in Night In The Woods, and how the game tries to overcome the questions raised by nihilist thought.
In order to understand how the game combats nihilist views, we must first understand what nihilism, and specifically existential nihilism, is. As a philosophy, nihilism is most closely associated with Nietzsche, although it had a popularity spike in the wake of the Second World War thanks mainly to a group of French writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. However, nihilism isn’t so recent a philosophy. In his work, ‘The Dark Side: Thoughts on the Futility of Life’, Alan Pratt draws a line of thought going all the way back to the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles, who apparently claimed that ‘the life of mortals is so mean a thing as to be virtually un-life’. So what exactly is nihilism? At its core, it’s the belief that there is no intrinsic meaning to anything, and no objective moral code which is always true. Existential nihilism relates these ideas to that of the meaning of life. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy claims that ‘existential nihilism begins with the notion that the world is without meaning or purpose’. In ‘Nihilism: The Emptiness of the Machine’, Andre Cancian explains further, saying that ‘all actions, all feelings, all facts are empty in themselves, devoid of any meaning’ and that ‘in this perspective, living is as meaningless as dying’. It’s a grim outlook, one that Nietzsche saw as a ‘catastrophe’, but one that was unavoidable. He felt that the approach of nihilism had come about as a result of the scientific progress that was being made during his time – he famously declared ‘God is dead, and we have killed him’. Nihilism rejects the idea of the existence of a God who has given our lives meaning, saying that instead, the universe is random and cold. As humans, we have found so many answers to questions of physics, says nihilism, that if we cannot find an answer to the meaning of life, it’s that we’re simply choosing to ignore the obvious one – that there is none.
Nietzsche is often seen as the father of nihilist thought, but his attempts to find ways to overcome nihilism must not be underestimated. Seeing nihilism as the biggest threat humanity was to face, he began exploring ways in which we, as people, would be able to overcome its negation of our objective ideals and the meaning they bring to our lives. In Julian Young’s essay, ‘Nihilism and the Meaning of Life’ written for Oxford Handbooks Online, he claims that philosophers generally subscribe to two methods when trying to combat nihilistic thought – one being to ‘attack the inference from the death of God to the death of meaning’, in other words, in spite of the lack of an objective meaning to ‘life’, meaning and value can still be found in individual ‘lives’. The other is to assert that the ‘death of meaning’ does not equate to the ‘death of life’s value’. According to Young, Albert Camus’ protagonists tend to be emblematic of this second form of rejection – they live solely in the present and refuse to look for any meaning to their lives, instead valuing only the ‘now’. Here, they try to draw value from a life without meaning, but by looking at the endings of these heroes, we can come to the conclusion that we, as humans, are unable to fight nihilism solely through this method – at the end of ‘L’Etranger’, Meursault, for example, convinced of the universe’s indifference towards him accepts that his execution will put a final end to his loneliness. It’s a bleak outlook, and, despite Meursault’s seeming contentment with the situation, it’s difficult looking from the outside to believe that he found value in this life if he is so ready for it to end. In contrast to Camus’ stance, Nietzsche himself seems to align with the former means of rebuking nihilism, claiming that life is, at its core, the desire to grow and look ahead to the future. By creating our own goals, he argues, we are able to provide our lives with their own unique meanings – ‘if we have our own why of life, we shall get along with almost any how’. Bernard Reginster, in his book, ‘The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism’, would describe this thought process as a subjectivist approach to denying nihilism. This subjectivism argues that the fact that these values are not objective doesn’t deny them their worth – they can still provide us meaning and guide us through our lives. Night In The Woods also uses this subjectivist viewpoint to show how its characters deny the effects of nihilism, and it is through this lens that this essay will be analysing the game.
Now that we have a clear understanding of what nihilism is and the proposed methods of overcoming its effects, we can begin to analyse the game and the ways in which nihilism is presented and then overcome. The most obvious place to start is with the game’s protagonist, the biting, snarky, yet deeply sad Mae. She starts the game having just returned to her hometown of Possum Springs after quitting college. As the player, we are given no reason as to why she has come back yet. There is no job opportunity here for her and she doesn’t have any goal to achieve upon returning home. She is, to put it simply, aimless, having turned her back on her chances to grow as a person. She is, in effect, the Meursault of the game, living purely in the moment, looking for no deeper reason behind her feelings or actions, refusing to look back on the past or forward to the future. The comparisons with Camus’ protagonist can go even further – Meursault inhabits the world of L’Etranger very much as an observer, watching the world around him shifting and growing while remaining decidedly apart from it – evidenced most famously by the passage at the beginning of the novel, in which Meursault spends his entire day watching the streets below from his balcony, even up to the point his ‘eyes were tired from watching’. In this moment, we can clearly see Meursault’s role in society – simultaneously present in the world (observing it) and separate from it. There are echoes of this in Mae’s initial return to the town of Possum Springs. A returnee from the world of university, there’s a disconnect between her and the friends she left behind – a division many of us who’ve either been to uni or had friends go will understand.
