The First Tree Is a Heart-Wrenching Narrative Game About Loss, Dreams and Foxes

As much as I love frenetic action games or puzzles that put my wits to the test, lately I've been obsessed with video games that are all about the narrative.

I've loved games including Firewatch, What Remains of Edith Finch and Gone Home, which involve exploring a space and slowly piecing together the bigger story with what's discovered. One of the latest to hit the console scene is The First Tree, created by one-man development team David Wehle.

From the first frames of the game's trailer, I knew it was something I'd love to play, and was thrilled when I was offered a review key of the game for the Nintendo Switch to experience it for myself.

The First Tree starts with a fox in the center of a snowy field between towering mountains, but I quickly discovered that the game wasn't really about the fox at all. As I made the little critter take its first steps, a conversation between a couple—Joseph and Rachel—began to play over the nature scene. I quickly discovered that I was essentially playing the dream Joseph just woke from, about a fox in the wilderness searching for her lost cubs.

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(The First Tree via David Wehle)

More and more, the dream was revealed as I played through an ongoing conversation between the couple. The dream conjured up memories of Joseph's complicated, and often troubled, relationship with his own father, and as I continued the fox's adventure, both parallel stories unfurled at once though his voiceovers. Though they appeared quite different on the surface, both narratives were intertwined around the same powerful themes. When I led the fox toward something on the ground—one of her cubs unmoving in the snow—I knew I was in for a pretty harrowing tale between Joseph and his dad.

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(The First Tree via David Wehle)

The first area of the game was the most open by far, allowing me to wander around a gorgeous snow-covered mountainside. The landscape made me want to explore everything and see how my actions would impact the storyline, if at all. When I stumbled across bunny running around in the frost, I had to stop and chase it to see if I might be able to catch it. Often, a glint of light in the distance would catch my eye. When I walked over to it, I would find twinkling collectible stars, or a beacon marking something the fox could dig up. In essence, this moment would signify an unearthing of another part of Joseph's past, and trigger another voiceover about his difficult history.

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(The First Tree via David Wehle)

This is really the core of the game, I think that a player's enjoyment of the game will depend fully upon how deeply they're able to connect to tragic Joseph's tale. It's fully voice acted by creator David Wehle and his wife, artist Elise Wehle, and it's heavy on dramatic and sometimes bleak memories. While the story really worked for me, I imagine that others might grow weary of it, depending on their tastes. I recommend turning on the subtitles as you play, because there's a lot to take in.

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(The First Tree via David Wehle)

And just as I started to wonder if the entire game would take part within the first massive, snowy expanse, the screen suddenly faded to black, and I found myself in the center of a lush green forest. There are actually five different areas within the game (if you don't also include the epilogue), and each one has its own unique ecosystem with slightly different gameplay. Each cel-shaded nature scene reminded me of my favorite landscapes from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and brought something a little different to the table. One starry level was particularly gorgeous.

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(The First Tree via David Wehle)

But as much as I loved the game, it wasn't exactly perfect. Sometimes, my creative exploration of the world would result in me finding memories out of sequence, which could cause important segments of the story to be played out of order. I'd had to go back and find the previous voice clip to piece things together—or could miss elements of the story altogether.

The gameplay can also be a bit uneven at times. The snow area was very open-ended and all about exploration, where the last three felt more guided. I preferred those levels to the second area's sometimes tricky platforming. One section had me running around to collect butterflies that endowed me with a sky-high jump. However, as many times as I tried to scale the wall they were meant to get me over, I couldn't quite time the jump correctly, and it would take me another couple minutes to gather the butterflies again and return to the wall for another attempt. Eventually, I got over it by taking advantage of a nearby mountain for a little extra height, though I don't think this was intended at all. However, this type of gameplay didn't crop up again for the rest of the game.

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(The First Tree via David Wehle)

Even then, I thought the areas were well-crafted and did a marvelous job at constantly guiding me in the right direction. Even when I couldn't spot the next beacon that would allow me to drive forward, the level design subtly pushed me where I needed to go next, allowing my journey to continue.

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(The First Tree via David Wehle)

There's a bit of mystery to The First Tree, but it feels intentional and adds to the overall atmosphere of the game. For the longest time, I was sure why I was collecting white stars in every level, but as the game came to a close and it was finally revealed to me, I found their purpose to be incredibly poignant—but I wouldn't dare to spoil it here.

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(The First Tree via David Wehle)

The First Tree has its little flaws, which is to be expected from a game developed by a single person. In the end, they don't diminish the strength of the story, or the awe-inspiring journey that creates it. Still, if you're not in the mood for something sad, you might not want to dive in yet. It's brief, but beautiful and emotionally resonant, with an ending that will break your heart before it inspires and uplifts you once again. The game's theme is stated most succinctly when Joseph quotes Haruki Murakami by saying that "Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it." It's a tough message to take it, but the game concept the idea with skill.

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(The First Tree via David Wehle)

The First Tree is out now on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and is also available on Steam, for $9.99.

 

Need more recs for your game library? Click HERE for a list of the 10 games I played obsessively in 2018.