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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Oh Deer Me

I originally started writing this post as sort of a humor piece, because the subject matter is so bizarre. However, I decided to attempt to provide a serious review so I'm going to stay away from obvious jokes.

The subject at hand is
the Endless Forest. It's a bit tough to explain so I'll let the creators try:

"The Endless Forest is a social screensaver, a virtual place where you can play with your friends. When your computer goes to sleep you appear as a deer in this magical place."

Let's get the technical stuff out of the way first. First of all, it's free. And yes the main product is a screensaver which you can download. However, I strongly recommend that you run it as a regular program by downloading the optional launcher. As a screensaver, it's just too disruptive when it launches because it takes some time to exit. You want to be able to exit a screensaver instantly (especially at work).

It also froze my computer a few times, though when I used the launcher it worked perfectly. You'll also probably want to "name your deer" on their webpage or you will miss a lot of functionality.

Okay, so then what happens? Well, you sort of run around this forest as a stag (you can only play as a male) with a humanoid face. To find places of interest or other deer you watch the icons on the border of your screen and move towards them. This "map" system actually works very well.

And what do you do? Well, you have a range of "emote" type actions like "Anger" or "Roll on the Floor Laughing" or "Hop." Some actions are place specific. For instance, when I found a shrine I noticed I could worship. When you are near flowers you can pick them up and carry them on your antlers.

There are other players, or deer, in the forest but you have no way to communicate with them beyond simple actions such as roaring or shaking your head yes or no. There are no shouts, ooc, tells or any form of typed communication.

You can do magic to change a deer's form, but the trick is that you can't do it on yourself. You are reliant on others to cast spells upon you. If you wish to perform magic on other deer you first need to do an action like eating mushrooms (there are others but I guess I won't give them away) and then find another deer and cast your spell. You can change another deer's antlers and coat and so on in this manner. Any deer is free to immediately "shake off" these enchantments if they don't like them. A problem I ran into is that there usually weren't more than one or two other people online.

And that's pretty much it. I know it doesn't sound like much of a game, but it wasn't intended to be.

Is it art? Sure, since I have a broad definition. But is it good art? That's a bit harder to say. As interactive art, it's not on the level of, say,
Somnium Orbis or even Echo Genesis (though neither of those is multiplayer).

Graphically, I think it is average at best, although some of the animations are quite nice. The online space itself I found very limited - almost the antithesis of the promised "endless forest."

During Abiogenesis, which is like a live event/performance of sorts, I would say that Endless Forest might rise to the level of good, interesting art. But those are rare and the rest of the time it's mediocre art at best.

I did find it a unique experience to be in an online space with others but unable to communicate with them in any standard way. What's more, the feeling that they could not really communicate with me gave me a feeling of freedom. Honestly, it made me want to grief people. But whether that's a statement on human nature or just my own issue is left for you to decide.

In the "Questions and Answers" section (they're too special to call it a FAQ) they wisely deflect criticism that the main art in the game is derivative of the movie Princess Mononoke (great movie by the way).

"When we asked our concept artist, Lina Kusaite, to design a deer for us, she drew one with a face like that. We know that, like us, she admires Miyazaki's masterpiece. But there are several other occurences of similar creatures in different cultures.
Frida Kahlo's self portrait as a hunted stag is one. And Buraq, the horse that carried the profet Muhammed to heaven and back, is often depicted with a human face."

Okay, but it's still derivative. But what I found really troubling is the attitude of the creators (did I mention they have an in-game shrine to themselves?).

"We claim the game space as an area where art can be made. Not the hip and oh so conveniently ironic art that we find in elitist galleries or museums."

Ugh. So all art in museums and galleries is not worthy become they just don't "get" the transcendent Endless Forest? I saw the video game Rez in a museum not too long ago so I don't know what elitism they're talking about. And while the downtown art galleries can still be pretentious, that's really a thing of the past. And even at their peak, they weren't as pretentious as this:

"The Endless Forest is probably one of the early steps towards a "jeu d'auteur", a much needed evolution of games towards a medium with the artistic expressiveness of cinema and literature. So far, games have been mostly consumer goods with little or no artistic merit....Pleasure is a vital ingredient of life. It is the cure against any malaise. But only if it is true and deep. Shallow pleasures like pumping bodies full of virtual bullets or winning some cyberrace, do not give people any defense against the threats of our contemporary society. On the contrary. Perhaps they even train us to become a threat ourselves."

I'm not sure how Endless Forest provided me a defense against the threats of contemporary society. I sure wish it provided me a defense against smug and pretentious webpages.

Art will always be a part of my life. And interactive art using the internet will be a part of art. But pumping bodies full of virtual bullets will also always be a part of my life. Because it's fun. So I've had enough of the Endless Forest for now. I'll be over in the corner, winning some cyberrace. Or at least trying.


Anonymous Wizzel Cogcarrier Wizzleton IV said...

Meh, I played this for a little while, couldn't stand it. The stuff you could do with mushrooms was kinda neat, tho =p

I played Doom 3 for the first time after ditching Endless Forest. Loved the stuff you could do with a chainsaw and a little creativity. Go figure.

6:47 AM  
Blogger Paradigm said...

Sounded pretty neat until I read what THEY had to say. Now I don't think I even want to try it...

4:06 PM  
Anonymous Michael Samyn said...

If you like the description, paradigm, you should really give it a try. Just ignore the text on the website. You have my blessing. I wrote it.

Come and pray to us. It's fun! ;)

We should probably rewrite that text a bit anyway. It is not our desire to replace contemporary art or traditional computergames with our own work. We would just like to offer an alternative to what we feel is dominant culture.
As such, The Endless Forest is not for everone all the time. But some people seem to like it.

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