Review: Between Me and The Night

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I don’t think people have really considered how difficult it is to make a successful surrealist game. The intended purpose of such a game, going by the definition of the surrealist movement, would be to bridge the gap between dream and reality into a unified existence… which is what a lot of games do just by the nature of their systems. It’s a bold fight to pick for Between Me and The Night, especially as grounded in conventional adventure logic as it is. It would probably also help if it weren’t so bogged down with bugs, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.

Between Me and The Night puts you in the shoes of a young boy alone in his home. The nature of the house itself soon proves to be supernaturally hostile, leaving you to pick your way through bits of his reality while dodging elements of nightmare. Innocuous tasks like feeding the cat and mowing the lawn take on new depth when the cat is a hulking beast, the lawn lies on the edge of oblivion, and strange creatures roam the halls in between. As you progress through the game you’ll progress through the boy’s life and his long-standing and familiar love of video games.

Functionally, this plays just like any other side-scrolling adventure. You walk the boy left or right, push boxes and chairs around, climb up onto things to reach high items, and collect things to use on things to open the path to more things. The interface is a little different, hiding the mouse until you click and allowing you to grab virtually anything in the game and carry up to six potentially useless doodads. Items are used to open doors and complete tasks like the aforementioned cat feeding, or to fulfill hidden side objectives like collecting action figures or listening to cassettes.

The adventure takes you through the boy’s home, school, and eventual apartment, granting glimpses of the past and hints at his present. Between these realms are interludes in a video game world where you take up sword and shield to venture through snowy mountains to scale a tower. There’s combat in these bits, a sort of low-rent 2D Dark Souls thing with slow attacks and blocks and dodges. It only APPEARS Soulsish, mind you, because it’s easy enough to run up to the two kinds of enemies and just clickspam them to death. There’s no platforming in these bits, but there is in a few little side games you can play that emulate old NES and GameBoy games on a very limited (like, single-level) scale.

Considering how simple the tasks are and how small the areas are, that doesn’t leave a whole lot to see or do even if you’re going for the side achievements. This is where the monsters come in, in awkward, unwelcome fashion no less. After a short time in each area, a twisted nightmare creature will appear to slowly and loudly patrol the halls. These critters will bee-line for you if they see you, devouring you and instantly sending you back to the start of the area with no progress lost. That’s right, you pretty much just get teleported away for messing up, which is good because the game gives you no way to fight or flee or distract or circumvent these things. If there’s a monster somewhere, you can’t do anything about it. Well, besides feed yourself to it for no penalty so it jumps to another part of the level.

I would be more gracious to the thin gameplay and annoying enemies if the rest of the game were mechanically sound, but… I had to use a walkthrough to beat it. That’s not unusual for me, a lot of point-and-clicks have puzzles I get stuck on. But I had to use a walkthrough from start to finish because it is infuriatingly easy to make the game unwinnable. Seriously, in the house area, if you do any of the major tasks out of order (which you easily can since everything is open) it will break the scripting and make it impossible to progress. I had to do the house chapter FIVE TIMES because triggers kept breaking and, in one case, a monster ate me while I was solving a puzzle which made the key item to solving it disappear forever.

This is already plenty of strikes against the game, but I haven’t forgotten about its claim to surrealism. At this point it should be clear that Between Me and The Night is hardly more surreal than a standard indie adventure that takes place in the character’s mind. Honestly titles like Neverending Nightmares and Fran Bow have far, FAR greater claims to surrealism than this. But what really galls me is how this artistic direction gives the game the excuse to not explain anything about itself. Video games and common childhood anxieties are featured heavily but no real lines are drawn between them, and the story never really resolves with any sort of statement about the boy. For God’s sake, the achievement for beating the game is called “I don’t get it” which is either taunting folks who bother to divine any meaning from it, or a tacit admission that there really is no meaning to divine. And either way, it doesn’t speak well to your intentions as a storyteller.

Between Me and The Night simply purports to be something it isn’t. It clearly wants to be a deep and meaningful exploration of trauma and escapism, played out in a world which allows the psyche to intrude on reality. What it ends up being is a pretty standard side-scrolling point-and-click with a substandard story, purposefully removed to give the illusion of complex symbolism. I would like to have seen far more done with the sharp art style and unusual interface, but it’s all in service of a game that’s too short and plain to do its themes justice.

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