Of the more experimental games to come out of the independent scene in recent years, many have a distinctly dream-like quality. Think big, empty environments rendered in striking colours, with horizons which seem to stretch into infinity. The otherworldly places in games like Journey, Proteus, Rain, House, Eternity and Eidolon have the feeling of expressionist paintings that you can visit, and you often awaken in these worlds with little idea of how you got there or what it is you’re there to do. Curiosity takes hold, and you find yourself drifting through these places as a dreamer might, exploring and observing slowly and thoughtfully, taking meaning where you can.
The First Tree, the latest project from designer David Wehle, cleverly capitalises on this effect by positioning its similarly oneiric action as a dream recounted by the narrator to their partner while they lay awake in bed. In the dream, the narrator sees a fox on a snowy mountainside. Before her is her motionless child, one of three, slain by an unseen beast. The player takes control of the fox, running and jumping through a series of scenic environments in search of her missing cubs, encountering odd, out-of-place objects like televisions, buried buildings and even a school bus along the way. These objects pertain to memories shared by the narrator, Joseph, and in an associative way help to tell the story of his growing up and of his prickly relationship with his father. Hideouts made from bits of rubbish nod to an imaginative if fairly secluded childhood, while a skull-adorned notebook corroborates anecdotes from a rebellious adolescence.
This aspect of The First Tree shares a lot in common with Wehle’s first game, Home Is Where One Starts…, which also examined a troubled father-child relationship through narrated memoirs and meaningfully arranged bric-a-brac. Indeed, a number of assets from that debut effort reappear here in an explicit act of homage, and it’s heavily implied that Joseph’s partner, Rachel, is in fact the protagonist from that first game.
But where Home Is Where One Starts… dealt with memory as it relates to space, and considered how a specific place can shape the person you become, The First Tree’s concerns are more abstract, more spiritual and, by extension, more elusive. In juxtaposing the fox’s story with Joseph’s recollections about his father, the game gestures at the way in which we use imagination and metaphor to process significant events in our lives.
Specifically, The First Tree presents itself as a kind of parable, whereby the player comes to understand the fox’s journey as analogy for coming to terms with loss; a journey which concludes, the game suggests, in enlightenment. While the revelations it has to offer are vague and a tad sentimental, they’re so well delivered, and in such a heartfelt manner, that they feel profound. Time and again, Wehle punctuates the fox’s expedition with surprising set pieces that break from the regular flow and in some way reflect how Joseph might be feeling about a particular memory. Simple acts like running down a hill or jumping over an obstacle are imbued with deeper meaning and, as if by magic, the player comes to understand something about the psychology of someone in mourning by controlling a fox in a videogame.
Using its form and mechanics as expressive tools is what The First Tree does best. Where it struggles is the more mundane stuff. The First Tree is essentially a solo project, save some additional programming help from Porter Hoskins, and what it gains from having a single artistic vision, it lacks in polish. Moving the fox around never feels quite right. The animal feels rigid and brittle, less like a living thing than a fibreglass model puppeted from a distance with a long stick. The double jump in particular is a continual source of frustration. It’s loose and imprecise, yet it’s an ability the player is required to master in order to reach certain areas. Furthermore, the meat of the game’s environments are fairly plain. What Wehle does manage to achieve with scale and simple inclines alone is commendable, but the fact remains that much of the game is spent padding through similar stretches of non-descript trees and grass. As a result, downtime between moments of dialogue often feels like busy work, especially in the game’s first half. The scenery is at least pretty to look at in its stylised, colour co-ordinated way, but it doesn’t quite compete with the similar aesthetics of Firewatch or Journey (which is only to be expected – both were multi-person projects with dedicated art staff).
There are plenty of less interesting games that feel better or are more “fun” than The First Tree. Wehle’s game trumps them all, however, by being a unique, thoughtful and continually surprising experience that’s worth having. The First Tree gets a lot of mileage out of simple flourishes like changes in lighting or well-timed musical cues, but its pièce de résistance is a big, showstopper of a moment delivered just as things seem to be wrapping up that warrants seeing for its boldness alone. Whether or not you take anything concrete away from its musings on imagination and death’s role in life, The First Tree is a moving and worthwhile journey.
The First Tree was out and available to play of PC & Mac on 14th September.