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Entertainment

Coming to Video Games Near You: Depressed Towns, Dead-End Characters

The new Night in the Woods is one of several video games in recent years to deal with the decline of working-class towns and a dismal economy.

In the coming video game Night in the Woods, a young woman named Mae decides to drop out of college and return to the former mining town where she grew up. It’s a place where there is little opportunity and most people are struggling to make ends meet.

Mae, who is an anthropomorphic cat, drinks too much, shoplifts and likes to break things in parking lots with baseball bats. As she meanders through the fictional town of Possum Springs, players of the game are confronted not only with her memories but also the sense of a place whose better times are behind it.

“I grew up in central Pennsylvania, and my town was a steel town,” said Bethany Hockenberry, one of the three independent game developers behind Night in the Woods, which is being released for personal computers and PlayStation 4 on Feb. 21. Alongside Scott Benson and Alec Holowka, Ms. Hockenberry drew on her hometown experience to create a game with an aesthetic that the developers describe as “Rust Belt Gothic.”

Night in the Woods is one of several video games in recent years that tapped into themes that came to the fore during last year’s presidential election campaign: the decline of working-class towns and what it feels like to be crushed by debt or left behind by the economy. In the games, players explore what it means to be in those situations through role-playing and storytelling, in contrast to the shoot-’em-up and sports titles that dominate the games industry.

Night in the Woods gets part of its inspiration from Kentucky Route Zero, a continuing and episodic PC adventure game from the independent studio Cardboard Computer. That game, which debuted in 2012 and whose most recent episode was released last year, follows an aging deliveryman named Conway as he travels the back roads of Kentucky in search of a secret highway that will allow him to make his final delivery.

Last year, a game called Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor imagined the daily grind of a trash collector living hand-to-mouth on the fringes of an alien society. And Cart Life, which was released in 2011, takes a hard look at the poverty line by simulating the stressful and precarious life of a food-cart vendor.

These games do not aim to make players feel successful and powerful as conventional video games do, and instead challenge people to look at the world in a different way. Creators of the games said they were more interested in showing the complicated lives of the people and places the world has left behind, as well as the economic realities that inevitably circumscribe their stories.

“We want to create stories and mythologies about the places we’re from and the people we know, and that includes addressing the economics of it,” said Mr. Benson, one of the Night in the Woods developers. “If you don’t, I think you’re not getting the whole picture.”

Some of the games have been critically acclaimed. Kentucky Route Zero won the best narrative award at the Game Developers Conference last year, while Cart Life took home the grand prize at the Independent Game Festival in 2013. Sales of these games do not come close to those of matching blockbuster titles, though they can still sell in the hundreds of thousands. Kentucky Route Zero, for instance, has sold around 250,000 copies.

Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy, who created Kentucky Route Zero, began making the game in 2010 when the country was still reeling from the 2008 financial crisis and the collapse of the housing bubble. Mr. Elliott said the feelings of frailty that emerged from those times, along with the rise of esoteric financial concepts like “shadow banking,” helped inspire the game.

“When we started working on the game, I was thinking about exploring the mystery of that relationship, of being a person in a precarious financial situation and trying to grapple with these forces that seem almost supernatural,” Mr. Elliott said.

In Kentucky Route Zero, the two developers mixed together magical realism with the everyday financial difficulties that people were encountering. Players find not just foreclosed houses and abandoned mines, but also giant eagles, ghostly mathematicians and tugboats powered by mechanical mammoths.

Conway, the game’s main character, is put through numerous tough situations that evoke economic despair. In one scene, after he suffers a serious injury, his leg is replaced by a gleaming skeletal prosthetic, and he is vaguely informed that he owes money to a corporation. In another, he descends into a subterranean whiskey distillery staffed by animated skeletons, whom he learns are doomed to toil endlessly for debts they can never repay.

With one more installment of the game to come, Mr. Elliott said he was thrown by the presidential election and the backlash of racism and xenophobia that accompanied it. He wondered how to incorporate that into a story that reflects contemporary working-class life. Although there had been subtle references to racial inequality in the game before, he and Mr. Kemenczy now plan to make them more evident.

“I don’t know that it’s responsible to continue to treat it as though it’s simmering under the surface anymore,” Mr. Elliott said.

Still, these games are not all doom and gloom. Night in the Woods game is leavened by its cartoony aesthetic and the animal characters. At times, it can be downright cheerful, as Mae bounds through the streets of Possum Springs throwing colorful autumn leaves into the air.

“People want to typify the Rust Belt as the most depressing, dead place,” said Mr. Benson, who is based in Pittsburgh. “But there are people who live their lives happily here, too. No matter where you are, you’ve run down your street kicking up leaves.”

(The New York Times)

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