Forest is a visual novel written by Hoshizora Meteor, and published by offbeat company Liarsoft. It might be the best game they've ever put out, not to mention one of the strangest and most distinctive visual novels of all time.
"But wait!" I hear you say. "What the hell is a visual novel? Why have I never heard of this game? What is a Hoshizora Meteor, and I did some research on Liarsoft and isn't it a porn game company or something?" So to dispel any confusion, how about we get some definitions out of the way and make sure we're all in the know, alright?
VISUAL NOVEL (n.) A strange hybrid of picture book, soundtrack and, occasionally, choose-your-own-adventure book. Has a small but devoted fanbase in Japan and an infinitesimally small fanbase over here. Many of these visual novels contain sexual content, and are often badly written to boot. But there are a number of visual novels that are actually pretty great, available in the states and okay for people of all ages to play (usually.) Katawa Shoujo is one, as is Ever17, the Higurashi series and the Phoenix Wright games, along with cult classic DS title Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. You might also know some anime based on visual novels, like Clannad and Steins;Gate.
HOSHIZORA METEOR (n.) A writer of visual novels. His work on Kusarihime ~Euthanasia~, a story of rural Japanese villages and time loops (sound familiar?) published in February 2002, apparently helped inspire Cross Channel, Saya no Uta and the Heaven's Feel route of Fate/Stay Night. He's currently working for Type-Moon on a project called Girls' Work, which was originally going to be a visual novel but is now going to be an anime or something, produced by ufotable.
LIARSOFT (n.) A visual novel company that puts out some of the most atypical games on the market. If Key's niche is creating heart wrenching stories about sad girls in snow, Liarsoft is more interested in playing around with fairy tales, steampunk, Lovecraftian horrors and other things. They are probably best known in the United States for their What a Beautiful series of visual novels, the most famous of which--Sekien no Inganock--is essentially the bastard child of Perdido Street Station and Revolutionary Girl Utena (look them up!)
Now that everyone's on the same page, let's get down to business. Unless you aren't in the mood to just locate a copy and play the damn thing yourself, without any preconceptions (which is the best way, believe me) then you might as well keep reading.
What is Forest?
Forest is a many-layered construction of English literature and dueling narrators and really weird sex. You could say that it is "about" five people in Shinjuku who are chosen to do battle with the Forest, a world of magic that has begun to intrude into the modern world. But this is really about as accurate a summary as saying that FLCL is "about" a kid who gets hit over the head by a pink-haired girl carrying a guitar--it's part of the truth, but not all of it. Theoretically, if you played Forest enough times you'd be able to get to the core of the story, and be able to describe it in two or three pithy sentences. Unfortunately, this will almost certainly not happen by the time you're finished with your first playthrough of the game, because Forest is dense. It's only about six hours long, but in those six hours it covers more ground than other games two or three times the length.
It pulls threads from the body of English literature, sometimes even from the most unlikely places: there are references to Five Children and It, the Lord of the Rings and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, to name a few. But in contrast to games like the Kingdom Hearts series, which reduce their crossover elements to playable cameos, Forest does some remarkably bizarre things with its source material. Its use of Winnie the Pooh and its ilk, for example, is freakishly inspired, both horrifying and affecting in the same measure.
For a relatively short game, Forest has an immense amount of graphical and musical variety. The game takes place over roughly a year's time, and the characters have different outfits for literally every major chapter of the story. Mundane passers-by morph into cats. Ravens take off their faces to become dashing gentlemen. The backgrounds are made up of what appear to be photos of Shinjuku, until you realize that there are gaping holes in the scenery through which you can see masses of leaves.
Most of the music is pretty good, but not great. But the game does make use of a number of Irish tracks, many of which include vocals, which are absolutely brilliant and haunting. The funny thing is that these particular songs aren't included on the in-game soundtrack--judging from what others have claimed, those songs were actually sampled from the public domain, and show up in as major leitmotifs in other video games as well. At any rate, those songs work brilliantly in context, so it's a pity that they aren't playable using the in-game music box, even though there's a reason for it.
