The Forest interview: survival, horror and the VR wilderness
The sparking ruins of an abandoned plane fuselage; the lush greenery of a heavy woodland; and briefly, the low growls of an awakening mutant tribe. It's only a minute long, but the first teaser trailer for The Forest is dense with atmosphere. I contacted Ben Falcone, creator and lead designer for the game, to learn of the systems behind their tense and panicked sneak peek. Read on to learn about the necessities of survival, how Oculus Rift support will envelop you in terror, and if a tree falls in a forest, and only cannibals are around to hear it, will anyone hear you scream?
Open-world survival is a genre in ascendence right now. From the deceptively charming Don't Starve, to the intricacies of Miasmata, and, of course, the expanding sandbox playground that is Minecraft. The Forest takes its inspiration from a different source. "Our focus is much more on a survival horror experience," Falcone tells me, "letting players experience being in the world of ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ or an 80’s Italian cannibal film."
"Our focus is much more on a survival horror experience"
Try to contain the automatic eye-roll at a game/film comparison. The exploitation-driven cannibal horror boom of the late-seventies/early-eighties centred on primal fears - the sensation of being in the presence of something ostensibly human, but unrecognisably feral, and of the unease that - despite their depravity - they can still hold a mirror to ourselves. Beyond the infamy and violence, there was an emotional intensity that provides a perfect core for a systemic survival horror game.
The Forest puts this into practice with the island's mysterious tribe. SKS Games are staying quiet on their exact nature, but Falcone reveals that they aren't just mindless monsters. "We want the players to feel empathy for them. We’ve taken some inspiration here from the novel ‘I Am Legend’. There is some question as to who is actually the enemy: them, or you. You're the one who is invading their forest."
The reason for your invasion is a plane crash, and that means you'll start the game lacking the necessary means and resources. While you can scavenge supplies from the plane, those provisions will quickly expire. After that, it's down to you. "Food and water are both really important, there are lots of lakes you can drink from, but if you’re hungry you have to either hunt/trap small animals, or plant your own garden."
"During cold nights you’ll need to either make a fire or stay inside to keep warm"
Naturally, you'll need tools. Here the developers hope to keep the player in the game world at all times, rather than lessening the immersion through crafting menus. Find a stick, for instance, and you can sharpening it on a rock to create a rudimentary spear. More complex creations are possible through your backpack, which will let you search through and combine small items.
"We’re trying to build in a lot of interactivity in everything," Falcone says. "We have no traditional story or cutscenes so our focus needs to be on making the world as dynamic and emergent as possible. We want it to be engaging just to spend time in the world."
Beyond basic sustenance, you'll also need shelter and protection from the elements. "During cold nights you’ll need to either make a fire or stay inside to keep warm. You can sleep at this point, however you should hope you've set up some traps or defenses outside first."
As the game continues, you'll need to continuously press further for certain materials. "One of our big features is that every tree in the game world can be chopped down, drastically changing the forest permanently. (although chopping down every tree would probably take months to do)."
It's not just the trees. Over-hunt an area, and the animal population will start to dwindle. Gather too many berries and mushrooms, and you might pick your surroundings clean. That dedication to realism extends to the cannibalistic tribe. "We have a set number of enemies you are battling, not endlessly spawning creatures coming from thin air," Falcone reveals.
"You're hiding huddled in a corner and watching them search for you"
"Again, like I Am Legend it’s possible to spend the days thinning out the enemies numbers, and players can if they wish and are able to wipe them all out."
Not that it'll be an easy task. The Forest uses a melee combat system. You can use traps and fire to gain the upper hand but for the most part you'll want to stay out of sight. "Enemies are pretty smart ... we found the game’s scariest moments come when you're hiding huddled in a corner and watching them search for you."
SKS also plan to support longer-term goals that can vary based on the player's preference. "Some players will want to just spend time building up a base and defending against enemies, others will want to go explore and find new things about the gameworld." Falcone confirms that the island itself holds certain mysteries, teasing that, "we have a bunch of stuff for players to uncover."
In a genre so focused on immersing the player in the solitude of the wilderness, the Oculus Rift seems like a natural extension. "It’s a perfect fit," confirms Falcone. "Exploring the forest during the day becomes at times a magical experience, and at night or deep in a random cave a terrifying nightmare."
But the device comes with some peculiar technical hurdles too. "Since it’s so new there are a bunch of challenges to overcome. Scale was the most surprising thing. The first time I walked out of the plane into the forest with the rift on, everything looked wrong.
"Small logs looked massive, the enemy characters looked like miniatures. Getting scale correct and consistent is one of the biggest things in making the game world feel real."
Despite the challenges, the development team are persisting and experimenting - most recently trying a character body model, letting VR players look down and get a sense of their presence in the world. "We’re hoping we can get this working well since it massively enhances the feeling of being connected to the gameworld." Which means, if successful, you'll be able to look down and see yourself getting pinned, mauled and torn at by an angry tribe of mutant cannibals.
If nothing else, the YouTube reaction videos should be a sight to behold.
The Forest is due out later this year. You can vote on the game's Steam Greenlight page here.