The Forest: Spatial Narratives in a Subversive Robinsonade

Group presentation summary by Peter Forberg. This post will contain small spoilers for survival horror game The Forest.

The history of the Robinsonade is the history of shipwrecks: by boat, by plane, or by spacecraft, hapless travelers find themselves stranded on the shores, hidden beneath the canopies, or lost in the sands of some remote island or labyrinthian forest or sprawling desert. In this sense, The Forest (2013) begins much like any other transit disaster, sending the player crashing down into the trees of a mountain-lined peninsula with no other survivors—no other survivors except the player’s adolescent son, who is immediately pulled from the wreckage by a looming, naked mutant. And so, at the outset, The Forest announces that it is not merely a sandbox for enterprising colonizers, nor does it hide the fact that this brave new world is filled with dangerous mystery and lush with stories. Understanding that The Forest emerged during the survival-crafting game boom of the early 2010s, the developers needed a way to differentiate their game from the endless explore-mine-build games that followed Minecraft’s (2009) massive success. Thus, they took a different approach to the genre, with the director of the game Ben Falcone stating, “Our focus is much more on a survival horror experience, letting players experience being in the world of ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ or an 80’s Italian cannibal film” (Savage 2013). Seven years out of the initial alpha release, Falcone’s vision has been realized (with a sequel in the works), so what exactly does The Forest accomplish within this generic category; more specifically, how does it apply and subvert the tropes players will associate with popular survival games such as Minecraft or Terraria (2011)?

Here we have to pause to note that Robinsonade and survival are being conflated, mostly because the semantic distinction between the two is a different blog post in and of itself, but for the purpose of this analysis, the Robinsonade of literature has evolved into the “survival-crafting” genre of video games.

We can begin to analyze The Forest by comparing three key aspects of the game to familiar genre conceits: gameplay mechanics, space, and storytelling. For anyone who has played a survival game before, the game’s mechanics should come across as almost instinctual: collect resources, construct shelter, attack enemies, and hope that with enough time, such efforts will lead to more exploration with increased risk and increased reward. In many ways, this holds true: the player begins hungry and thirsty but surrounded by airplane snacks, immediately drawing attention to the need to collect food and water, and the main items in one’s inventory are an axe, lighter, and crafting guide, hinting at the need to chop down trees, stave off the darkness, and build shelter. However, the game’s ease of play stops there, and the traditional survival mechanics begin to rapidly fall apart. First, survival is difficult, and not difficult in the sense that one just needs to get used to the gameplay: even after hours of play, mutant attacks can be life-threatening, with bases easily destroyed and sources of food or water wiped out. The player character remains vulnerable, and any increases in armor, weapons, or defense will be met with an eventual increase in danger on the peninsula. This lack of god-like power creep is less reminiscent of popular games such as Minecraft or Terraria, but it is more familiar to games such as Don’t Starve (2013) or Project Zomboid (2013).

Thus, progression in The Forest is always marginal, and no matter how strong a crafter the player becomes, the best weapons and loot will always be the lost tools of previous survivors, such as better, professionally manufactured axes; limits are put on strength and growth. A number of other mechanics reinforce this vulnerability, with the added benefit of a (somewhat cumbersome) immersion. The UI (namely the crafting interface and inventory system) are integrated into the surrounding world. Accessing supplies means having them stored in a tarp which the player lays out in the open, and crafting can either take the form of a book the player holds in their hand or randomly throwing held items together on the aforementioned tarp. Unlike other games’ pop-up UIs, these integrated UIs reinforce the idea that the player is trapped in a physical space, and is vulnerable even when looking up building “recipes,” though having these split crafting systems is also a little confusing. Further, the resources for crafting are all gathered by hand: it never becomes easier to chop down trees or carry logs. Even the creation of a log sled—which can be difficult to maneuver over rough terrain—will never stand up to the hundreds of trees that one can carry in the inventory of other survival games. Thus, gathering resources is never streamlined like in other games, and the monotony of the ceaseless grind for survival is more reminiscent of Crusoe’s raisin lists than it is of Minecraft’s sprawling chests and diamond armor. Through important mechanics such as power progression, crafting, and resource gathering, the game reinforces a tactile, inhabited, and limited world in which the player’s survival is fraught.

This inhabited world, with its randomly spawned man-eating crocodiles and ambient screams late into the night, certainly doesn’t help the player feel any more at ease. At first blush, the sprawling forest of the game might appear reminiscent of other popular survival games, but its true nature is quickly revealed: it is not procedurally generated but narratively constructed and spatially limited. In key ways, it is impossible to disentangle space and narrative within The Forest. Instead, we must differentiate authored narratives, procedural narratives, and emergent narratives. Emergent narratives are simple enough: in interacting with the mutants in the game and in constructing bases, players (especially if playing cooperatively) can develop their own stories typically revolving around “us vs them” fights with mutants and civilization building at their homes. Procedural narratives are generated instead by the various game systems that the player is allowed to interact with. This is procedural in Ian Bogost’s sense of the word, in which stories are built in player-system interactions, and in The Forest, there are ecological stories of movements and resource depletion that are built into the game’s systems (Bogost 2007). Forest resources do not respawn, which means that overhunting, deforestation, and exploitative mining can becomes means of writing a story into the world, one in which the player must keep exploring and find new ways of sustaining themselves. Equally, the mutants within the games have villages and patrol routes, which can place the player into the path of procedural stories in which mutants and players are forced to interact because they share time and space. The mutants themselves invite narrative interpretation: programmed to display emotions such as fear, grief, vengeance, and desperation, they are not blasé combatants, but sentient creatures with religious ceremonies and forms of communication.

The procedural stories invoked by mutants’ sympathy in player-AI interactions feed into the authored narratives that the game designers have littered throughout the landscape. The mutants act as the entry point for the stories built into the terrain, or, as Jenkins might put it, the mutants signal that the player is in an evocative space filled with embedded narratives, allowing the player to enact them by visiting mutant villages, caves, and eventually, the various hidden structures on the peninsula (Jenkins 2004). Enacting these scattered narrative elements is an act of both engaging with the game systems—such as crafting in order to prepare for exploration—and engaging with the more strictly written narratives that are told through cut scenes and journals on the peninsula. In this way, gameplay mechanics, space, and narrative all collapse into each other, and the lines between author and audience are challenged. Certainly the developers of the games are procedural authors (Murray 1997)—they construct the game systems which allow stories to be written through combat, exploration, and crafting—but they are also traditional authors—they have written out cut scenes and dialogue and stories that when put into a linear order tell a coherent, filmic narrative. The players have agency within both of these narratives, which sometimes limits their role to audience participation, but because they can choose whether or not to enact the stories, they are allowed to determine the timing and progression of embedded narratives. Further, the players are able to drastically interfere with the environment, and in this way, they become co-authors in the procedural stories of space. By disrupting game systems such as mutant patrol routes or animal repopulation, they alter the space of what is a spatially-driven narrative. Thus, their actions in the game constitute new procedural stories that advance concurrently with the embedded and written narratives of an evocative space.

In broad strokes, The Forest doesn’t stray far from the path of many Robinsonades, capturing the survivalism of Robinson Crusoe (Defoe 1719) and the mystery of The Mysterious Island (Verne 1875). However, in key ways, it does differentiate itself from other games in the genre, leaning into immersive vulnerability, cinematic horror, and procedural stories that are often present to a lesser degree in especially sandbox-driven games. Engaging with all three, the player is allowed to inhabit an evocative space where their actions have narrative significance, even if these narratives are merely emergent or procedural.

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