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The Forest Quartet explores grief (and solves puzzles) with jazz

The Forest Quartet gathers the three remaining members of a jazz quartet as they grieve for their lead singer, facing their emotions through music and puzzles.

Joel Couture, Contributor

February 14, 2023

7 Min Read
a person playing piano on a platform in the woods, a bright light shining behind them
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This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. The IGF (Independent Games Festival) aims to encourage innovation in game development and to recognize independent game developers advancing the medium. Every year, Game Developer sits down with the finalists for the IGF ahead of GDC to explore the themes, design decisions, and tools behind each entry.

The Forest Quartet gathers the three remaining members of a jazz quartet as they grieve for their lead singer, facing their emotions through music and puzzles.

The game's creator, Mads Vadsholt, took some time to talk about how their own personal grief snuck its way into the Excellence in Audio-nominated project unintentionally, how they weaved emotion and character together using the unique sound style for each character, and the challenges that came out of trying to turn singing into a puzzle-solving mechanic.

Who are you, and what was your role in developing The Forest Quartet?

My name is Mads Vadsholt and I’m the creator of The Forest Quartet. I came up with the concept back in 2016 and have been responsible for all the art assets, game design, sound design, and last but not least, finding money and hiring people to help me with the rest: programming, character animation, music, voice acting and publishing.

What's your background in making games?

I studied computer graphics at The Animation Workshop in Denmark and got the chance to work on an iPad game during my bachelor year called Lost Tracks. The team was great, but we had almost no training and the school didn’t know how to make games, so we were clashing a lot with the system. After Lost Tracks, I went to do an internship at a little game studio called Glitchnap in Copenhagen. Glitchnap is known for Try Harder and Laza Knitez. After that I was hooked on game development.

How did you come up with the concept for The Forest Quartet?

I was imagining an invisible player character going up a [mountain] and dancing with spirits in a cave. My excuse for making an invisible player character was that it would be easy to produce (since you don’t need walk cycles or interaction animation if the player is invisible.) The idea of an invisible character then turned into the concept of a spirit in a forest, trying to bring her old band back together. Coming up with the idea was the fun and easy part, but figuring out how the singer would get the band back together was a very long process that took almost 7 years of my life.

What development tools were used to build your game?

Unity, Maya, Houdini, Photoshop, Fmod, and Logic X.

What interested you about exploring music and grief in The Forest Quartet? What thoughts went into turning that exploration into a game?

I grew up in a family of musicians and my mother (who was a singer) died from cancer in 2013. Initially, I wasn’t planning on making a game about my grief at all. I was simply trying to make something cool, but after years of shaping the diamond, I realized the game was very much about my own grief and the life of my family. My subconscious had been playing tricks on me.

What drew you to choose jazz for your musical exploration of grief? What made this style feel right?

I think jazz works well in The Forest Quartet for different reasons; Jazz musicians are often quite sensitive, fragile people that find a special comfort in playing and listening to jazz. Having a cast of jazz musicians living in a forest: solitude seemed a lot more fitting than a rock band or a rap group.

Also, I grew up with jazz. My father (Kaspar Vadsholt) is a professional jazz bassist and I’ve seen him play ever since I can remember. He’s also the composer of The Forest Quartet. It couldn’t be anything else I guess!

Likewise, what thoughts and feelings went into the creation of the game's music? With music being an integral part of the game's themes, what ideas went into the compositions to make them suit this journey?

At first, we weren’t tailoring any of the songs to any given moments in the game. We recorded a lot of material so there was a lot to pick from. Some songs worked well for a montage thing while others worked to display the grief of a band member. Later on, there was more music made to better support the narrative. For instance, in the intro scene where the singer is "created," I originally used a simple jazz song without any vocals—but after a while, I felt the need for a vocal and more ghostlike song, which my dad then composed. The simple jazz song then became the theme of the title screen [laughs].

A thing that really tied everything together, musically, was the addition of "ambient jazz." Originally, I thought there should be jazz songs playing everywhere in the forest, but that didn’t work at all. However, there were parts of the game where all the bad stuff goes away and the forest comes back to life and it seemed like there should be music there once things are restored. During our final recording session, I asked the musicians to improvise on a specific musical scale, but leave a lot of empty space between the notes. It worked super well in the game!

How did you design the three characters players would meet? What did you want to capture with their personal soundscapes, world, and emotions?

The "character" of the individual band members didn’t really come from me. I chose voice actors that I thought had interesting character qualities and just said; "be yourself, but follow the script." They also knew each other already which made things a lot better overall.

Theme wise, I just wanted them to be "depressed-person," "anxious-person," and "angry-person"—It does sound a bit silly, but the game is already quite strange and mysterious which is why they had to be super simple to understand.

Each environment brings some new element to the soundtrack. What thoughts went into deciding how these places would affect the music?

The game is split into three acts—an act for each remaining band member of The Forest Quartet. In the first act, the pianist is in focus which is why the music is quite piano oriented. The 2nd act is about the bass and the 3rd the drums. Other than that, I tried to do as much as I could to make the soundscape support either the feeling of depression, anxiety, or anger.

Players interact with the world's puzzles through singing. What do you feel this added to their connection with the work and its themes? How did it make for compelling puzzle-solving?

I think the singing feature helps the player to connect with Nina (the player character) and players seem to like the idea of singing to create positive change in the game. It also makes sense to be able to sing since you’re playing a singer, of course.

The singing mechanic was actually a real pain to develop. I loved the idea of being able to sing and I designed a very complex voice mechanic/instrument. It all sounded fun in theory, but was a game designer's nightmare and I wasted many months coming up with bad prototypes for this mechanic. Once I reduced it down to just being a "force power" rather than a swiss army knife of abilities, it made sense to have it in the game.

There are no written explanations in the game. Why did you choose to only convey things through visuals and music?

I think there is an elegance in keeping written explanations to a minimum. If you tell the audience too much, there is no space for interpretation. If you write; "this is a machine that helps remove Kirk’s depression," you take away all mystery from the game.

What feelings are you hoping to evoke in the player about music with your game? What do you hope they take away from this work?

We did a pre-release concert in a forest in Denmark last summer and I would love to do more of these concerts. So, I guess I hope that people will wanna hear more jazz and particularly more of The Forest Quartet so we can do more forest concerts around the world!

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