Thinking back to 2014, I can recall how “ready” I was for the world. Having just graduated college and working on a Master’s degree, my academic education was in full force. I had a humble job I biked to every day to help pay for an impending wedding the coming year. I had so much promise and aptitude for my field in English education I felt like I was going to make a difference in the world. Sadly, life doesn’t always play into our hopes and the proverbial rug gets pulled out from under our feet.
And this is something that yes, happens to teenagers and to people later in life too. But it’s especially impactful in that young adult range just after high school but before we figure out who we really are in our mid-to-late twenties. Think of the chaos that goes on in that time period. We’re finally being released from our parents’ homes into the world. Potentially into higher education or maybe into the job force. Either way, we’re suddenly thrust into a world without clear direction or structure. This can be a terribly self-destructive experience to one’s forward momentum. Much like the character Mae from Night in the Woods experiences when coming home to her sleepy town of Possum Springs.
Mae, a snarky but adorable anthropomorphic cat, arrives home after a failed attempt at her sophomore year of college having experienced burnout. The world she has come back to is one of a schism between the older population of Possum Springs and her own generation of high school and college age kids. The older generation is set in their ways and the younger generation is forced to inherit the failing shell of a podunk town. It’s a picture perfect scenario of how the age gap that can often affect communication between generations.
Then you have Mae’s friends. Upon coming back she finds her three closest friends all have jobs or relationships. Bae, the alligator, has taken over the family business and looks after her father. Gregg, the wolf, and Angus, the bear, have moved in together and they both work to save up money for moving to a better place. Mae spends the course of the game desperately trying to to fit in with them but ultimately finds out that adult life is more than she can handle at the moment. Meanwhile, she runs into younger schoolmates who are still finishing up high school. Their carefree nature is something she still clings to as someone who hasn’t fully accepted adulthood yet. But sadly, they don’t see Mae as a peer anymore and Mae cannot relate to them. And so, Mae is stuck between two worlds. The naivete of grade school youth and the free yet busy life of adulthood, and neither one accepts her fully.
What’s more, Mae seems to have suffered a psychological break due to stress and even has a hint of violence in her past that might be linked to the same psychological issues. Mae struggles throughout the game to discuss these incidences and feelings with anyone. Until one night she reveals a frightening alternate reality that she experiences that is not unlike dissociative tendencies. It’s no wonder when Possum Springs has no outlet for mental health treatment. It’s essentially a non-factor for a town that’s stuck in time.
Mae represents that moment in all of our lives where we have no real idea of the gravity of life. Things can change so quickly that we hardly have a chance to take them in. In some cases they’ll blast right past us. Mae’s friends are moving on with their lives while she’s just bumming it out at her parents’ home. She dropped out of college after her parents paid for it. She’s potentially mentally ill. Mae is directionless and stuck. She hoped that coming back to her hometown, where nothing ever seems to happen, would give her some security. Everything would be just the way she left it. But Mae found that even the subtle changes to the lives of those around her can have drastic effects.
Our early twenties are a time for exploration and self-development. It’s a time where we set out to be productive workers or scholars. We fly from the nest of parental supervision into a world of endless possibilities. It’s the prime age to start falling in love and building a family who shares your values. Our brains are still developing to take in the world around us and support new views and ambitions. But for some like Mae, it’s a time of watching everyone but you succeed. And ya know what, that’s okay.
Sometimes we need to take a step back from the world around us to take stock of ourselves. It’s something I have to reconcile with quite often as I watch my friends settle down into married life. They’re climbing the job ladder or going into Master’s and Doctorate programs. They’re all making something of themselves. Meanwhile, I’ve fallen into the life of a factory worker and am climbing myself out of debt. I work three different jobs. Only two of which I hope to get paid for, and I deal with my mental illnesses on a daily basis. It’s a lot of work with little rest and quite frankly very little progress.
But, that’s okay. I’m watching the world speed past me and I’m realizing two things. One is that everyone else my age is just as tired and confused as I am. It’s silly to think that everyone else has figured out some secret formula to success and happiness that I haven’t. And the second, is that I’m totally okay with where I’m at. Debt. Struggle. Failure. An unsure future. None of it is fun, but for now I need to bide my time and discover who I really want to be.
Having played Night in the Woods, I found myself connecting with Mae’s character despite the drastic differences in her daring and rambunctious ways and my bookish and reserved ways. Mae spends a good portion of the game trying to fit in and make sense of the ever changing world around her. But in the end, she simply settles in and accepts that maybe it’s just not her time yet. Maybe she needs to just be, and that’s okay. Sometimes we need to just be and take in how far we’ve come, where we are, and where we might want to go. The rest of the world can keep moving and we can rejoin it when we’re ready.