I don't know how to start this review. I caught sight of Between Me and the Night, saw the visual style and said "Huh, this looks kind of neat. Guess I'll give it a go". With no other information about it, I started up a new game. On the surface it seemed simple enough, and while it wasn't any sort of earth shattering experience, it did leave me in a position where after I finished, I had trouble judging it objectively. You know that one game which most people either like or at least think is okay, but is your absolute favorite and you can't easily define why, nor do you play it constantly. You just always remember it, because there was something particular about it that stuck with you? You can't pick at the flaws easily, even though you know they're there? That's kind of what Between Me and the Night felt like, and that's a subjective experience but it's an experience not a lot of media can reach even with a small population. That state where you know it's not the absolute best, it has problems, and it can be improved, but at the same time you don't really want it to change.
Between Me and the Night is an adventure game starring an unnamed red-headed boy. Before delving into the story, because that is the game's strongest point by far, let's talk mechanics. The game functions as a side-scrolling adventure game, with three segments - the "real life" segment where you must collect items to solve puzzles, the "dream" segment where you must defeat enemies and solve puzzles, and short segments where you must play retro-style platforming games. Puzzle-wise, nothing seems too convoluted. In fact most of the puzzles are almost too simple. The puzzles in the "dream" segment are very straight forward. In the real life segment, the actual difficulty is in determining which items you actually need. The difficulty is more in that you can pick up things you don't actually need, and you have a prohibitively limited inventory space. So you're going to be cycling through items and having to back track frequently to make sure you have what you need at the time. Most things are obvious, which can make you feel pretty dumb after you've cycled through a section twelve times trying to figure out what to do, but that's just a symptom of adventure games. Once you have the items, the game practically tells you where to take them and how to assemble them. In the "dream" segment, you must also fight enemies, but it feels more like filler. Just a way to set the mood. You walk up to an enemy, click and hold your mouse, and they die. There's not much strategy involved.
The platforming in the retro-style portions (and some parts of the "dream" portion) is the only part that's not fully there mechanically. It's very stiff and precise, and the developer seems to have a thing for spikes. Especially later when speed becomes more important in these segments, it can be really annoying. However, you are only required to beat one of these platforming segments, but it has the same problem. There are spikes everywhere, jumps you have to time perfectly, and an unforgiving timer adding on the pressure. Fortunately, it isn't completely impossible, just needlessly difficult.
Between the two gameplay segments, there are some inconsistencies. For instance, you can run up stairs in "dream" segments, but you can't in the "real life" segments. Some mechanics seem a bit contrived, like trying to reach things in high places, which turned out to be merely annoying instead of challenging. If an object is on a high shelf, you have to use a chair to reach it, and sometimes you must also use a table, and climb on both individually. Having been around a lot of children, I really don't think any child would need a chair to climb onto a simple table. In fact most kids would skip it and just climb the shelf. That's more a petty annoyance though. There's also some bizarre glitches that seem to arise occasionally, including one which I encountered while researching the game where a player found he actually turned invisible, to the point even the monsters couldn't find him.
Yes, there are monsters - not metaphoric monsters, actual monsters. That literally devour you on contact. In the "real life" segments, you have to run and hide from several different kinds of monsters, each with a unique function. The first monster can turn off the lights in the house, second is a "Hall Monitor" which you could avoid being devoured by if you have a Hall Pass, then a lawn mower that comes to life when you try to use it, a giant hand of an angry land lord, and spiders which are generally terrifying so it fits. The monsters were fairly easy to avoid, though there was occasionally an issue where they would be immediately on the outside of a door and catch you before you could react. There's no way to tell when a monster is on the other side of a door, so you can imagine this gets irritating. However, getting caught isn't much of a deterrent. You just get dropped at the starting point of the section, and the levels aren't so enormous or hard to traverse. This is especially true in the final stage, which only consists of three small rooms. Upon a second playthrough of the game I could sometimes hear breathing on the other side if I stood by a door and a monster walked by, but I had to focus to really hear it and differentiate it from the music and other sounds.
Between Me and the Night is a very pretty game. This was what initially sold me on playing the game, and it definitely held up. The levels are all colorful and stylized and the layout and environment fits with whatever the theme of that segment is. Which is good, because it means there's nothing that can ruin the mood, as nothing really seems out of place.
There are some graphical irregularities. You can push certain objects out of the levels themselves, and you can often still see the object just hanging out in the empty space when you enter a new room. If you push things that have objects on top of them, the items will sometimes get left behind and float in air. These quirks don't impede gameplay, and it's mostly just amusing to watch the same box follow you around everywhere.
The soundtrack is nice, if not slightly too ominous. The sound design almost gave the game a horror feel, even though it's not really a horror game. There are monsters, and a mildly surreal tone sometimes, but not nearly enough to justify having horror-esque music. It does keep you on your toes, though it would be nice if it had some regularity. It took me a while to figure out that the music getting louder didn't actually indicate anything happening, though it would've been a nice way to show that there was a monster nearby, instead of the quiet breathing.
