The Forest: Robinsonade and Meta-Robinsonade

by Andi Taylor

The Forest is a first person open-world survival game with a horror twist. In the opening sequence your character, survivalist Eric Leblanc, experiences a plane crash while traveling with his young son Timmy. The crash disorients your character, and one of the last things you see before falling unconscious is a human figure picking up Timmy and carrying him away. Once you regain consciousness, the game truly begins. Armed with a survival guide, a small axe, and whatever small items you pick up around in the plane, you step out into the forest to begin your adventure.

The Forest as a Robinsonade: Cannibals

In The Forest, your character is given a few meters to determine how urgently basic things like food, water, and rest are needed. Without securing food and clean water multiple times a day, you will become weak and possibly die. Those aren’t the only dangers; if you fall into a body of water or it rains at night, you must build a fire or otherwise die of hypothermia. If you’re wandering around in the dark you’ll need a small light to navigate, and that light may lead cannibals directly to you.

In Robinson Crusoe, the titular character is stranded on a seemingly uninhabited island, the lone survivor of a shipwreck. While Crusoe spends his days in solitude at first, he comes to realize that he is not completely alone after all; there are “savage” cannibals who visit the island, and his interactions with them spark violent confrontations. Those plot points feel especially familiar in the context of The Forest, signaling the game’s ties to the genre of the Robinsonade. It is up to the player to take up the role of the industrious and resourceful explorer, learning about the environment and trying to build towards a life while fighting or avoiding these dangerous adversaries.

As the game continues from the first day, you slowly begin to find different kinds of evidence and information about the cannibals. Early on, you may just see a few figures off in the distance. Then you start to notice scary effigies around the forest, tall poles with heads or strange markers made of human skin on top, which seem to mark the territory cannibals frequent. Continuing on, you find a pond full of fresh water, but across the pond you see a few huts situated around a bonfire. In this way, the setting builds to imply the danger of the inhabitants of the island before you even inspect close enough to find human body parts strewn around their little camp. All of these things are enough to put you on edge, but it’s even scarier to hear them calling to each other in the forest as they approach and prepare to attack. Unlike in Robinson Crusoe, you’re much more likely to wind up hanging upside down in a cannibal cave than to find a friend in their crowd.

The Forest as a Robinsonade: Using and Exploring the Environment

One thing that set Robinson Crusoe apart as a character in the eyes of his readers was his perseverance; while on the island, he learns what resources are available for him to use on this island, and he works to create a more stable life for himself, taking up subsistence gardening and hunting. Over the course of decades he not only maintained a decent life but continuously tried to improve his conditions. This game maintains that aspect of the Robinsonade with a variety of possible things to construct and parts of the peninsula to explore.

Shelter is one of the first things you’re instructed to find or build in the game. You may start with temporary shelters until you acquire enough logs to build a proper cabin, but ultimately, something permanent is ideal, as a permanent shelter gives you the opportunity to save your game progress and rest for the night without being attacked by the cannibals. Larger cabins require at least 80 logs, which means cutting down at least 20 trees, or potentially even more if you choose to build a custom home or furniture. You can also build gardens to grow edible plants, and make animal traps to catch rabbits for food. Once you have shelter established, you can begin to spend more time exploring the woods, discovering new plants, animals, and mushrooms that will be added to your survival guide. However, some plants and mushrooms are poisonous, so as you explore you will need to be careful choosing which ones to eat. The more knowledge you gain about your environment and how to interact with it, the safer you’ll be and the more potential you will have for surviving in stability and even comfort.

Best Location To Set Up A Base - The Forest Game

Mystery and Isolation in the Forest

The incorporation of mystery into the Robinsonade was likely popularized by the publication of The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne. In that novel, the protagonists land on a presumably uninhabited island and over time begin to see signs that someone else lives there, a helpful stranger who quietly interferes any time the protagonists are in trouble. The Forest incorporates the ideas of mystery and isolation with the previously mentioned tension of seeing hints of the cannibals around the peninsula, particularly because the cannibals seem to live and work in groups and thus have a way of organizing together that is inaccessible to you as a single person. Even more than that, this game has an optional plot that ties back to the very first sequence.

As mentioned, in the opening scene your son is carried away by a human-looking figure. When your character wakes up, “Find Timmy” is the first item on the to-do list located near the back of the survival guide. Finding Timmy involves entering a number of caves in the area and poking around for clues. Those clues will eventually lead you to a secret underground laboratory  where, up until recently, researchers worked on creating mutants and studying obelisks before they all fled or died. Rather than the mysterious benefactor described by Verne, at the heart of all this you will discover the story of a mad scientist, Timmy’s location, and an explanation for how you ended up crash-landing on this specific peninsula. Once you uncover the most important pieces of information, you have a choice to make that will determine if you get rescued at great cost or learn to accept your circumstances and remain alone, trying to survive indefinitely.

Early Access and Survival

This game was originally released on early access for PC in the spring of 2014, with regular updates, both major and minor, over the course of a few years, before the full version was released in May of 2018. The PlayStation4 version debuted in November of 2018. Early access releases lend themselves well to survival games such as this one because they provide a sort of meta-exploration experience for players. Not only were players able to venture out into this virtual world and log new plants and animals, but they also got the experience of seeing a landscape change and watching their relationships with certain items become different over time. For example, in earlier versions of the game, poisonous mushrooms produced hallucinogenic effects in the character when consumed. Over time, the game developers updated the game to remove the hallucination potential, trading it out for another cool trick: the ability to use poisonous mushrooms to craft poison arrows. Even the safe mushrooms got a boost with an update that allowed players to grow them in cave gardens.

The game developers even added updates with different modes for different playing experiences. About a year after the initial early access release, a multiplayer function was added, with players now able to collaborate on all the projects involved with surviving, such as building shelters, collecting materials, and fighting cannibals. Additionally, early on there was a cheat called “vegan mode” that allowed you to play the open world part of the game without ever encountering cannibals. Their belongings and camps would still be around, but the cannibals never appear. Similarly, a “vegetarian mode” cheat was established, where cannibals still existed but only ever came out at night. Vegetarian mode was never made official, but Vegan mode was renamed “Peaceful Mode” and added as an official difficulty mode for players to select when starting the game. Not only were early access players exploring a new landscape within the confines of the game, they were also on the frontier of new modes of experiencing this game, testing the limits with cheat codes and then playing the official game modes. As they played each new update, they could find possible glitches or provide feedback through reviews on what kinds of new additions they would like to see in future updates. The developers of early access games therefore used feedback from players, including popular cheat codes, to decide what to do to make the game more appealing to its users. A survival game, therefore, is a particularly appropriate medium for experimenting with early access releases, because the game asks the players to alter the environment to suit their wants and needs. Players can change the environment within the game by cutting down trees, building new structures, and more, and then they can exit the game and have a dialogue with developers about how to shape the environment even further to suit them. For that reason, this method of game development helped tremendously in making The Forest a successful game with a vibrant online community.

Works Used

Jones, Ian. “The Robinsonade.” MAAD 25630 Videogames and Genre Storytelling, 7 May 2020, Prezi presentation.

“The Forest Wiki.” Accessed February 21, 2021. https://theforest.gamepedia.com/The_Forest_Wiki.

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