One of the most famous elements of Camus’ L’Étranger is the lack of agency that Meursault shows in his own story – he is a passenger along for the ride, a man who lets the world move around him. His mother’s funeral, something family members would typically get involved in planning, was planned by the old-people’s home she’d been living in, with Meursault simply turning up for the occasion. Compare that with Mae’s role at the beginning of Night in the Woods – she flits from friend to friend, going along with whatever they say. When we first see her in a car, she is, quite literally, the passenger along for the ride. Sat next to childhood friend Bea, Mae lacks the narrative agency we’d expect from our protagonists – she’s been to see her friends because her mother told her to, to band practice because her friends brought her along, and now she’s off to a party because her friends told her to. When asked by the various townspeople littering the streets why she quit university, Mae repeatedly replies with the simple ‘I don’t know’. It’s a small comment, but one that gives us a tantalising glimpse into Mae’s psyche – she is reticent to look deeper, valuing only the present moment. And in that moment, when asked by people in the town, when asked by her mother, she just doesn’t know why she left university. Both Meursault and Mae deny the search for deeper reason (at least initially), choosing instead to live in what many might call a ‘surface level’ experience of life, but one that could be seen as a nihilistic thought process – there is no value in the search for deeper meaning, no value in the relationships between the people on the street, so why not resign yourself to a ‘surface level’ existence?
Small moments like Mae’s ‘I don’t know’ persist throughout the early hours of Night in the Woods, a pervasive melancholy hangs in the air as she spends time with her friends doing random acts of petty crime or getting into knife fights. If anyone was to ask me what the reason for Mae’s actions in these early vignettes, I’d have to refe back to her own answer – ‘I don’t know’. Mae drifts throughout her world, purposeless. This time could, however, be seen as more of a commentary on the economic dilapidation of rural America than a specific look at the philosophy of nihilism, but as the game continues we eventually hear more about Mae’s breakdown which led to her homecoming, and what could have remained mere suggestions at nihilist thought grow into outright dives into its philosophy. Writing about the breakdown for IGN, journalist Leah Williams points out that Mae ‘had immersed herself completely in a video game about dating ghosts as a form of intensive escapism’ which then led to her coming to the ‘ironic realisation that the world around her, just like the game, was all just a mess of meaningless pixels’. If this game had no value, then surely neither did her own existence – a thought-process which led us to the carefree Mae that we see in the main game.
The supplementary games Longest Night and Lost Constellation and further context to the main game’s examination of nihilist thought process, especially the latter. Lost Constellation features a younger Mae listening to one of her grandfather’s ghost stories, and takes the opportunity to ruminate on death and the human condition. In one such moment, lead character of the ghost story, Adina, has a conversation with a cat as she begins to pray. Feeling nothing, she reaches out to the cat, who asks her ‘You don’t feel a great sense of awe and wonder and connection to something larger than yourself?’. To this, Adina replies simply, ‘no’. Discussing the inspiration for the world of Night in the Woods and these supplemental experiences with Kill Screen in 2015, Scott Benson said ‘we have to kind of create meaning. We all have these ticking timers, and the world itself has a timer, and, you know, in however many years the sun’s gonna go supernova anyway’. This idea, of ‘creating meaning’ could be seen as a method of rebuking nihilist thought through the use of subjective value and subjective morals – a similar thought process to Nietzsche himself – and it is this way of thinking that influences the second half of Mae’s story in Night in the Woods.