If there's one problem with the visuals in Forest, though, it's that some of the events that occur in the game are so stunning that the game simply chooses not to depict them. It's frustrating that the game used its CGs for the sex scenes instead of to show the part where the train turns into an enormous dinosaur, or where the tree branches rocket towards heaven, or the crocodile duel, or, or...
Writing in visual novels tends to be pretty bland. There are certainly exceptions--just about everything written by Tanaka Romeo, for one--and certainly visual novels can be amazingly constructed, plot-wise. Just look at how tightly games like Ever17 and Fate/Stay Night are woven. But too often, visual novels are bogged down by indeterminable cooking scenes, repetitive slice of life and (frequently) badly written sex. The prose is almost always in service of the story, never the other way around.
So when I say that Forest reads like drugged-up improvised beat poetry, understand that this is pretty unusual, as far as the genre goes. Part of this might be the translation, which is excellent. Another part might be the voice acting, which delivers the sometimes rambling, occasionally disturbing, frequently insane dialogue staccato in a way that does justice to the writing. But I think the prose is to thank, as well. Forest is the one visual novel I've played where I've teared up not because of what was happening on screen, but because what was being said was so damn beautiful (which is pretty impressive, considering that the scene in question also happened to be really, really creepy.)
At least part of the effect may be due to the narration, of which there are two distinct voices. One is represented on the bottom of the screen, in text form, as is standard. The other is dictated through voice, represented by the English translation on the top of the screen. Sometimes the bottom text describes what a character is doing, while the character speaks on the top. Often the narrators completely contradict each other, creating paradoxes and misunderstandings and occasionally even weird symmetry. The result is that Forest feels not so much as a story being told by a single person, as it is a story exchanged between two people.
Forest is a polarizing visual novel for a reason. It does not care about conventional plotting. Certain story arcs occasionally seem nonsensical, even if you pay close attention to what is going on. Characters initially appear hazy and ill-defined. There is never a moment in the plot where the game pulls you aside and explains everything that is going on. This isn't Ever17, which was ultimately pretty straightforward despite the admittedly mind-blowing plot twists in the final route; at least there you had a pretty good idea at the end about what had happened. Forest is certainly not incomprehensible if you read closely, but you are expected to do most of the legwork yourself in putting the pieces together.
Understand that by the story's end, the characters have all changed immensely, and much of the story makes intuitive sense. But hanging above the visual novel like a cloud is the feeling that Forest is essentially unsolvable, in the same way that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is unsolvable. How much of Forest is intelligible and how much nonsensical may depend on the reader, and the game itself is so unknown in the West that there is very little around the English-speaking internet in the way of fan theories and the like. Unless you can somehow find a friend to bounce theories off of, chances are you may be very confused by the time the visual novel is over.
Then there's the sex, which Forest has a lot of. It's not the worst written in the world, and most of the scenes are pretty short. But some of the sexual material in Forest I found genuinely uncomfortable, and not because of any awkward references to seafood. It occasionally comes off as pretty forced, too, even though the author usually makes an effort to tie the scenes into the plot somehow (and a few are even essential to the development of the story.) I've heard rumors that Hoshizora Meteor left Liarsoft for Type-Moon because he was sick of writing sex scenes, and I think I might be inclined to agree.
On the other hand, Forest is such a strange work that even the more uncomfortable stuff is swallowed up by the whole. It's a little hard to describe, but I'd say it's similar to how, say, Dhalgren (a very strange science fiction novel by Samuel Delany) uses its sexual content as a stepping stone in order to become something else entirely. Even if certain scenes in the game turn you off, I'd recommend reading the game all the way through to the end. It's one of those works that makes a lot more sense if you look at it as a whole.
Forest is a unique work of fiction. How much you enjoy it depends on what kind of person you are--if your taste in fiction ranges more conventional, you might very well be repulsed, confused or even disgusted. But like FLCL, like Dhalgren, like any strange cult work you can name: if this game is for you, and it very well may be for you, then you should play it, at least once. Come at it one way and Forest is an incomprehensible mess, but to the right pair of eyes and ears it might very well be a masterpiece.
And of course, if you consider yourself a fan of the genre, Forest is essentially a must-play. Just be aware that it's a challenging read.