The Forest Quartet review – joyous jazz in a surreal forest of memory

PC, PlayStation; Mads & Friends/Bedtime Digital Games
Three musicians pick up the emotional and practical pieces after their singer dies in this comforting and warm game of fiendish headscratchers with a phenomenal soundtrack

Grief is strange and unpredictable. While countless songs depict the devastation of loss, what they don’t prepare you for is the harrowing numbness – or simply feeling nothing at all. When you’re conditioned to think death should elicit an outpouring of emotion, it’s hard not to feel guilty for its absence, as if you are not grieving correctly – which is why it’s comforting to play a game such as The Forest Quartet.

In this Danish-developed indie, director Mads Vadsholt depicts three mourning jazz musicians coping with bereavement in different ways. The untimely death of their singer, Nina, leaves the forest-dwelling quartet suddenly reduced to a trio – and completely at a loss. Thankfully for them, their singer isn’t done with hogging the spotlight just yet.

A scene from The Forest Quartet.
Not done with hogging the spotlight … a scene from The Forest Quartet. Photograph: Mads & Friends/Bedtime Digital Games

In this musical meditation on grief, you float across a misty, dream-like forest as Nina’s spirit, peering in on each grieving band member’s cabin like the ghost of Jazzmas past. It’s up to your ethereal self to solve puzzles that ease your friends’ heartache and get them back on stage, one more time. You use otherworldly powers to gently nudge blocks and floating orbs into their rightful places, each object moving with a gentle warble that sounds like a drunken theremin. It’s all enjoyably surreal; each head-scratcher feels unique, with spheres and blocks reacting to your ghostly presence with pleasingly expressive animations.

Perhaps predictably, The Forest Quartet has a phenomenal soundtrack. From theremins to didgeridoos, it is abuzz with strange sonic hums. While solving key puzzles rewards you with an explosion of joyous jazz – courtesy of the Danish Radio Big Band – the aural backdrop of the forest feels half-formed, disparate notes struggling to find their place in a world that no longer makes sense. It’s a wonderfully apt musical ode to the confusing aftermath of death.

Everything in the permanently dark forest has an ethereal, otherworldly quality, depicted in a gorgeous, painterly art style. Rocks pulse rhythmically; obscured trees wheeze with strained breaths. It’s a striking, hallucinogenic setting for its musician protagonists to find inspiration.

Musician slumps in a chair in The Forest Quartet.
Enduring loss … The Forest Quartet. Photograph: Mads & Friends/Bedtime Digital Games

The individual anguish of each bandmate is depicted sensitively. They’ve shut themselves away from the world in their cabins, and it’s Nina’s job to inspire them to pick up the phone and reconnect. Each musician’s grief manifests itself in different woodland areas: pianist Kirk’s grief is subtle, his emotional numbness portrayed as a creeping fungus that interrupts a walk on a gloomy night. Cellist JB’s grief, however, is more deadly, a barely lit abyss in which his despair writhes to the surface in the form of unrelenting panic attacks, depicted as faceless demons banging against the front of his house. As you come to the drummer – the man who hits things for a living – his agony becomes an uncontrollable rage, manifesting as a forest aflame.

I was consistently surprised by how varied the puzzles and their respective environments were through this two-hour tale. Despite its seemingly heavy subject matter, every interaction somehow feels playful and intuitive, the forest gently beckoning you to experiment with its beeping, warbling blocks and spheres until the world slowly dances to your tune.

As you ease each musician’s mind, you trigger podcast-like chats between the quartet, offering up conversational insights into their mental health, delivered with the warmth that courses through this game. With a score composed by the game director’s father and Nina’s voice provided by his sister, this creation is a personal, family affair, and it shows.

The Forest Quartet left me feeling hopeful about the future. It’s a story about the resilience of the human spirit, the healing power of music and the profound, unshakeable impact that art can have on the world.

• The Forest Quartet is out now; £8.50

Tom Regan

The GuardianTramp

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