In the opening hours of Night in the Woods, Mae opens her laptop, only to be faced with salacious ads clogging her screen. She knows what happened. I know what happened. You know what happened. Adware happened. So Mae—flustered, annoyed and a little embarrassed that this is basically concrete evidence that she dabbles in browsing you-know-what—rushes out into her podunk town to find Angus, a friend who is good with computers, or in other words is known to "hack things."
A hop, skip, and minor electrocution later, Mae’s laptop is restored to its former glory: chat windows, away messages, surprise sprawling top-down action games, and all. It’s here where we see that Mae’s desktop as a reflection of herself, beyond the adware pop-ups that first clouded her screen. From the instant messages she sends off to her pals and the quirky away messages they leave, Mae finds solace to be her truest self on her computer, just like the rest of us do.
I've always seen computer desktops as a reflection of ourselves. Even now, my own desktop is littered with shortcuts to screencapped images, to the point where my wallpaper art is hardly visible at all. The few desktop icons that aren’t pictures are shortcuts to games, despite the fact that I don't think I've ever launched a game outside of Steam before. And beyond the clutter, that’s really it. My desktop is messy, just like the desk I work from every day, just like my room at the end of a work week, just like my life, really. I’m too busy to clean up anything, or too lazy. Or a bit of both.
Mae’s desktop is the opposite, though it evokes a similar feeling of "I need to get my life together." Her computer’s home screen is noticeably barren—devoid of icons aside from a shortcut to the game Demontower (a pixelated action game that bears a wink-wink resemblance to Dark Souls) and the avatars of her friends for messaging. Using the Playstation 4’s Dualshock 4’s tracking pad, her pizza cursor whizzes around the screen as a mouse would enable it (though, the analog stick works too).
As established in the game’s opening hours, you learn that Mae’s life is a mess. She’s a fresh college dropout, who fled back home when she began to feel like she didn’t belong. She’s no stranger to local controversies and the ever-judgmental eyes from her family’s neighbors. Mae’s state of mind is in a constant cluttered state of depression, narcissism, and confusion. And her computer’s screen is clean, because she actually has the time to manage its pristine perfection. Or, perhaps more accurately, she doesn’t feel the drive to do anything at all.
In Cibele, the voyeuristic game from independent game designer Nina Freeman, the desktop is realigned as a window into a young woman’s whole world. We see all aspects of her life through drafted blog posts, old selfies, new selfies, and the experiences she shares with a crush online through playing a MMO. Cibele is an almost uncomfortably close look at someone’s personal experiences in finding love and heartbreak online; but it’s also a tale that’s sorely familiar to many. In a similar sense, game designer Kyle Seeley’s Emily is Away recreates the awkward distance that can come with online chatting, perfectly emulating the often isolating nature of AIM (AOL’s long obsolete instant messenger).
Sometimes, like Night in the Woods’ gateway into the ominous Demontower dimension, a game’s desktop is merely a path into another game. In developers Hexecutable’s cute-personified game Beglitched, the player has inherited the mysterious laptop of a Glitch_Witch. Her desktop is embedded with a number of folders, which turn out to be passages into hacking that needs to be done, in the guise of aptly designed Match 3 puzzles. In SUPERHOT, a shifty meta-DOS transports the player into another dimension entirely. In game designer Sam Barlow’s Her Story, the desktop is the only means of the game: it’s a maze by way of search engines, clues, and scribbling down notes outside of the game. Her Story is also a game with no concrete end; you tuck it away when you’re satisfied, or believe you’ve solved the central mystery. Faux-desktops, whether through Night in the Woods or other games, take a step closer to the ones we use to directly play games in our daily lives.
I’m not yet finished with Night in the Woods, but at the end of every in-game day, I make sure to have Mae check her computer. Sometimes there’ll be a quick "good night" back and forth with good ol’ perpetually hyper Gregg. Sometimes Mae will find awkward silence, shooting messages into the void because of the aftermath of a tense argument. Sometimes we’ll dive back into the bleak, blood-drenched world of Demontower, and give it a rest once we see that familiar “You died” game over screen. Mae’s desktop may be empty, but it comes to life with the interactions she embeds on it every day.