The story behind Infinite Fall's gorgeous 2D platformer Night in the Woods
“Alex started it,” says Scott Benson, one half of Night in the Woods development studio Infinite Fall. He’s referring to his partner in crime Alec Holowka who, at the behest of a friend, followed him on Twitter a couple of years back. “He was saying some interesting stuff about religion, and I also really liked his animation work,” Holowka recalls. “So I just kinda sent him an email saying, ‘Do you want to make a game?’ Outta nowhere, I’d never talked to him before. I had nothing in mind—I was thinking maybe something small for iPad—maybe an interactive storybook.”
Benson was receptive to the idea, and the two batted some concepts around, eventually coming up with the vague idea of a girl alone in the woods, wandering around and meeting fairy tale characters. “We worked on it for a couple of weeks, and then Scott was like, ‘I have another idea for a town full of animal people,’” Holowka recalls. “He sent me a sketch of the characters that would be in it, and instantly it seemed like a way more interesting idea.”
The result is Night in the Woods, an adventure/exploration game with a heavy focus on story, character, and place. The game takes place in the crumbling town of Possum Springs, a dead-end backwater that’s barely holding on after the mining jobs left; Mae the cat is a college dropout who has returned home to reclaim her teenage life with her friends who stayed in town. You’ll run and jump around, play some bass, meet lots of interesting characters, and basically try to figure out what the heck is happening in this weird place.
For Benson, this change in direction was a rather practical one. “I had no idea what I was doing at all—I still have barely any idea what I’m doing, but I definitely didn’t back then,” he says. “Also, I’m not really good at drawing anything close to a realistic person, at all, but I am good at drawing animal people,” he laughs. “So I was like, ‘Let’s make this about animal people, because I can totally draw that shit.’”
Early on, the two had a big thematic dicussion about the themes tey wanted to hit. “That was weird—right before we actually made anything we were like, ‘What do we want to talk about?’” says Benson. “Alec and I were going and had gone through some similar stuff, and it just kinda came together.” This “similar stuff” included times in their lives when they “weren’t sure when things were ending”—grappling with the question of how long they were supposed to hold onto something, even when it might be over. “When you should fight for something, and when you should let it go—about being in that unsure place,” says Benson. Both had struggled with depression, and had at one point had religious faith that they eventually drifted away from.
It ended up being more heartfelt and just weirder, because we were open to making decisions that weren’t just like, ‘What would be cool here?’ but rather what feels right.
Indeed, the game is by its very nature a personal one: it’s being developed solely by Holowka and Benson, who only met in person for the first time at last year’s 2014 E3 Expo in Los Angeles (they’ve now met IRL a grand total of two times). “For me, a big part of the inspiration came for Night in the Woods from the fear of turning 30,” says Holowka. “30 is a big number, and it’s one you can’t roll back. It sunk in just how inevitable aging is, and that fear of the unknown future is a big part of NITW for me.”Benson, has found other sources of inspiration to sustain him through the game’s multi-year development cycle. “A lot of it comes from my youth hanging out with punk kids, and my wife Bethany, who is working on the story with me,” he says. “Her childhood was in a middle of nowhere town in central Pennsylvania. There’s this bittersweetness to the beauty there—this place that was once bustling and full of life, but is now crumbling and bleeding population. It was this nice metaphor for life, trying to hold onto it, and understanding that time is passing, and what you do about that. I think we’re all looking for meaning, and the ways people find that meaning in life is really resonant. So all of that kinda came together in the story and setting of NITW.”
To help get themselves (and their fans) through the multi-year development cycle, Infinite Fall has released two smaller experiences. While continuing to work on the larger NITW game, the duo most released Lost Constellation over the Christmas 2014 holiday. Lost Constellation is a continuation of their work, a little game unto itself cobbled together from the bits of story left lying around the shop—in five weeks.
“It does take longer than you expect, but also you cut a lot as well,” says Holowka of working on a project of this scale. “You kinda find out what the game is as you’re making it. I think at the beginning we were really paying attention to character and story and environment and atmosphere, and let that drive gameplay—we said that, anyway, but I’m not sure if we completely knew what that meant at the time, but it really affected how things happened.”
“When you live with the themes that you come up with, and these fictional characters and this environment, those things kind of change and mature as you go,” Benson says. “It would not be nearly as good or interesting if we had stuck to our original plan—it ended up being more heartfelt and just weirder, because we were open to making decisions that weren’t just like, ‘What would be cool here?’ but rather what feels right.”
Benson gives the example of Paws Mode, where players enter Mae’s point of view and control each of her paws separately with each gamepad stick. “We were joking about Gone Home, and how that game was a lot of rooting around in drawers—I was calling it a first-person rummager. And Alex came up with the idea of Paws Mode kind of as a joke, but we turned it into a prototype, and it became one of the main gameplay systems in the game. And now it’s one of the things that everyone loves. It taught us that together we have some pretty good instincts about things, but that had to develop over time.”
He credits Benson’s unique art style as one of the team’s key advantages in working with limited resources. “Out of the gate, he had a really clear idea of what the art direction needed to be,” says Holowka. “I’ve worked on other projects where the art takes ages to come together; having that element working from the beginning was a huge help.”
For Benson, most of the difficulty has been in learning to think about creating within the game space. “This is my very first game, so there’s been a bit of a learning curve,” he says. “Alec has been amazing with guiding me into it and creating toolsets that even I can use, so I think I’ve probably had a much easier transition into game development than most. I’m really proud of how unique this game is turning out to be. It’s not like we set out to make some weird game, but we’ve just been following what feels right. It’s turning into something I hope will be really memorable to players.”
There’s a lot to the game, and the developers have been particular happy with how they’ve been able to integrate dynamic elements into their story-based game: leaves, squirrel AI, townsfolk, procedural car generation, power lines, pigeons—all these little systems add up to making the town feel more alive. “Because Unity is genre-agnostic, it makes it easy to prototype experimental gameplay modes like this.”
As for where they’re at now? “We have a much more strict timeline right now,” Holowka laughs. “Scott went off and made a big chart of milestones and stuff, so we’re working on that—that’s gonna be kinda different, but also very helpful. We’re gonna block out stuff just to get it in there, and then move on. It’s a little more focused on getting things done, whereas before it was more focused on getting things right. There are still some question marks, but a lot of it is more planned out than ever before.”