After decades of monotonous horror, The Forest brings the genre back to its roots
In gaming’s earlier days, there wasn’t really such a thing as “just” horror games. Instead, we had survival horror.
Popularized by the original Resident Evil, the survival horror genre was once the go-to for any developer that wanted to scare the crap out of gamers. It was based around the idea that to really create a compelling horror atmosphere, you had to deprive the player of as many beneficial resources as possible.
While the formula of filling a game with wholesale amounts of creatures from hell, and scarce traces of anything remotely helpful, in order to scare people isn’t exactly rocket science, the perfection of that concept during the golden age of survival horror games yielded one of gaming’s most immersive genres.
But that golden age didn’t last. Eventually, the massive influx of survival horror games caused slips in sales, and prompted the question of how to reinvigorate the horror genre in gaming. Appropriately, that question was answered by the Resident Evil franchise once again, as Resident Evil 4 helped usher in a new era for horror gaming that was based more around the action genre than it was the concept of survival.
The sales figures of the Resident Evil franchise from that point, and some of the games influenced by Resident Evil 4, may paint that change in direction as a success, but in terms of providing a pure horror experience, it always felt like a step back in many ways. The action genre may be capable of a great many things entertainment wise, but it’s hard to be scared of demons, ghosts, ghouls and other assorted baddies when you’re loaded to the teeth with the latest in baddie killing hardware.
This is where The Forest, a recently released alpha game from developer Endnight Games, comes into play.
In The Forest, you play as an ordinary dad, on a flight with his son. After a mysterious event rips the plane you’re on in half, and a cultist kidnaps your boy, you are forced to enter the forest you’ve crash landed in to rescue him, and maybe sort out just what the hell is going on.
While billed as a survival horror game, in truth The Forest only barely imitates the survival horror games that defined the genre, mostly due to the way it treats the survival part of the equation. Whereas a game like the original Resident Evil incorporated survival elements by making things like ammunition rare, here you must rely on whatever you can scrounge from the woods in order to build shelter, start a fire, establish some kind of defence against the creatures that hunt you, find food and ultimately just try to live.
By choosing this approach, The Forest does two things that may just very well help save the horror genre from the creative limbo it’s currently in.
The first is the way it incorporates mechanics from games like Rust, DayZ and even Minecraft. In terms of the way you gather resources, craft objects and interact with enemies, The Forest borrows heavily from those games, and is wise to do so. Not only because those games did these aspects extremely well, but because they were all monster sales successes.
If one of the arguments against a pure survival horror experience then is that they just don’t sell well, then The Forest’s decision to take some of the survival aspects found in some of the most popular games in the world right now and re-purpose them for a more pure horror experience may just go down as the Trojan horse that gets publishers to open up their wallets for true horror games once more. After all, there’s very few ways better to draw funding than to point at a chart of the Minecraft sales figures and say: “Kind of like this.”
But more importantly, The Forest reminds us that survival and horror are just meant to be together. Even in its currently extremely buggy early state, The Forest is an almost unbearably tense adventure, filled to the brim with the kind of pure terror this genre should inspire.
At almost no point in it do you feel safe, as even the term shelter is a laughable phrase used to describe a loose gathering of leaves and sticks. If there isn’t a group of mysterious entities prowling somewhere in the corner of your vision to fret about, then you’ll almost assuredly be worrying if you have enough food to make it through the night.
It’s a level of tension that simply wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the developer’s realization that for any game to truly scare you, it must make you feel vulnerable at all times. Maybe the use of survival elements isn’t the only way to convey that feeling in a game, but as shown here it certainly is one of the most effective.
Long ago a call for change separated the peanut butter and chocolate couple of survival and horror from each other and in the process deprived true horror fans everywhere of one of the greatest mediums for frights ever conceived. Today a desire for similar change brings us games like The Forest, and the hope that we will never have to see those crazy kids separated again.
Images; Endnight Games