Forests are for Trees: An Interview with Ian MacLarty

   Edited by Andrew Cogswell and Caitlin Galiz-Rowe

    Ian Maclarty is a developer whose portfolio ranges from fast-paced puzzle games, to painting software, a driving simulator, and many other genres of games. MacLarty’s latest title, Forests are for Trees, is a walking-sim that was made to experiment with the Graphic Processing Unit’s stencil buffer. While fully exploring the usage of this tool, MacLarty created a game that is beautiful, mesmerizing, and downright confusing with its use of color. During development of Forests are for Trees, MacLarty ran into some difficulties, and some changes in thought, but ultimately created a game that is one of the most unique I have played this year, so I was ecstatic when I got the opportunity to interview him and dig  into what inspired him

    Forests are for Trees is a very simplistic game, focused on utilizing one feature of design, the GPU’s Stencil Buffer. MacLarty stated, “I wanted to make something that played with the GPU’s ‘stencil buffer’. The stencil buffer allows one to mask out images using other images.” This tool’s usage is similar to the portals found in the Portal series, which block out the image of a wall, and overlaps it with the view out of the other portal. There were many ways that this tool could be used for amazing colorful effects, but MacLarty focused on trees specifically because “trees seemed a good candidate for lots of overlapping shapes.”.

    In Forests are for Trees all of the trees hold their own forest inside of them. This is the purpose of the stencil buffer, it masks out the image of the tree itself, and replaces it with the forest found within the tree. This creates a sense of confusion when wandering the forest, as each tree becomes a larger forest as you move closer to them and look inside of them. Each forest had a unique color in its background, and a new set of different colored trees, leading to new colorful forests.

    The variety of colors included in the game was planned to be reduced, initially, but MacLarty was pleased about how the color combinations looked, so he decided to not limit them. The stencil buffer formula also stopped MacLarty from controlling when new colors became visible: “I originally wanted to have new colors only appear when you entered a “tree portal”, but couldn’t get the stencil buffer maths to work”. Due to this, a wide range of colors can be found in the first forest you arrive in, and even more can appear while you explore.

    In my review, I note that the colors physiological effects created a story element when combined with the sound design of the game, which consists of birds and a vehicle in the distance, with colors creating an imaginative destination for the vehicle that was either joyful or sorrowful depending on the colors that I saw in each forest. When asked about if this was intentional, MacLarty told me, “The audio was just meant to connect the player to the forest and make it feel more like a real place. I’m pleased that it adds a story element to the game for you though.” On Twitter, when asked about where he recorded the audio for the game, Maclarty said, “I recorded it near Mount Donna Buang [a mountain in Victoria, Australia]. There was a rather noisy truck driving past.” The truck, which was the center of attention in the many stories that I created in my mind as I played the game, was only included due to the truck being driven at the exact time of the recording. The stories I created ranged from in depth sad tales of the driver losing their loved one, and having to drive to the hospital as the birds chirped sad tones as they drove down the road, to small tales about how the driver was on their day off of work, enjoying a nice day exploring the forest with their family. One time I imagined I was the driver, thinking back to a time where I was not lost in the forests, and I was hearing the sounds of my truck in the distance because I was not sure if I would be able to ever experience driving again, because I was stuck in the forest for eternity.

    Although the plot of the game was unintentional, and there is no message MacLarty was trying to convey, there are still certain themes about nature and phrases that went into the naming and idea of the game. MacLarty wanted to make a forest which feels like it rejects you, because this forest, although beautiful, is not something you can fully comprehend:“to me this forest is somewhat menacing, the way it grows behind your back – I feel like an intruder – this forest is for trees, not me. It’s also a play on the expression ‘can’t see the forest for the trees’. It also feels like a disorienting title, like the game.”

    This message is implemented in the game through the mystery of the forest. Why do the trees grow behind you? Why are the trees portals into other forests? These questions stop you from noticing the beauty of the situation you are in as a whole. The forests hold many questions, but absolutely no answers, but the answers are not needed, because the forests are beautiful and unique.

    Forests are for Trees experiments with the stencil buffer perfectly, creating an unforgettable experience, but making experimental games such as this comes with a price, they are very niche. When I asked MacLarty about his advice to developers who want to make experimental games, MacLarty replied, “I don’t really like to give advice, but releasing lots of smaller games has helped to build an audience, which keeps me motivated. I like to make small projects that don’t take too long, because that keeps me excited about working, but that might not be for everyone.”