The mutants-filled survival sim was rusty on release, but in 2016 it's one of the best multiplayer horror games around.
I'm jetlagged. It's three in the morning and I'm looking for something to play, eyes glazed over. My brain feels crunchy. I'm barely conscious and need a game that isn't too taxing. Absentmindedly, I click on The Forest.
And I'm glad I do, because a tiny server hidden in the game's cooperative mode goes on to give me the best multiplayer horror experience since I got so scared I cried while playing Slender.
The Forest didn't exactly light a fire inside me when I first played it, a little after its early access launch in 2014. Appearing on the scene as part of the post-DayZ craze for survival sims, Endnight Games' title had a lot of interesting ideas but no spit and polish.
It opened strong, with a traumatic introduction putting through a plane crash before you watch your digital kid get kidnapped by naked cannibals. After that, however, the game's wheels came off. There was some half-baked crafting, a few genuinely horrifying moments but the feeling that something was missing. After just a single session with it, I left the game to rust in my Steam library, half-promising to come back to it later.
That time is now. A half-awake realisation that the game has a co-op mode is probably the reason I'm standing in the wreckage of a crashed plane as darkness falls. Darkness, I remember from the first time I tried to avoid getting mauled by cannibals, is a problem. They mostly come at night, mostly.
I'm in the only active server hosting more than a single player. I can't fight the feeling that there aren't many more out there. If I'm going to survive, I'll have to make friends. Mashing a few keys, I manage to find voice chat: "Hey, what's going on?"
"Buddy!" A smooth southern accent crackles into life from off-screen. "We're down by the red flag if you want to head over. Better get here before dark, we've been getting attacked by 20 to 30 cannibals every night at this point." I'm starting to sweat – my previous cannibal murdering experience was, basically, me swinging an axe wildly in the dark while sobbing. "Do you know how to make armour?"
I don't know how to make armour, I'm full of questions, and I don't even know how to use voice chat properly. After a hardly calming 20-minute jog through a dark filled with murderous psychopaths, I make it to the imposing fortress that's kept the group of survivors safe. "We used to have separate forts," one player, "AdamSak", tells me as I run past the half-destroyed ruins of one building, "but they tend to choose one place to focus their attack. It didn't go so well."
Now everyone lives together, grouped for safety inside the castle walls. The group works as one, each day spent gathering the supplies they'll need to survive the night without catastrophe. Some days they make it through unscathed; at others, they're not so lucky. Luck, and a series of new wooden traps, are on their side tonight, and the outpost is standing strong as I approach.
If The Forest is a lot more complex today than it was in 2014. I'm promptly briefed on the intricacies of the game's many new survival systems, via a procession of friendly American voices full of patient advice: don't go into the dark caves, don't fuck with alligators and don't stop moving, lest you get bludgeoned by someone/something in the darkness. The advice isn't entirely altruistic though as, now that I was "on the team", I'd need to pull my weight and pitch in.
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The Forest feels like a cult 1970s horror movie, something that might be filed under "video nasty". Cannibals peek at you playfully from the distance, edging closer when they think you're not looking. Often you'll walk past someone's bloody head mounted on a post in the middle of the woods. It's often tense, sometimes genuinely shocking, but everything about the game has a dream-like quality to it: a good match for the fugue state I'm wrestling with in the early hours.
Perhaps it's fitting then, that when trying to rush home before night falls on The Forest one night, we run into a true video game nasty. "FreeDumb", a welder from Michigan that seems to play the game near perpetually, sounds the alarm, hissing for us to be quiet. "There's a mutant up ahead, looks like a spider." I can't resist having a look, and I honestly wish I hadn't. The spider, or Virginia, stands naked on six legs, the bodies of three women joined together while they struggle against each other, flailing malformed arms.
It's grotesque, gigantic, and totally capable of killing all of us without breaking a sweat. I've also just pissed it off, as it turns to face me and a crackling voice comes out of the radio: "Run! Run!" I don't need telling twice, as the closest to the beast I'm the one she's thundering towards, clumping through the forest on all those legs. Why do they have to be naked?
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There isn't a plan beyond simply: get back to the fortress. A few people are yelling at each other on the radio, and the general opinion is that we're fucked. Virginia is faster than any of us, and charges into the open fort. Over the next ten minutes, half of us are murdered and a lot of the inside of the structure, and most of the external walls, get knocked down by the mutant; but, after judicious application of Molotov cocktails and a lot of screaming from the assembled party, the beast is dead. The fortress, however, is also on the wrong side of being alright. I feel terrible, certain that it's my actions that were responsible for a mutant getting inside – but apparently this sort of thing happens about once a week.
The next day, there's plenty to be done, and the whole team runs into the woods to cut down trees – we need logs to repair the walls. Chopping the trees down, loading them into a sled and dragging them to the walls is a slow process, but nobody complains: survival in the bleak world of The Forest is hard work, and often unforgiving.
I return to The Forest several times over the next week, building, hunting, and once even being eaten by a crocodile. But sadly, all holidays eventually must come to an end, and as my jetlag fades, so my ability to stay up late for nightly visits to that hellish forest goes with it, leaving me with just a series of memories from one of the best multiplayer horror experiences I've ever had.
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