The Forest (Movie) Review

The Forest (Movie) Review

It’s nice that Universal Studios is still involved with the horror genre. After all, it’s the Hollywood studio built on the back of the classic movie monsters. So while most of the big studios ignore horror because they feel like they are above it, good ol’ Universal keeps coming back. In the wake of Paranormal Activity’s tremendous success with Paramount, Universal has even started picking up indie horror flicks like The Forest again. This is also a nice thing. After all, most of the great horror franchises of the 80s began as indie products that were purchased by the studios and cultivated into franchises. All of which is a long way of saying that there are positive aspects to the existence and release of The Forest. Unfortunately the movie itself isn’t one of them, but at least there are some positives.Based loosely around the Aokigahara forest in Japan that is notorious for swallowing up suicides, Jason Zada’s film even has a creepy setting. One that’s been exploited for a few crappy indie horror flicks already. It would be nice to say that

theforestmovieinsert1Based loosely around the Aokigahara forest in Japan that is notorious for swallowing up suicides, Jason Zada’s film even has a creepy setting. One that’s been exploited for a few crappy indie horror flicks already. It would be nice to say that The Forest is the best of the bunch, but it’s not. It’s merely the biggest. Game Of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer stars as a young woman who travels to that forest after the disappearance of her sister (also played by Dormer). She doesn’t know about the legends surrounding the haunted grounds, so she’s told by a number of local Japanese actors whose grasp on the English language isn’t the greatest. She encounters a number of people warning her not to stay in the forest after dark, including a pretty boy would-be love interest (Eoin Macken) who eventually agrees to accompany her into the woods after dark anyways. So, not a great thing to do in a haunted forest, especially one that plays with the perceptions of those who dare to enter. You can probably guess where things go from there and you’re probably right too.

Yep, it’s pretty standard ghostly film fare. More specifically, it’s pretty standard Americanized J-horror ghostly film fare. That’s right. That trend from a decade ago of American filmmakers telling Japanese ghost stories is mysteriously back and no better than it was before. One of the first people that Dormer encounters within the haunted forest is a Japanese schoolgirl with an unsettling smile. She doesn’t react in instant horror because apparently she didn’t see one of the onslaught of similar movies that came out after The Ring. Director Jason Zada and co. also don’t give the audience the benefit of the doubt that they’ve seen this all before either. So despite an evocative setting, the movie just goes through the J-horror motions with no real surprises. Just a lot of pregnant pauses and long waits before a ghostly jump scare. You know, the cheap gags that people who don’t like horror movies find classy merely because there’s no blood involved.

And boy oh boy does Zada ever take his time setting up this mediocre scare factory. Following a few fake scares in the opening minutes, he doesn’t even bother to tease the audience for what feels like an hour (but is probably a little less). Characters discuss the possibility of at one point being scared and the potential of the forest for ages without the audience getting the good stuff. The filmmakers might have gotten away with that had the drama been intriguing or the mystery intense. But nope, it’s all rather tedious, poorly acted, and obvious. There’s no sense of tension simmering to a boiling point, just a lot of screentime being wasted because the meagre production couldn’t afford many scares or effects. Admittedly, once the ghostly shenanigans finally arrive, there are a couple of creepy moments. Not many, but a few and they were all slickly produced enough that it’s easy to see why Universal picked up the project for release.

The Forest isn’t a tiny movie that desperately needed attention like the underrated Unfriended that Universal slipped out last year. Nope, it was a competent indie production featuring a somewhat recognizable lead actress that fit into the studio’s release schedule. The Forest only got a wide release because it looked professional and came along at the right time. There are dozens and dozens of mediocre-to-crappy genre efforts like this produced every year that slip immediately into streaming obscurity. The Forest should have gotten a similar fate, but somehow it ended up with a wide release instead. So now the movie has an expensive marketing campaign to make it seem scary and special. It’s neither of those things. Don’t fall for the trap. You could easily find a stack of ho-hum horror flicks as good as this on Netflix. Or…you know…you could also find a good horror movie. Like Universal should have done. Ah well. Maybe next time.

