Remember when Steam Early Access was a new and exciting thing? Last month, one of the earliest titles to enter the program, and one I personally took an interest in, was officially released. After four years, the survival-crafting game The Forest can now be experienced in its final, completed form.
Back when I played the game a few years ago, I put in about 20 hours, got the trick of it, grew bored and moved on. But having seen some of the other games I purchased in Early Access finally see their full release, most notably ARK: Survival Evolved and The Long Dark, I wondered: which way would this swing? ARK: Survival Evolved disappointed me by not being more fleshed out. The Long Dark was a let down in that the story wound up stripping the survival mechanics of their much-needed raw brutality and simplicity. It’s sometimes hard to adjust to new features once your idea of what the game’s identity is has been cemented. And while I’ve since learned to keep my expectations more fluid, I’m still curious at how my own expectations played into my satisfaction with the finished product.
So for this game, I’m trying a little experiment. I’m going to write down what I remember about the game pre-release, and what my thoughts were then. And then play a few more hours of the game as it is now, and gauge how far it has, or hasn’t, come. With this little experiment, I hope to gauge first what my expectations were, second, where did those expectations come from, and third, did the game make enough significant progress in the past three years to justify the build-up and anticipation.
I basically stopped paying attention to The Forest just before an update that added a thirst system that would require the player to use a tortoise shell to collect rainwater in order to stay hydrated. In other words, a long freakin’ time ago, long enough that there are probably now major features that I have never seen or heard of before. This is not a bad time to step back in and see how well my brain adjusts. My strategy for The Forest was admittedly “wrong” compared to what the developers originally “meant” for me to do: for the first several hours I kept making my homebase near the plane crash site, and rarely moved, even after I was found by the island’s mutated inhabitants. I learned eventually to move on but still got caught up more in fortifying a shelter than exploring the caves or confronting the hostiles. I’ve since played a lot of ARK: Survival Evolved, where I quickly learned to build several homes so I had resources no matter where I ended up across the map. Will this work in The Forest? Would that even be the point? Without any interaction with the community that has sprung up around the game, I can’t say. If there is meaning or purpose in the game’s premise now, they’ll have to show it to me directly.
My biggest issue with The Forest, though I did enjoy it at the time, was that you could never really tell what the hostiles wanted, or if there was any real way to “defeat” them. Was I supposed to move on from my base after they found me? Or keep fighting them off? Was it worth putting up a fight at all? These questions were never really answered. My initial impression was that this was a survival game, but one that would, in the end, have some kind of story that could be followed. I similarly expected this of ARK, but wound up disappointed. My hope is that the objectives and conflict are more clearly defined in the final version.
[Several Hours Later ]
Alright, so far so good. The graphics are improved. The layout and content of the in-game manual is so much better I could weep into my fist; it’s now neat and visually appealing, touching on some of the pleasant and clean aesthetic of park and recreation guides. I still enjoy how easy it is to build and craft by choosing images from the manual, and the addition of an update status telling you how many items you need to collect to complete a set blueprint is so convenient. The tents now let the player save and sleep, like a camp, which is really nice, especially early in the game when I’m more skittish about building a shelter. And my instincts to raid the suitcases and then dash to the beach are still valid, although I notice that there seem to be more enemy settlements there than in the past. Sadly, while I was looking for more of an actual narrative to walk me through the game’s premise and set-up, there wasn’t much more to go on than the first several times I played. I found a makeshift grave site with some scattered personal items, and what appeared to be a shipping log inside of a container, but the objects, while sentimental, could only be used for crafting. I can’t examine the paper to see what it actually says. The impression of cohesive depth is but a mirage.
So far my post-release strategy for The Forest is not unlike what it was before the final update. In general, I find the game still struggles to achieve a balance between crafting and survival. Examining some of the guides, most of the game’s base information, in terms of available resources, how they are gathered, and what to make with them, hasn’t changed much as far as I can tell. It still seems best to first raid the plane site, then run far away and try to find the most advantageous place to build an overnight shelter, usually in a wooded area protected by rocks and near a water source. Bigger, more long term fortresses with lots of traps seem to be a good idea initially, but tend to invite raid parties and waves of hostiles to your front door. But maintaining a nomadic lifestyle means rarely getting to use the full breadth of the available items in your survival guide. And building a home on an island, while effective in preventing attacks, just makes the game lonely and pointless. There doesn’t seem to be a good way to both create a lavish island compound and carefully manage your presence with the island’s inhabitants. Does the game want you to start a war with these hostiles? Are they merely the occasional obstacle to crafting? The objectives and purpose are no clearer than they were before.
The verdict? The game is more polished, which is good, but it’s still prompting me to examine what my expectations are when it comes to a pre-release game. I think I was under the impression, with this game and others, that early access (be it through Steam or Xbox One) was for developers who had an interesting hook, like an intriguing mechanic or appealing art style, who needed some extra support to get the game funded and released. Somewhere I got it in my head that after that point, they would be using their time and money to flesh out the game’s depth by adding a narrative to give the rest of those elements weight. On the contrary, it seems as though sometimes a developer cuts themselves short because they discover they can sell a game just fine without any writing (as with ARK: Survival Evolved, which builds most of its content from user-made mods and doesn’t even have a design document). It leads to a lot of virtual experiences that are fine if you play as a group, where the company of your friends can make up for what the game lacks in personality, but utterly boring if you play by yourself. Once you figure out the boundaries of the mechanics, it’s just a longevity game, and that becomes dull without purpose.
This topic is worth exploring because while Steam Greenlight may have ended and other types of pre-release support might eventually be phased out, we’re still in the position where we have to ask if allowing the player to judge the game before it’s actually finished is bad on the long term. It may seem good that independent games can build a community and secure funding with an unfinished product because it gives small scale productions a better chance to succeed, but at the end of the day, you only get one chance to make a first impression. If reviews are being influenced by the disparity between the initial and final product, it’s just one more critical obstacle in securing its legacy and impact. Sometime there’s no going back.
It’s hard to say if I’ll keep playing The Forest; on one hand, I already have the survival mechanics and tricks all figured out, and I may as well see how far I can get. And I never did get too far into exploring the caves. On the other hand, I’m not confident that facing that challenge will provide any real reward outside of the satisfaction of having played chicken with the game’s hostiles and survived. None of the questions the game left me with before have been answered. And while the graphics have indeed improved, they haven’t managed to provide the game with any value outside of its mechanics. They’re just a chipboard facade on a virtual stage that isn’t built to last.
So the next time I approach a game that is playable-but-not-finished, for whatever reason, the question I ask myself will be this: if the game existed as it is, right now, without any other embellishments or additions, would I still enjoy it?
Because chances are, that’s all I’m gonna get.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.