The Forest doesn't look like a game made by just four people. Its production values are remarkable, which is thanks to its developers, Endnight Games, and their background in film production design and special effects, as well as a whole lot of talent. It's a survival game where you wake up after a plane crash in a hostile forest that's populated by cannibalistic natives. The game mixes horror and survival, but stands out from the crowd with its lavish visuals and realistic firstperson character movement.
“We're a tiny team,” says Ben Falcone, creative director. “Our 3D animator and main 3D artist come from a VFX background, where they worked on films including Harry Potter and Snow White and the Huntsman. My background is mostly in film, where I worked on projects such as 300 and Tron: Legacy. In 2012 I released my first game, a solo effort for iPad called End Night. During development I became really excited about what was possible with Unity and a modern PC.”
The Forest's subtle lighting is particularly striking, and isn't just for show. “The game is lit using a full volumetric light system, with fog in-scattering and a full day/night cycle. We try to think of ways that lighting can not only be used to pull players into the world, but also to alter the gameplay experience. Get hit while holding your lighter and you'll be temporarily in complete darkness as the flame will be put out by the force. Deep underground light becomes one of your most important assets, and keeping track of how much charge your torch has left or how many flares you still have is a big deal.”
I ask Falcone whether The Forest is a narrative game or an open sandbox. “You've been thrown into this world: you're not alone, what do you do, how do you survive? Unlike a lot of the survival games, however, we do have an ending. We want to avoid the issue players run into a few days/weeks into the game when they're able to survive and think, 'Now what?' We try to keep upping the level of threat, especially with our enemies. As players progress further underground, they will be able to learn more about this enemy and possibly uncover something even more terrifying.”
Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, he says, has been a massive influence. “It's that realistic smart enemy threat that we're trying to capture. The enemies in The Forest are creatures with emotions and attachments to one another, and many will act differently depending on the situation. Some of the best moments in the game come when you're beating a mutant to death, and another jumps in the way to protect him. It really makes the player question what they're doing.”
Endnight have resisted the urge to build the game around permadeath; it can be enabled, but it hasn't been solely designed for it. “I love the idea of permanent death, but in practice I always find it frustrating. It's tricky to balance. Our world, although not randomly generated, has lots of random elements, the biggest being the actual plane crash – it's completely random each time you start a new game – giving permadeath players a fresh experience each time.”
He continues: “Hunger is a big part of the experience, and players will need to source berries, trap rabbits or try spearing fish to find enough food to keep their energy up. Not eating for a long time will have a negative effect on your overall energy/stamina levels and make everyday tasks much harder. Being surrounded at night by a bunch of hungry cannibals when you've not eaten yourself means you're not in peak condition and are unlikely to survive long.
“Cold and sickness also play a part, again feeding into our energy system. Stay cold for a long time and you'll burn energy, which needs to be replenished with food or sleep, but building somewhere safe to sleep, or finding food also takes energy, so it can be challenging just to stay alive in the world – even without the cannibal threat.”
The Forest will have native Oculus Rift support when it's released, which should make those flesh-eating forest-dwellers, and the dark, dense forest setting, even more intimidating. “It feels like you're entering a different world,” says Falcone. “You look down and see a body, you see your feet in the dirt. It feels like being there. Walking through the forest during the day and seeing the light rays coming down through the trees can be a really calming, serene experience. Then deep in a cave, moving through a tight space, you see something pale and strange moving in the distance. That's really scary.”
But if you can't stomach the horror, Endnight say there'll be an optional peaceful mode where the cannibals and other horror elements can “effectively be disabled”. No release date has been set, but an alpha version is out in May. I hope the game itself can live up to those stunning visuals. It's an exciting time to be a PC gamer when a team of just four people can create something this impressive.