The Forest Rethinks Survival Horror

The Forest Rethinks Survival Horror

I love October. I love the weather, the colours on the trees, and, most of all, Hallowe’en. To celebrate this most spooky of holidays I’ll be discussing topics related to horror each week of the month in a series of articles called . . . OCTERROR!

Endnight Games’ The Forest is one of the most unnerving games I’ve ever played, which certainly wasn’t what I was expecting when I first came to it. Because it’s still in Steam’s Early Access and not all of its many promised features have been implemented yet, players may not have expected The Forest to so effectively deliver on its premise. But it does. The foundational aspects of the experience—attempting to stay alive by navigating an open-ended wilderness while simultaneously fending off murderous cannibals—are entirely in place, even now. That’s definitely a good thing because the blend of survival mechanics and frantic, horrifying action it’s built upon come together to not only make it far scarier than many traditionalist horror titles, but also a clever reinvention of an outdated style of play.

octerrorforestinsert2

Games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill are cornerstones of the horror genre. Though they may look and feel a bit primitive now, at the time of their releases on Sony’s PlayStation One both of these titles were groundbreaking exercises in interactive terror. By making the player characters relatively weak, limiting their access to weaponry, and implementing slow, awkward movement controls, these games represented a new, far less action-focused approach to freaking out audiences: one that was eventually dubbed “survival horror” for the ruthless mechanics the sub-genre was filled with. However, in the interest of updating series like Resident Evil to better reflect modern design, survival horror lost much of what originally made it so unique. More intuitive controls made fighting off enemies easier; cutting out obtuse, progress-gating puzzles allowed players to get through creepy environments faster—all of it added up to games that were more fun to play, but far less frightening than they were before.

The genius of The Forest—a game that barely seems related to Silent Hill or Resident Evil on its surface—is that it uses the conventions of open world survival simulators (like Rust and DayZ) to reinvigorate the waning genre of survival horror. It’s hard to notice this at first. Once the player has been dropped into the game’s wilderness setting their first concern is collecting supplies, lumber, and food. Getting set up with a lean-to and bonfire feels pretty familiar because The Forest’s basic gameplay loop starts out almost identically to the many immensely popular survival titles already available through Steam. Then the enemies begin to appear: curiously silent men and women who ominously observe the player from distant trees. Once they’ve attacked for the first time it becomes clear that they’re a serious threat. They swarm in from all sides, beating the protagonist with fists and cudgels, and seem almost impervious to hits from an axe. The first time the player encounters these characters they’re likely to find themselves overwhelmed and knocked unconscious. The Forest wisely only uses this initial assault as an introduction to its world, though. The game’s protagonist wakes up in a cave system, covered in blood, stripped of supplies, and surrounded by corpses. If s/he manages to escape this second chance at life the stakes will have been raised considerably.

octerrorforestinsert1

Rather than keep the player on edge with the sort of tension that comes from low health bars, awkward controls, and scarce ammunition, The Forest scares its audience by constantly reminding them just how easily they can be killed at any moment. That first encounter with the setting’s murderous inhabitants shows that they are to be feared at all times. Spotting one of their scouts from the tree lines is a signal to take off for a while; setting up a fortified camp with proper walls and doors is less a matter of satisfying a desire to build neat-looking structures and more about proper defence. The danger of violence combines with the need to keep the protagonist warm, fed, and healthy and turns The Forest into an experience defined by constant tension.

The style of horror exemplified by Silent Hill and Resident Evil may not work so well anymore, but, as The Forest shows, bringing elements from these games into a modern genre can lead to wonderfully frightening experiences. Survival horror was always about making the player feel powerless—turning them into a vulnerable character who has to outrun and outthink enemies rather than attack them head-on. All The Forest does is exaggerate this idea to the greatest extent possible, turning the open world survival game into a desperation-fuelled nightmare. It also makes the welcome argument that survival horror isn’t a dead genre, just one that doesn’t look quite the same anymore.