As Mae’s mental health deteriorates throughout the story, the oppressive dreams she’d been having get ever more vivid, eventually culminating in a discussion with the ‘Sky Cat’ a mysterious, timeless being. The ‘Sky Cat’ spews forth nihilistic phrase after nihilistic phrase, from ‘this god is nowhere’ to ‘the universe is forgetting you’. When Mae responds to him, she brings up the concept of faith, of life having meaning, but the ‘Sky Cat’ rebukes such ideas, stating that Mae is a ‘bare existence, meaning nothing’. She is ‘atoms’, ‘atoms’ which don’t care if she exists. Mae then replies once more, this time with the fundamental existentialist question – ‘then why am I here? Why was I chosen to see all this?’. It’s a deeply unsettling scene, but one that offers us a great glimpse into Mae’s psyche. With the number of different animals we’ve seen populating the world of Possum Springs, it’s interesting that the game designers chose a cat to be the voice of nihilism that Mae encounters. It leads us to the distinct possibility that this is all an illusion, and that Mae, a cat herself, is actually having this discussion inside her own head, the ‘Sky Cat’ being another version of her. It’s interesting to note then, that Mae, who up until now has been pretty nihilistic in her own lifestyle, seems to err on the side of faith, and of meaning – the meaning of her home and her friends getting a special mention. Here is Mae, clinging to the connections she’s reforged upon her return to Possum Springs in the face of a nihilistic entity she had once thought could be God.
This focus on Mae’s friends is one of the biggest differences between Night in the Woods‘ attempts to confront nihilism when compared with Camus’ character study of Meursault. Earlier, we looked at how Meursault exists separate from the world around him, sitting up on his balcony, watching the world go by. Even when he does have a group of people to spend time with, he views it more as himself fulfilling the social contract. There is no real value there, no desire to spend time with those people. He spends time with them because that’s what people do. Nothing deeper. Compare that to Mae, who, as we said, spends the beginning of the game separated from her town and her friends, but works hard throughout the story to reform those connections, to rebuild those burned bridges. And that she does. At the end of L’Étranger, Meursault is killed – he doesn’t show the expected remorse when he’s taken to court for murder, and in failing to do so, is sentenced to death. After his sentence, Meursault has an outburst before eventually coming to peace with his impending end, saying that he finally understood that he’d ‘been happy, and that [he]’d been happy’. He then wishes for a crowd of spectators to attend his execution. Here, in his final moments, Meursault begins to understand the importance of connection, of community with the people around him, but ultimately too late. He never concedes that the world is any more than indifferent however.
Mae has a similar moment towards the end of the game, but it unfolds a little differently. In her second existential crisis, coming not long after the conversation with the ‘Sky Cat’, she finds herself confessing the importance of hurt. Those uncomfortable feelings she’d been avoiding by living purely in the moment, in a fleeting existence, have value of their own. When her friends go, when she dies she ‘wants it to hurt’. Why? Because that hurt shows her that it all ‘means something’, that she is ‘something’. Those connections she built with her friends have given her something to live for, have given something of substance to her life, and although the idea of it all going away hurts, it’s that very pain which proves there is value in them. Mae has found her own subjective value for living, even if in the ‘Sky Cat’s eyes there is no objective one. That Mae survives the game and is able to grow her relationships further is the clear difference between her story and Meursault’s – while he was unable to find any value until the very end, Mae was able to find her own while she was still young. The atmosphere at the end of Night in the Woods is hopeful in a way that it hadn’t been until this existential revelation, and it’s fitting that it closes with vignettes of Mae and her friends discussing where they go from here.
At the very end of the game, in its closing moments, Mae asks good friend Gregg an honest question, one that could be seen to refer to the events of the game, but could be something much larger. ‘Do you think any of this means anything?’ to which Gregg responds in the most Gregg-like way, pausing a moment to consider his answer before coming up with ‘it does, dude’. Gregg, a troubled character himself, has found his own little peace with boyfriend Angus and his friends, hinting at a possible future which could await Mae. Angus however, is the one with the quote which perfectly summarises the philosophy of Night in the Woods: ‘I believe in a universe that doesn’t care and in people that do’.
One thought on “Night In The Woods: Community In The Face Of Existential Nihilism”
This is a fascinating, well argued, thoughtful article on an unusual topic. One very minor quibble; Nikolay Chernyshevsky and Dimitri Pisarev advocated Nihilist philosophy in Russia before Nietzsche although, as you say, he was hugely influential in popularising it in western Europe and is the vital link between Nihilism and Existentialism. One reason Nihilism, as you suggest, goes back several millennia is that the idea that the universe doesn’t care is a basic human response, as per Macbeth’s description of life as “a tale full of sound and fury, told by an idiot, signifying nothing.”