For the second year in a row, the team behind the upcoming adventure game Night in the Woods have released what they call a "supplemental" game. No, it's not a vitamin. Instead, Lost Constellation is a continuation of their work, a little game unto itself cobbled together from the bits of story left lying around the shop.
But it's also a gift.
NITW is the story of Mae, a college dropout who comes home to her dilapidated old mining town to find uncertainty and change all around her. The game has been showered with critical praise, including an Editor's Choice Award from Polygon at E3 2014.
This supplemental work, called Lost Constellation, is a kind of aside. Similar to Cardboard Computer's Kentucky Route Zero interludes, it's not a demo and it's not really even a vital part of the final game. It's a kind of wintry ghost story, told to an 8-year-old Mae by her grandfather on the longest night of the year. It's available now for whatever you'd like to pay for it.
"Where does this story happen?" Mae asks her grandfather.
"Back where my grandparents came from," he says, "but long before they lived."
It's just a few hours long, but making this mysterious little walk through the woods feels like a complete experience. It's reminiscent of a dark, Dickensian haunting or something even earlier and more primitive. Sharing it with their audience has meant so much to the small team, including the husband and wife who are writing NITW.
"Last year when we made our first supplemental, called Longest Night, it was just because we wanted to get something out," says animator and co-writer Scott Benson. He had initially suggested that, after their successful Kickstarter, they make a kind of "animated yule log" as a thank you.
But Alec Holowka, an experienced game developer who is responsible for the design, coding and music in NITW, thought it more appropriate to make a game instead.
The result was a narrative meditation of the night sky as seen from inside the world of NITW, complete with tall tales and legends to match. One year later, Lost Constellation is a more fully fleshed-out experience, a kind of pagan Christmas story that explores religion and the way that history is passed down from generation to generation.
Night in the Woods is shaping up to be something more than a simple allegory
"My wife and I have this really strong connection to the idea of region," Benson said. "Kind of the way that your different regional fictions shape things. We both have a bunch of different compendiums of old folk tales and the books about what a cultural anthropologist heard. Observations that are still in their totally raw, weird form that I barely understand because I'm not from central Ukraine or wherever.
"But they're fascinating for that reason, because you can see so much of these people when you read about that, and you can see so much about their history and how that influences them."
NITW will be, in many ways, an autobiographical story for Bethany Hockenberry, co-writer on the project and Benson's wife. She grew up in rural Pennsylvania, a corner of America's rust belt that could easily serve as a stand-in for the game world she's helping to make.
"Hopefully no family member plays it," she said, only half joking.
Between Benson and Hockenberry, NITW is shaping up to be something more than a simple allegory for America's flyover states. If you look carefully at its two supplemental games, you can see how it's developed a kind of internal logic and a history unto itself. Much of that has to do with the Benson and Hockenberry's shared love of regional history.
Many of these early histories have to do with death and loss, which Hockenberry said can tell you a lot about a person by what is left unsaid.
"I love when you'll just get this tiny little snippet of how someone died," Hockenberry said. "And they just don't really go into it, but they give you just enough information where you're thinking, 'That's horrifying,' or you just get enough of that person's personality that you get a taste for them.
"I just got done reading a ton of coal-mining books for research. That was kind of great. My favorite one of that was a guy who grew up as a kid in the mid-1900s and he wrote a memoir. It was just filled with these nonchalant stories about how these people died horrible deaths in the coal mine. One where a mother, or I think a grandmother, was walking in front of her granddaughter, and like the ground just opened up beneath her and swallowed her because there was a cave-in underneath."
Hockenberry feels in a way that we've become disconnected from this kind of loss, and that the disconnection has changed how we understand our own histories.
"People don't realize how flu epidemics happened, how often people died. It was just more of a part of your life."
There are many ghosts in Lost Constellation, and their tiny slivers of stories seem both tragic and enchanting. The supplemental game has a depth that is merely hinted at, not beaten into your head. And at all times it feels playful and irreverent.
Despite that airiness, during public demonstrations of NITW people keep telling the couple how dark their game is. It's always surprised Benson.
With luck this won't be the last supplemental game the team puts out
"Neither of us are super attracted to that darkness," Benson says. "The story that I tell is that at E3 someone commented on a character who mentioned having had issues with being addicted to codeine. The player turns to us and tells us, 'This is really dark.' And we're standing underneath a row of people getting their faces shotgunned off on giant screens, and people are telling us, 'This is really dark.'
"I think it's because people are used to darkness being darkness for its own sake, as opposed to just dealing with hardship as a part of life."
With luck, Lost Constellation won't be the last supplemental game the NITW team puts out before their final release. Sharing their world with their audience lets them relieve some of the pressure they feel, both to finish the final game and to share it with their fans.
"I get so turned off by kind of like the Wikipedia-style lore dumps you get with games," Benson said. "How many orcs and elf chieftains and Ages of This and the time when they stole the Orb of Fa'had from Whatever and you're kind of like, 'I just don't care.'
"Why should I care about this? What's interesting to me?
"We tend to work from places that feel more personal because that's kind of where we come from. We tend to get interested in folklore because, as opposed to giant fantasy compendiums, those things come together over centuries in these large areas, but they are really specific. This happened in this set of woods right here. This happened in this place when this guy was doing this, and you can see how those stories are about various themes. Sometimes there's like practical stuff like don't go wandering into the woods, sometimes it's obey your parents or they'll feed you to something."
Night in the Woods is coming to Linux, Mac, PC and PlayStation 4 sometime in 2015.