 

Want to read more Octerror? Read Neverending Nightmares, P.T., and the Horror of Repetition.

Love horror? Pick up the Horror Issue of CGM.

Early Access: The Forest

Early Access is Still a Good Idea

The plane shudders once as it hits a patch of turbulence then nosedives spectacularly, entering into a rapid dive through rows of trees. The player looks to the right through the eyes of a man sitting next to a small boy who is now wide awake and bouncing in his seat. Waking from the crash, lying helpless in the aisle of the ruined aircraft, the player sees a tall man dressed in a loincloth pick up the child. The man’s eyes are pitch black and his face is marked with white paint. The screen goes dark again and when the player wakes up, assuming control of the silent protagonist, they’re left with no choice but to scrounge supplies from the plane and set out into the woods to investigate a sprawling, foreboding wilderness that seems to be watching them at every step.

Endnight Games’ The Forest is still in its alpha phase, but—as its first minutes make clear—it is a game designed to engender terror in its audience. Once the introduction is finished, the main character must immediately set to work chopping down trees with an axe, collecting stones and leaves, and getting acquainted with the two basic tenants of survival: finding food and creating shelter. The crafting system used to accomplish these goals is elegant, allowing players to either combine materials from a static screen displaying a backpack’s inventory or choose a structure from their survival handbook menu and add various materials to the incomplete work until it’s finished. And while exploring the world—playing around with item combinations and constructing buildings—is fun in its own right, the game offers an additional element that makes it stand apart from other open-world survival games.

TheForestinsert2

Where The Forest is most successful—and, unfortunately, creates a worrying problem elaborated on below—is in its enemy design. The setting is host to not just birds, rabbits, and iguanas, but also an indigenous population that infected with something that makes them more than a little hostile toward the player. The Forest refers to these characters as “mutants,” but—aside from their glassy black eyes and a handful of special variants who seem to have been taken over by an opaque slime—the enemies look very much like real human beings. This wouldn’t be interesting, in and of itself, if it wasn’t for the fact the artificial intelligence displayed by the mutants is shockingly convincing. On a first venture into the world, I decided to create a lean-to and firepit near the crashed airplane, since its broken hull held more supplies than my character could carry. After getting to work on my base, I heard snapping branches in the woods and, turning around to investigate, found a group of half-naked women and men unnervingly monitoring my character. They seemed peacefully curious at first, but, as soon as I looked away, launched into a vicious attack from all sides that knocked the protagonist unconscious. In my time with the game, I’ve also seen mutants carrying out single-file patrols, running through the forest in small groups, and—most disconcertingly—concealing themselves in the foliage or within the trees to watch my character building shelter and campfires. Whether the behaviour of the enemies is meticulously programmed or just a well-played trick on the player, the end result is the same: a sense of being constantly hunted by smart antagonists who, even when not outright attacking the player, are always nearby, watching and waiting for an opportunity to strike.

theforestinsert1

As much as The Forest’s enemies are key to the experience, though, the player is often forced to wonder, at least a bit, about the responsibility of pitting a white protagonist against waves of “mutants” who, in appearance, closely resemble real aboriginal people. Infectious curse or not, this trope relies on centuries of stereotypical perceptions of indigenous populations as mindless “savages” and the white explorer as a rationalist victim of brutality. The enemies may be dubbed mutants, but their appearance is modelled so heavily on actual aboriginal groups that the end result—whether it’s intentional or accidental—is disturbing. The final version of the game absolutely needs to address this issue in some narrative form because, as it stands, the enemy is unsettling for reasons other than what we can assume Endnight Games is aiming for.

