Confession: I like cats more than I like video games.
The upcoming “Night in the Woods” combines these two passions, and a recently released mini-game from its developers asks the unanswerable questions every cat herder has pondered at some point: What do cats think of when they daydream?
Answer: It’s certainly not mice or canned tuna.
Infinite Fall and Finji’s “Lost Constellation” doesn’t shy away from big topics; it tackles religion, the loss of a loved one and tricks of the mind with deft touches of humor and light flourishes of mysticism. Here, domesticated animals grapple with the same existential issues that keep us up at night.
These themes just happen to be delivered by wacky characters such as a mouse who serves as a high priest and likes to dance. So, yes, it’s bizarre — there’s a forest god, spiritual snowmen and a witch who may or may not be evil — but it’s grounded in reality, a sort of gonzo approach to game design in which real-life seriousness is offered up for surreal play.
Set in the same cat-focused universe as still in-development “Night in the Woods,” “Lost Constellation” is a stand-alone game, and a short (only an hour or two long) and sweet one. It’s essentially free, developers are asking participants to pay what they want, and approachable yet thoughtful in the way it alludes to weighty subjects.
The underlying conceit is simple. “Lost Constellation” puts us in the head of 8-year-old Mae, the “Night in the Woods” star who will eventually be stuck in her hometown without any career prospects. Here, however, she’s an inquisitive young feline who is being relayed a story by her grandfather.
It’s a folk tale with some cutesy creatures. There’s a devious black cat, for one, as well as a harmless alligator who serves as the game’s protagonist. She’s a lonely, elderly critter who simply wants passage through a potentially treacherous forest. For the alligator, this is a deeply personal quest and a chance to reconnect with a moment from her past.
FOR THE RECORD
8:35 a.m.: An earlier version of this post referred to the alligator character as male. The alligator, as several readers have helpfully pointed out, is female.
Along the way she’s tasked with reciting prayers and is offered the opportunity to buy a coffin from a huckster. Elsewhere, a shrewd black cat even tells the alligator she won’t be long for this world and purrs with enjoyment while doing so. “Lost Constellation” uses a congenial feel to layer in not-so-subtle reminders that our time on Earth isn’t forever.
Like any rumination on loss, words left unsaid or alluded to are often more important than the actual conversations, and “Lost Constellation,” though more wordy than most games, uses language sharply. An example: There’s no such thing as a witch, a character called out as one tells us, but there’s also no word for a lonesome woman in an unexpected place, she says. Therefore, a term that was “feared and hated” was substituted.
Such moments give the game the feel of a fable, and lend heft to the weirdness. Encounters that could be scary become wistful. There’s no real danger in the presence of the so-called witch. She has a housemate who fears her, but the young roommate fears loneliness more.
Co-writer Scott Benson cites dour yet pointed singer-songwriter Nick Cave as an influence. While Cave’s songs often dial in on matters of the heart or a crisis of faith, they do so with sometimes-biting sarcasm. He can turn the morbid into the droll.
“Sunsets are gorgeous because you know they’ll be gone soon,” Benson says. “Life is precious because it ends. Relationships mean so much because we’re fundamentally isolated on some level. So in the same way that the best love songs have some sadness, our fun games about alligators building snowpeople or cats running around small towns tend to have an air of melancholy.”
In terms of a journey, “Lost Constellation” is a simple one. Traversing a forest and instructing the alligator to build snowmen are really all there is to it, but as with the best games, it plays with us rather than the other way around.
Snowmen, for instance, become windows into the souls of the fallen, and our adventurer starts to worry she’s disturbing the spirits rather than freeing them. This fear is delivered via a joke that she’s bringing too many misfit snowmen into this messed-up world. These are moments that are unique to the interactive medium, as the act of building snowmen is a little bit of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey goofiness. It’s only later, long after the playfulness has subsided, that the real meaning is revealed.
If one places a dog collar on a snowman, the latter begins to bark. Outfit a snowman with a trumpet, and an old musician is awakened. But how these people died, and why they’re trapped in the forest, is what lingers. We see glimpses of past lives and past loves, but the core of the game is about connections, and how one person can see joy in an item — a Ouija board, a constellation or another person — that can be completely invisible to others.
It’s a lot to handle in a short game, especially one that knows games do whimsy rather well. When our traveler encounters the musical god-fearing mouse, for instance, the little animal charms with his good-natured grooves. But not even becoming a mouse of the cloth can prevent the little guy from being a constant target of the cat (the cat, like any proud cat, denies any crimes, of course).
I laughed, but it was also a reminder of life’s fragility. Or as Benson says, “You can’t really treat any of life’s high points with real respect without awareness of sadness.
“Big words,” he adds, “for a game made in five weeks where you make goofy snowpeople and talk to a dancing mouse priest, but there you go.”
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