The Forest is looking great. It’s looking more than great, actually. The word “fantastic” could even be used. In fact, yep, I’ll use it. The Forest is looking fantastic. We recently had another chat with Ben Falconer from SKS, the developers behind The Forest, about what they’ve been up to since the last time we spoke. The short answer? Quite a lot, apparently. And the long answer?
Despite the month and a half of radio silence on The Forest’s website, the team at SKS can hardly be accused of slacking. SKS have been hard at work, making, remaking, refining, and generally improving every aspect of their game. SKS have “improved almost every aspect of the game, from [the] lighting system, improved character art and animation, and also really fleshing out and improving [the] gameplay systems, trying to make the experience as fresh and unique as possible”.
It’s a big job, though, and the overhaul hasn’t come without cost. With only three team members working on the game full time, aided by “some outsourced artists and programmers… helping… with various systems and assets”, hard yards are certainly being put in. Due to the small core team size, a PC version the number one focus, although there is a definite desire to bring The Forest to “as many platforms as possible”. With the many complexities, The Forest has suffered a slight delay from its original 2013 date. Still, the dedicated team is expecting an early 2014 release, and hopefully the extra time will allow for a feature-rich release.
It’s not just the tech and mechanics that have been under construction, though. The story of the game has been worked on, with the promise of some interesting new concepts. Unique to The Forest is its focus on telling a cannibal horror story. Instead of falling back on traditional horror story telling methods, the team at SKS has decided to opt for a more difficult path. The Forest’s story is told “purely through gameplay and visuals,” Falconer told us, “we have no audio logs, no text or dialogue of any kind”. Narrative conveyed purely through gameplay elements is not a new concept, but to attempt it to this extent in such a large modern horror game is ambitious. It will be interesting to see just how well told the story will be, and whether it will take any cues from the fantastic environmental story telling of games like Dear Esther and Gone Home.
The story, however, is “completely optional”. Setting The Forest in an open world means that players don’t have to adhere to any strict narrative structure, instead being able to roam freely. While there is a “definite ending” in the game, SKS estimates that “most people will play for a long time before discovering the true ending.”
Impacting on the non-traditional narrative structure is the characterisation. Foremost is the development of the creatures in the game. SKS are hoping that the way characters engage with these creatures and the world itself emotionally is unique within the horror genre. Creatures will not be mindless, only out to kill you. Instead, monsters will have “fears and feelings”, adding an element of player engagement that is set to innovate the horror space. The aim is to get the creatures to “react believably to the actions of the player as well as each other”. It sounds dynamic and, in conjunction to the open world, capable of producing some fantastically emergent moments, a promising premise for a horror game.
“Our focus is on a living emergent world, tides rise and fall, every plant and tree can be cut down and entire areas cleared.”
While the cannibals are the main threat in the game, with gameplay largely revolving around the decisions players make to survive their flesh-eating hunters, there are also other animals lurking in the forest. What they are exactly SKS would not say, but they promise that they have some rather horrific surprises in store for us. “We haven’t really revealed yet what’s living deep down in the darkest parts of the caves.” the devs ominously forewarned, “I think once players see what is down there, they’re going to be really terrified.”
The real attraction, though, is the promise of emergent experiences that the open world of the titular forest will offer. “Our focus is on a living emergent world, tides rise and fall, every plant and tree can be cut down and entire areas cleared.” stated Falconer. A big claim, especially for a first person game – one that players will no doubt take great pleasure in testing. That world is far from final at this point, in both size and detail – “Finding the right size for the world has been tricky,” Falconer confided, “and it’s one area of the game we constantly tweak, adding new space or removing area’s that don’t feel as interesting.”
Some elements of the world are nailed down. As well as the concept of the aforementioned underground segments, The Forest’s forest will change dynamically, and force the player to react to those changes. SKS are implementing a full weather system, including the effects of that system on the player’s survival strategies. “[P]layers will have to build fires or shelters to keep warm at night,” the developers revealed, “and being cold will have negative effects on stamina and other game systems.”
Along with the more passive effects, the player can use the environment in more proactive ways. Foremost are the stealth opportunities that the environment allows. “Stealth is a really big part of the game.” Falconer stated. “Some of the creatures especially deep down in the caves you really won’t want to come face to face with. To avoid combat situations with them you’ll have to sneak by instead of engaging directly.”