It’s a shame that this (pretty substantial) problem exists because, apart from The Forest’s worrying racial connotations, it’s an incredibly effective blend of open-world survival gameplay and horror aesthetics. The eponymous forest is a beautifully rendered place, the sprawling landscape at once beautiful and ominous; and balancing the mundane realities of survival (like eating, staying warm, and sleeping) with the overt tension of outsmarting an intelligent but ferocious enemy is enthralling. It’s only the implications created by The Forest’s mutants that are a cause for concern.

Early Access is Still a Good Idea

Early Access is Still a Good Idea

I (p)reviewed two unfinished games this week, which is pretty unusual. Typically, reviewing a game involves playing and offering an opinion on a finished product—one that isn’t likely to change unless a few downloadable patches are offered down the line to address minor problems. Trying to offer a critical look at games that are still in active development is a bit trickier. How do you account for features that sound promising, but are still missing? How do you try to recommend the early stage of a greater vision? It’s possible to takes these issues into account and still figure out whether an unfinished game is worth a player’s time or not, but reviewing these titles is definitely harder than complete ones.

I don’t think the kind of problem that this represented is going away. Unfinished games—whether offered through Steam’s Early Access program or as independent alpha and beta builds—will very likely continue to play a large role in the medium. Even though a promising title may not be released in its final state it may still look appealing to players, after all. When I first heard of SuperCrit’s dinocentric survival simulator The Stomping Land it grabbed my attention on the strength of its unique premise and interesting mechanics. Given that the game is currently among Steam’s bestsellers, I know I wasn’t alone. Sure, The Stomping Land may not be finished yet, but its developer is charging money for it and potential players should have access to a review that lets them know whether or not the game is worth their time. Aside from the fact that these titles are works in progress, everything else about them—from their price tags to the role they play in videogame criticism—are similar to traditional releases. That alone makes it seem like we should reconsider the thinking around unfinished games.

Early Access gets a lot of flak from game critics and fans alike. Opponents of the release program have problems with the concept of paying for titles that are still being worked on—it may take years to actually implement the entire feature-sets they promise. This is completely understandable. There is always the risk that a developer might walk away from an in-progress game, leaving players without a finished experience despite having already paid for it. There’re also the teams that sell buggy or technically broken titles without any real hope of being able to fix them. I’d argue that, despite these very real problems, concentrating entirely on the negative aspects of Early Access is a bit too cynical.

Even though I’m someone who would almost always rather wait to play a game that is complete instead of jumping in early, the idea of buying into an unfinished release still makes a lot of sense. Some titles may launch in rough shape, but others—like Endnight Games’ The Forest— are already perfectly playable (despite missing a few features) as soon as they’re available for purchase. If the concept of an Early Access game is enticing, buying into it can be a good idea for player and developer both. The problem comes from the kind of expectations we bring to these games. Head to the Steam forum for a title like The Stomping Land, and you’ll find a split between players who are discussing features or their opinion on how the game is shaping up and those who wish to complain that the game they bought is unfinished. Reading these comments makes it clear that, for many, Early Access just doesn’t make sense as an idea.

Most of those who have read the developer comments that are provided on an Early Access’ game’s storefront make their purchase with realistic expectations, though. Yes, features may be missing and there may be plenty of glitches in these titles, but players who enter into unfinished games understanding this are far more likely to enjoy their experience because their expectations are set appropriately. For them, Early Access is a bit like making an investment. Not unlike the risks involved with pledging to a Kickstarter project, buying an unfinished game is a vote of confidence. It helps developers to fund the work that goes into their games and allows players to watch the progress from early stages to final product. Not everyone is comfortable spending their money this way, but that doesn’t mean that Early Access isn’t an unique and valuable program regardless.

While (p)reviewing two Early Access games, I gave a lot of thought to the release practice. I went from someone who essentially ignored unfinished games to one who is more likely to pay attention to them in the future. I was won over by the interesting prospect of experiencing the completion of a game through firsthand play. While still understanding the complaints levied at Early Access and similar programs, I think the loss of this practice would be a real shame.