Parents have been given their fair share of representation in all kinds of media. From films to TV shows, they have been depicted in many ways over the years, ranging from the funny to the empathetic to the downright sombre. Video games are a part of this trend as well, and it is hardly surprising given how the audience for video games is typically (and mistakenly) considered to be children. Yet there are some games that push the envelope further, that seek to examine on a much deeper level than usual, and that redefine parenthood as a whole. ‘The Forest’ is one of those games.
Developed and published by Endnight Games, ’The Forest’ is an open world survival horror game that takes place on a deserted and, as the name implies, heavily forested peninsula. The game was released in early access in 2014, and was fully released in April 2018. Throughout this long developmental cycle, the game underwent a significant degree of evolution, and rightfully gained many admirers for its hard-hitting plot, its mature mechanics, and its striking attention to detail. Players who have played the game in its entirety will not deny how dark its themes are, but there is a balance with playfulness and director Ben Falcone himself admitted how the game was influenced by Disney in an interview with VG247,
“Disney stuff was an inspiration for the daytime in the forest. There are God-rays from the sky everywhere, butterflies and generally cute looking areas…Our vision was always a game in which half of the time it’s a place that you really want to be and then it’s at night that the horror starts.”
Disney wasn’t the only inspiration for ‘The Forest.’ Cult classics such as ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ and ‘The Descent’ were also cited as sources that contributed to the design and plot of the game, as did the acclaimed game ‘Don’t Starve.’ The rich graphical effects shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who knows the background of the developing team. They have Hollywood experience, having worked on special effects for ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’ and ‘Tron: Legacy.’
The game immediately starts off in an arresting fashion, as we come across Eric Leblanc and his son Timmy sitting in an airplane. Soon enough, the plane unexpectedly breaks apart, and crashes into a forest. Upon the crash, Eric is almost instantly knocked out but wakes up soon enough, only to see a pale man poring over him. He then proceeds to take Timmy away and the helpless Eric cannot do anything to stop him. Unfortunately, Eric is the only survivor of the crash, as the mysterious dwellers of the forest killed the rest of the plane’s members. He is compelled to live by foraging as many supplies and resources as he can find from both the crashed plane as well as the forest.
As he strives to survive in the forest, the natives of the forest act mysteriously, and torment Eric to no end, forcing him to retaliate. This ensues chaos in the forest and turns our hero into a killer, as he attempts to protect himself from the natives, who are cannibals. His last resort is crude violence, which is exemplified in his assembling of effigies from dismembered body parts to scare off the dwellers. Time passes by, and Eric becomes better at fending for himself and surviving in the unforgiving forest. On the course of his travels, he stumbles across what appears to be an abandoned yacht just off the coast. Upon boarding it, he finds a picture of a mutant, a milk carton which has a picture of a missing boy, and a charred corpse on the bed. He also discovers a photograph of a spire on the yacht.
This picture of the spire would prove on to be an important clue, with Eric coming across another such image from deep inside a cave. It is here that he realises that there aren’t just cannibals living in the woods, but mutants as well. He also finds another corpse in the cave, proving what we suspected for some time, i.e. there were others who had tried surviving on the island against such dangerous odds. Another cave would go on to prove this theory right, which showed that several people have been to the island who were later killed and devoured by the cannibals.
Eric finds out that a group of religious explorers died way deep in the cave after they went on a spelunking trip beyond what seemed to be an alien door. The caves were a site of refuge for the desperate survivors as they tried avoiding and escaping from the cannibals above. While it was a sound plan, it sadly didn’t work, as the cannibals were still able to get to them and kill them left, right, and centre. Among the group of people killed was a lawyer who had escaped to a cave with a keycard that unlocked the door to a facility called Sahara Therapeutics, situated inside of an abyss.
In due course, Eric does manage to make his way to the facility, which is astonishingly still powered up. He comes across images of a girl named Megan, and he finds some sketches drawn by her too. Megan would prove to be the start of a heart-wrenching revelation as Eric finds the ‘Jarius Project.’ The project was formulated with the intention of making medicine that lengthens the human lifespan, and would be especially applied in terminal cases. It would soon take a different direction, however, with innocent, suffering children turning into hideous mutants without any fault of their own. Eric would find observation rooms which detailed the numerous failed experiments. From Jessica who formed face distortions along with multiple appendages and genitalia to ‘Armsy,’ a six-year old who was transformed into an extremely hostile mutant.
The scientists were using these exceptions to cure and transform them into adults. Needless to say at this point, the tests were a failure, and they weren’t able to be cured. Using age-old artefacts, the researchers were creating these mutants , breeding the children, and continued to attempt lengthening the life of people, despite such dire consequences having already been materialised.
