Navigate a spritely fox on its path to discover purpose in troubling times in narrative exploration game, The First Tree.
The First Tree, by David Wehle, is an open world game where you play as a fox, exploring and discovering things about the world and about yourself. A narrator, Joseph, tells how the fox represented in the game is reminiscent of a dream he had, and he laments such while describing interactions with his late father. The fox is looking for her missing cubs and that’s about all of the preface offered. You are not given a direct purpose or direction, but then, perhaps — just as in life — you are not always told where to go.I would best describe the game as a walking simulator, despite the fact that the fox spends most of its time running around the landscapes — due mostly to the large size of the environments. You can jump and double-jump to help you maneuver over rocks or higher terrain, but everything else in the game is done through the interaction button; From digging up relics of Joseph’s past to activating magical tree trunks. Scattered about the environment are points of light, that you can collect, which give a slight indication of the direction to follow to continue the story, but from what I could tell, there was no requirement to collect them. Furthermore, beams of light, which can be seen from afar, indicate points of interest where you can dig to uncover items related to the story, which will be told to you as you continue to roam the wilderness. It’s all a very open take on an exploratory game, and thankfully the story is strong enough to carry it through.
The primary focus of the game is loss, be it through the visual representation of the fox stumbling upon the death of her cubs at the hands (paws) of a black wolf, or through the descriptions of Joseph’s interaction with his father through the years of his life. You can tell he feels like he had a lot of regrets, be it through teenage antics just to spite his father, or scoffing at the suggestion to take up the same profession as his dad. He is technically discussing with his wife Rachel about the scenarios he remembers, as she often chimes in, offering words of encouragement, but the whole scenario plays out simply through their voices over the action of what the player chooses to direct the fox to do. It’s somewhat surreal, as it actually helps you both take in what is being discussed subconsciously, and tie it to the gameplay.
There are real world objects, such as a cop car (acting to represent a story involving a mischievous joy-ride with friends) and the various trucks that are referenced in the story that his father owned, that really add to the surrealism — further showcasing the dreamlike aspect of it all. It’s obviously a personal journey, and as you ‘uncover’ objects as if you were recollecting memories, it brings upon a striking symbolism that is powerful in its own way. Joseph’s somber tone throughout the game really brings truth to the reality of losing a loved one, especially when you are retreading all the things in life that you feel that you could have done better. Thankfully, Rachel’s relatively positive and reassuring tone brings a duality to the matter, and — given the subject — I feel really helps the story’s overall message.
Large woodland environments, covered in snow in one scene, and brought to life with flowers and fresh Spring grass the next, really help to showcase beauty in a time of despair. The massive environments do have a lot of empty space in them, which makes traversing through them a bit of a chore at times. But as a whole picture, they serve their purpose to show off what I would assume is a similar area to where Joseph lived. The First Tree‘s fox has some animation problems in regards to how she moves, but perhaps that should get a pass considering the fact that it is, after all, simply a dream. Notably, the orchestrated music in the game is the absolute strongest feature of emotion and beauty. I found myself lost in The First Tree’s emotionally uplifting melodies more than once and it really helps carry the gameplay when there is nothing between you and the next glowing item point.
The First Tree does well as an art game delivering its intended message, through the beautiful music and emotionally-charged narration. The art and animations are a little bit rough around the edges, but I felt that the story itself carried the game through these flaws. The game wraps up in about two hours and I feel that if it were any longer, it would overstay its welcome. It’s a great story for someone who has experienced a loved one’s loss or perhaps someone looking for a beautiful game that celebrates what it means to truly be alive.