When I think about games that have disappointed me, I can't help but think of BioShock. It's not that Irrational's dystopian shooter was a bad game, but it wasn't really what I thought it was going to be. I was lured in by the premise of being an anonymous survivor desperately trying to escape the ruined, mutant-infested remains of a spectacular underwater city. I thought you'd get to navigate this environment in an open-ended fashion, taking advantage of a supposedly rich ecology of mutated miscreants. Instead it ended up being a bunch of linear corridors full of one-dimensional kill-happy characters and binary choices.
After speaking for an hour with Endnight Games about its upcoming open-world survival horror affair, The Forest, there's a good chance it could be the game I hoped BioShock would be. Its premise and opening scene are practically cribbed from Ken Levine's playbook: you're a silent protagonist in a plane that crash lands, and you then find yourself in a world overrun with ravenous, bloodthirsty freaks. Would you kindly not die?
The difference, of course, is that there won't be a lavish subterranean city this time around, nor will there be any philosophical audio diaries, speaking characters, or text of any kind. Endnight's effort is a lot more minimalist than that, but it also means there won't be any waypoints, creepy plastic automatons (i.e. NPCs), or heavy-handed exposition. Like Minecraft, DayZ or Don't Starve before it, you're simply planted in an environment and given one goal: survive.
How you do this though is entirely up to you, as The Forest promises a nearly unprecedented degree of freedom. "I've been frustrated with games for the past five or six years constantly telling you what to do," creative director Ben Falcone tells me over Skype. "It sometimes feels like work playing a game where you have a backlog of missions you have to do, constantly being bothered by NPCs. We wanted to create a world where we could drop the player into and give them free range to do whatever they want, similar to something like Minecraft where a lot of the fun comes from decisions that you make. We wanted to capture that but do it in a world that looked realistic."
The Forest is so open-ended in its approach that Endnight has daringly chosen not to spell out the goal of the game. Borrowing Myst's most audacious trick, there will be an ending, but it will be up to players to puzzle out how to even begin pursuing it. There will be no set missions, so players will have to simply go out and explore the world. If they're thorough and sharp they'll sort out what to do. If not, that's fine too. "There is a way to end it, but I think a lot of players will play without ending the game or even realising that there is an ending," Falcone explains.
While The Forest will have a conclusion, it's an entirely optional one and not the focus of the game. That still lands squarely on survival, and there will be leaderboards to compare how long people can stay alive in this hostile environment. There's even an option for permadeath if that's your bag. "Our goal was a never-ending type game - with an ending," Falcone laughs.
There's another goal in The Forest - even if it's not rewarded with a leaderboards spot or credits roll - and that is to explore the landscape. "You might see a landmark off to the distance that you can't necessarily get to yet. You'll have to build up a certain number of skills and equipment to actually get to some parts of the world," explains animator Michael Mellor. "We're hoping we can provide some curiosity, some passive goals, to give players reasons to go out and figure out more about the world." As anyone who's gotten really deep into Shadow of the Colossus can tell you, sometimes accessing hard-to-reach beautiful scenery is its own reward.
Scouring the landscape will also help more plot-interested players uncover the story of the island entirely through environmental storytelling. In this sense, The Forest will be similar to something like Dark Souls or Fez. You could zip through and barely grasp that there even is a back-story, or you could spend months on forums trying to piece together its lore through the clues in the environment. "Players actually can uncover where these mutants came from and who they are and what the forest actually is. But we don't push players in any way to actually do any of that," Falcone notes.
Beyond the basic premise, there's another reason The Forest brings to mind BioShock - or rather the promise of BioShock: the enemies will react in ways unheard of in most video games. Its pale, humanoid cannibals may want to eat you for supper, but that doesn't make them evil. They're just hungry. They'll actually care about each other and react according to your behaviour. Slay one and another might lay over its lifeless body and start sobbing. Or perhaps they'll run away after you've killed their friend. Maybe they'll try to protect one of their brethren and bring in backup, or simply stalk you from the trees to make sure you don't invade their turf.
"If you're in a real forest with crazy cannibals, some of them would try to protect each other," Falcone says. "That's something games don't even attempt. They treat all enemies as mindless."
Falcone cites I am Legend and Cannibal Holocaust as major influences with their not-too-subtle "who are the real monsters?" theme. "You've invaded their forest, you're murdering them, you're chopping down all their trees. Maybe they're just trying to survive in this forest. Maybe you're the bad guy. So we try to make it emotional when you kill one of them and have them care. They're not all bad, even if they are trying to eat you."
While The Forest isn't due to go into beta until a little later this year, there are some features Endnight is still toying around with. One such experiment is a separate randomly-generated mode that may or may not make the final cut. "A big problem with random generation is keeping areas interesting," Falcone says. "So we have a really buggy randomly generated mode and we're not sure if it's going to make it into the final game. If we can get it working it will be as an additional mode, but the meat of the game will be this more authored, large island."
When asked about multiplayer, a major feature in similarly sandbox survival outings Minecraft and DayZ, Falcone says that it's another idea Endnight is toying with, but hasn't settled on as it doesn't want it to diminish the horror aspect. "Our focus is on the single-player game, but we've also been experimenting with co-op as well, which we did think would be fun," Falcone explains. "The big issue is keeping the horror element... we tried to maintain that balance where it's still scary if you're playing in co-op mode, which is a tricky thing to get right."
The Forest is certainly an ambitious concept and it's hard not to be sceptical when it's made by a team of three full-time staff and a handful of contributors, but Endnight has a clear, distinct vision for this project - one that it's so convicted of that two-thirds of its team left their cushy jobs in the film industry to pursue. With a beta set to launch in the next few months, it won't take too long to see if The Forest can live up to its wondrous potential.