As Eric observes everything in the research facility and takes a grasp of the situation, he applies red paint all over himself to scare off the cannibals. Shortly after this, he comes across a picture from Megan where she refers to her father as an angry red man. As Eric goes further into the facility, he finally finds Timmy locked inside one of the several ancient artefacts. The one Timmy is locked in looks like a torture chamber of sorts.
That Timmy is pierced through by the spikes in the chamber and is dead when Eric finally sees him makes for one of the most horrifying sights in the entire game. In order to bring him back from the dead, a desperate Eric places Timmy on the operating table nearby, that was used for the problematic purposes of the ‘Jarius Project.’ He knows that bringing his son back from death would require sacrifice of a living person. To that effect, he scours the entire facility in an attempt to find someone living.
It is at this point and several others where the game raises some uncomfortable questions which highlight its own mature understanding of human nature in times of desperation, and its proclivity towards darkness. To wilfully sacrifice another living person for a hope of bringing back his son succinctly shows the massive development Eric’s character goes through, right from the point where he kills off the forest dwellers in order to fend for himself.
In the course of his search throughout the facility, Eric discovers the aforementioned Megan Cross in a huge cage with a glass floor hovering over a deeply intricate network of caves. As a sign of things to come, she keeps drawing sketches of her father, Dr. Matthew Cross, who was a researcher at the facility. The entire thing comes across as eerie to say the least, with a distinct impression that something terrible is about to happen.
Soon enough, Megan transforms into a tentacle-wielding creature which has to be killed. Following the inevitable battle, she dies, and therefore cannot be used to revive Timmy. Eric continues to search the rooms and finds the corpse of Matthew Cross, painted all red. He had evidently been killed by his own daughter when she had transformed into the creature in a previous encounter.
After this gruesome discovery, Eric goes on to another section of the facility which turns out to be the observation station that overlooks the entire forest. He also finds a magnetic tractor beam that is fuelled by the second ancient artefact. This beam would reveal a whole other level of depravity on the part of Eric, as he would use it to crash another plane and kidnap anyone who survives to sacrifice them and revive his son.
Here’s where things get a little multilayered. The game actually offers two separate endings, both difficult to go through with in their own way, and both having their own separate consequences.
Let’s continue with the beam. Eric can choose to use it to crash down another plane, kidnap a survivor, and sacrifice them to revive his son. What this essentially does is continue the horrible cycle of death, kidnap, sacrifice, and pointless revival. This is what happened to Eric and Timmy at the very start of the game, and this is what Eric wants to inflict upon someone else for the same reasons. The revival is pointless because of how the game concludes following this chain of events.
After Eric uses the beam, the game skips to a year later, where Eric and Timmy are at a talk show, conversing about a book that Eric wrote, accounting the unique experiences he faced on the island. However, Timmy suddenly starts convulsing, and falls down on the floor. This is a clear sign that he will fall to the mutation as well, the same one that affected Megan and all the other children in the facility. However, before he transforms, the game purposefully merges into black, and the title of the game is shown. signalling the end of the game.
But as mentioned, this isn’t the only conclusion offered by the game. Eric can actually choose not to use the beam and keep the ruthless cycle going on. Instead, he can decide to spare the travellers on the plane, and not actually direct the beam towards them. If he does decide on this course of action rather than crashing down the plane, he will be left isolated on the peninsula for the rest of his life. He will have no means to bring the life of his son back under any condition, and Timmy will lie lifeless in the catacombs of Sahara Therapeutics forever.
It is, under no circumstances, a welcome and palatable end, but if the player decides to go through with this rather than the other ending, the greater good will be fulfilled but at a great cost. No other unfortunate soul will be unwittingly trapped on the unforgiving island, and the vicious cycle will finally perish for good measure. Going through with this ensures Eric has more meaningful character development, where he chooses to accept the tragic fate of him and his son, and in the wake of discovering the unnatural experiments that were conducted at the facility, does not try to tempt the natural order of things. Timmy will also be spared from a gruesome fate of turning into a monstrous creature, much like how Megan transformed in the game.
Endnight Games made it to mainstream discussions with ‘The Forest’ and every bit of praise was utterly deserved. With this open world horror, they have provided a searing lens into how desperate situations can bring out the intimacy of the deepest relationships on a whole other level. The game’s gorgeous looks belies the relentless analysis of humanity in depravity that the game provides through its exceptional plot.
While this article attempts to be a helping hand to those wanting to find more meaning in the game and how it carries itself right up to its last act, it is also a plea to prospective gamers looking to delve into something dark and meaningful. ‘The Forest’ truly reaffirms our faith in small-scale studios creating some amazing work in the video game industry. As such, giving such a labour of love a chance from our end can truly broaden our notions of games themselves and make us all the better for it.