The First Tree (2017)
Developer: David Wehle
I've been a little limited lately in my time to play indie games so you'll notice I've mostly been playing fairly short games. I'm moving to a different apartment soon so that's sort of the busy thing in my life right now, but playing this short game was a nice reprieve from the stress of all that. The First Tree is an atmospheric adventure game where you play a fox searching for her cubs while simultaneously learning the story of a man and his estranged father. The First Tree successfully immerses you by making you a part of its emotional and resonant story, but some of this immersion is lost in limiting gameplay that feels a little clunky.
The First Tree right away sets you up in the story and world through the narration of the main character, Joseph. Joseph is telling his partner about the strange dream he had where he was a running the woods as a fox - a dream that you are actually playing through. As a fox, you can jump, run, and explore through the beautiful and desolate forest. Early on you encounter a fallen cub fox, and realize that the mother fox is looking for her remaining children. Throughout this search, you encounter strange out-of-place mementos of Joseph's life scattered in the forest, such as coloring pencils or a soccer ball. Joseph tells the story of his childhood and how his complicated relationship with his dad developed early on. I think the mesh of Joseph's story with the fox's journey works fairly well, but I think the meshing went a little too far when Joseph's partner also started sharing about her childhood. I understand that's something you would do when a loved one is struggling, but interrupting to switch over and then switch back to Joseph's felt a little unnecessary and I was a little confused about how it was meant to tie in with the overall theme.
The First Tree's art style makes the natural environments look quite realistic at times, despite the fairly simple approach. It exhibits dynamic faraway landscapes without showing detail in an up-close format. The environments feel like a real forest somewhere, and it makes it really freeing to run wildly as a fox. Some of the objects in the world looked a little strange, not because they were human possessions out in the forest, but because they looked proportionally odd compared to you. The music is equally soothing and atmospheric, and at the end a really beautiful lyrical track tied it all together. The almost-full soundtrack can be found on Bandcamp, except the lyrical track "You Are a Memory" separately here since it was made by another artist.
One confusing about this game is the proportions... is this fox just really tiny??
The First Tree's description on steam says it is "not a fox simulator", which like... it is. That's not a bad thing at all, though. I personally really like games where you get to play as an animal, and I've realized I enjoy ones where you run through an environment more than ones where you swim or fly. During your journey, there are shiny little star "things" that you collect as a fox. I'm sure you could collect them all and get an achievement, but for me they served as good ways to know which way you're supposed to go. The world is fairly large and sometimes looks the same, so I tried to stick to following those shimmery signals. I do wish you could run a little bit faster as sometimes these distances take a while to cover, especially if you went the wrong way. Also, it's often unclear what you can and can't scale and you'll run into invisible walls or get stuck while jumping if you happen to accidentally go that way. There's a double jump ability but if you miss an arbitrary short window after your first jump, it's too late to make a double jump so you'll fall instead. This made the collection of shiny stars a little troublesome, so I mostly just got the ones in my path. For the most part, the gameplay didn't impede the story progression. The only time I felt that it did was in a part near the end when the fox could only walk, very slowly, towards a tree. The slow movement totally makes sense as part of what's happening in the story, but instead of just moving forward (as I did) you're expected to go around in a weird direction to get to your destination. It took me a long time of turning around and figuring out where to go, at a super slow pace, which completely took me out of what was supposed to be an impactful moment. The gameplay style also changed at the end (I won't explain due to spoilers) and I thought this part was not as well polished, since it was sort of visually dark and hard to interact with the world.
It's been a little while since a game made me cry quite like The First Tree did. The storytelling is excellent in that it makes you a part of its story, making the ending feel even more impactful. Most people have dealt with grief at some point in their lives and this game not only reminds us of that but helps you see the other side of that pain. It's a short game and I recommend it to any fans of emotional storytelling as well as peaceful walking (running) simulators. If you're a completionist, there's lots more to do in this game than I did but it might not be the smoothest experience.
Note: When I was almost done writing this review I stumbled on to the information that this game is very likely about and inspired by beliefs of the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormon Church). I am not Mormon myself and I really didn't notice this during my playthrough, but if anyone is not comfortable with the religious undertones and/or symbols from the Mormon church I would probably avoid this game.
The First Tree is available on PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Google Play, and Apple Store
Played on: PC
Playtime: 2.5 hrs