On the surface, the story seems pretty simple. You start off controlling the protagonist as a child, going through what appears to be daily life, or at least a memory of it. He has to mow the lawn, feed the cat, deal with siblings, but also endure his parents fighting and the nuisances of being small in a very big, scary world. He escapes from this world through video games, the best avenue of escapism he knows. In between daily life, he envisions himself as a knight from his favorite game, where his regular problems don't exist. The narrative then follows him through school as he is targeted by bullies and dealing with love, before finally reaching adulthood. The running theme is about how video games and imagination become his escape, and it's genius. Video games are a form of escape for many people, distracting from all the problems life can bring. In every level also, there is a way to repair a game console, allowing access to most of the filler retro game segments. Video games are the main theme, but the game also touches on other forms of escape such as art, music, photography, and most notably imagination. There is also a commentary on the use of medication to deal with problems, as there is a pill bottle to be found in every level. Each time you find it, the protagonist is less excited to see it.
All of this is obvious. You don't need a degree in creative writing to understand the narrative, but at the same time, it's not really manipulative. Everything here isn't overly traumatic, it's life. It's relatable specifically because everyone can play at least one segment and go "Yeah, I've been through that". The last segment was mine. The protagonist has his own place, but is bogged down by bills and the stresses of daily life, on the verge of being evicted and at his breaking point. Even when he does manage to fix his console and try to get away, he finds that it's too much and he can't. While playing this section, I had a highly uneasy feeling the whole time, and it hit almost instantaneously. The environment told the story so immediately, and it hit me like a brick. That's a familiar situation to a lot of adults, especially the part about finding yourself unable to escape that, even though that's all you really want. That's the point where it became hard to judge the experience, because it is not every day you play a game that can pull that off.
Most games tell a story, and you can relate and like the characters, but you're still doing it very much from an outsider perspective. You have to create a very real environment to actually draw this kind of emotional reaction from the player, and that's exactly what this story did so well. It wasn't a linear narration. The story was told almost exclusively by how the protagonist interacts with things and by the environment. Things can be stated a bit bluntly at times, but usually there are an abundance of realistic reactions, which means that the game manages to tell you exactly what's happening with as few words as possible. There are metaphors in the game - monsters, shadows, a somewhat surreal atmosphere. But it isn't quite abstract - it's so clear what everything is, and it isn't done to be artistic so much as that is what a child actually sees. There isn't anything that requires a lot of interpretation. Judgmental peers are spiders. Teachers are tall and foreboding. There are scary monsters in the dark. What's more, it all fits with the age of the protagonists. As a child, the shapes of the monsters are very dramatic, like how a child might imagine things they find scary. The dark, the lawnmower, an angry cat. As a teenager, there's an exaggeration but most things are now more realistic. As an adult, it's a bit more abstract. There are no real monsters, but there are still looming shadows and lights that remind you of all your problems and failures. It all makes immediate sense.
The only issue that can really be taken, after all this, is the ending. I won't go as far to say the ending is bad. It just doesn't seem to fit with the rest of the story. I can't even spoil it because of how vague it is. Considering how easily understood the rest of the story is, it was expected that the ending would be similarly obvious, something that actually ties it all in. Instead, it leaves it up in the air. You can still interpret a happy ending out of it (or maybe even a sad ending) but having something concrete would've fit more. I wanted that happy ending after getting so invested in the narrative, I wanted everything to turn out alright. Maybe it would be a sad ending, which would be depressing, but then at least there would be something to go on. The vague ending just didn't seem to fit, and it almost ruined the mood of the rest of the game.
Aside from that, it's a story brilliantly told. It's not complex, it's not groundbreaking by any degree, but you relate to it. At some point in this kids life, you see yourself in that kid. As gamers, you understand the power video games have as an outlet, sometimes a life saving one. It's rare to find a game, even an indie game, portray that so well. Games have tried in the past, but this is the first one I've seen where it felt real.
Now the game is short, getting in about three hours for one playthrough. Even if you go for all the achievements, you'd likely only manage about one extra hour. In this case though, it would be worth it. The game is balanced, visually pleasing, and well told, working as a movie-length experience. It could do with some more sections and levels (there are three, the first two consisting of most of the gameplay, but those are fairly big levels), but like I said before, you almost don't want it to change. It all strings together so nicely that anything extra might just confuse matters and make what is there less special. It's not going to provide you with endless gameplay, to my knowledge it doesn't have fifty different endings, there are no memes, and it won't lead you to ponder the absolute meaning of the universe. Between Me and the Night doesn't have to do those things. It's a simple experience, free of gimmicks, with a story designed to appeal to gamers. And frankly, that's a breath of fresh air. Sometimes games don't need a bunch of bells and whistles, they just need to tell the story they set out to tell and make a gameplay experience that keeps you interested. Between Me and the Night accomplishes that all too well.
Between Me and the Night was provided by the developer and reviewed on PC via Steam.
Sometimes a game doesn't need a thousand endings, gimmicks, and symbols to tell a story that makes it all worth it.