“Above ground, these same tactics can be used against the smarter hunting cannibals, you can hide in bushes, use camouflage, move silently and avoid being detected that way – or fight them directly if you prefer.”
“Stealth is a really big part of the game. Some of the creatures especially deep down in the caves you really won’t want to come face to face with. To avoid combat situations with them you’ll have to sneak by instead of engaging directly.”
More excitingly, players can actively interact with the environment to enhance their stealth above simple sneaking. This is where the crafting system comes into play. “It’s… possible to use leaves and other items to craft camouflage and other items to make sneaking around undetected easier.” the developers told us. And there is a little nod to the classic 80s film Predator, the inclusion of which the developers cited as a partial influence – “Players can cover themselves in mud to help decrease visibility.”
It’s not just the narrative and gameplay aspects that have been worked on, though. Graphically, The Forest has received a slew of drastic improvements.
While a next-gen version of the game is yet to be finalised, SKS are definitely using a lot of next-gen techniques in creating the environment. The sky and day/night cycle, for example, utilises “an advanced light scattering system with volumetric fog.” SKS have been “experimenting” with 3D scanning techniques too, rendering real world objects into virtual space. This tech has been used for most of The Forest’s caves and rocks, creating them out of data scanned from real life objects, ensuring “a level of realism that isn’t really achievable using standard modeling techniques.”
Not only the environment, but also the creatures have received the next-gen graphical treatment. “We have some really great artists on the team,” SKS told us, “Our character modeller did an amazing job on our creatures and we have feature film quality animation which helps bring them to life.” Unsurprising, since the SKS team has some background in film VFX techniques.
“We have some really great artists on the team, Our character modeller did an amazing job on our creatures and we have feature film quality animation which helps bring them to life.”
Lighting the creatures is also critical for the team. SKS are using physical shading for everything in the game, benefitting the team in a number of ways – “Using physical shading for all elements of the game lets light respond naturally to everything and also speeds up art look development time, since everything reacts as you expect under different lighting conditions.” SKS said.
“We’re also using a technique called Screen Space Sub Surface Scattering for our enemy creatures’ skin which gives them an added layer of realism.”
What the end-user performance hit of these techniques will be is as yet undetermined. Since the game is still in development and is currently unoptomised, there are no concrete system specs that SKS could share with us. They do “plan to have a pretty vast options menu to cater to different speeds of computers,” though the exact details of what those options are or what the most basic system requirements will be is as yet undefined.
For the tech-heads living on the bleeding-edge, though, The Forest promises something beyond all the graphical hoodoo and gameplay innovation – VR compatibility. It’s already well-known that SKS are aiming to have Oculus Rift support for The Forest. There are some tricks and traps that implementing such a new piece of technology brings to the table, though – the most obvious of which is that VR staple bugbear: motion sickness. “One of the hardest parts is keeping the headset on for more than a few hours a day and dealing with motion sickness whilst developing” they admitted. SKS are hoping that this is a current headset problem – one that subsequent commercial iterations of the VR tech will be able to help overcome.
“We’re experimenting a lot with claustrophobia also, in some of our cave sections we make areas so tight players need to crouch to get through, their view literally pressed up against rock as they enter through tight passages – playing this in 3D on the Rift can be quite traumatic if you have even the slightest problem with small spaces.”
But to the team, the benefits outweigh the (potentially messy) downsides. “It’s really immersive creeping through bushes and foliage,” encouraged SKS, “and when you do see a life size cannibal running at you it’s really terrifying.”
Rift usage also allows for some interesting psychological manipulation. “We’re experimenting a lot with claustrophobia also, in some of our cave sections we make areas so tight players need to crouch to get through, their view literally pressed up against rock as they enter through tight passages – playing this in 3D on the Rift can be quite traumatic if you have even the slightest problem with small spaces.”
And modders, fear not. Well, do fear, but not about being able to create your own content, since the SKS team are looking into mod tools. “It would be great to let players mod the game as much as they like,” stated SKS, “we’re still working with Unity to work out what we can do as far as mod support, but we’d like to offer as much as possible.”
The Forest is looking, and sounding, positively chilling, especially for those with access to an Oculus Rift and a decent PC. SKS currently have the game up on Steam Greenlight. While no concrete release date has been announced, you can look forward to being scared out of your wits by cannibals and animals and general sandbox survivalism sometime early 2014 for PC, and possibly sometime in the future on other platforms. Fingers crossed.
Thanks to SKS for taking the time to chat with us again.