As smaller developers and studios garner attention, smaller games with visions just as grand, quiet games with a strong focus on the emotional undercurrent in their stories, have become mainstream. The First Tree, developed by David Wehle, is one such game. Unfortunately, while it is by no means a bad game, it suffers from a few snags that prevent it from being the great game it could be.
The First Tree follows the dream of Joseph, wherein a fox mother’s trek across the Alaskan wilderness in search of her missing cubs. The fox mother journeys to The First Tree, progenitor of all that is living, who can answer to where her children have gone. The narrative’s structure and substance is found in a discussion about his dream with his significant other, Rachel. Interwoven are anecdotes about Joseph’s relationship with his father, found by digging up from the frozen ground pieces of his memories, marked by tall, white towers of glowing light that function as waypoints.
In many ways, the story portrayed in The First Tree is an old one. Even beyond the ancient nature of its creation mythos, it relies heavily on tropes for dramatic effect, and the story doesn’t take the medium to any new heights. The tale of a son reconciling with his father is as old as the tradition of story-telling. However, the line-to-line writing fantastic, with plenty of concrete detailing and emotionally-charged descriptions that elevate the story above a simple re-trod of tired ideas. Wehle demonstrates finesse with his treatment of the subject matter, and seems to understand that these stories happen for all of us. The game even dedicates an important scene to Rachel’s tale of familial woe, and it’s one of the most compelling scenes in the whole game. The First Tree doesn’t tell a categorically “new” story, but it tells a well-told story, and ultimately the latter is the right kind for the game.
The only thing that kept me from being entirely drawn in was the game’s hit-or-miss voice acting. Most of the time, I really felt invested in the characters. They felt completely alive. Then, there’d be moments where it sounded awkward, like actors reading a line, and I‘d be drawn right back out again. Luckily, the rest of the game was enough to keep me invested whenever the acting was lacking. I’m glad I stuck with it.
Due to the nature of these games, there is some walking involved. A lot of walking. Possibly too much, and often I found myself wishing the level map were a little bit smaller in certain sections. Add to that the openness of the game and the oft-obscured waypoints, and it can become a little difficult to navigate. Players could easily miss crucial story pieces due to an inability to locate that last waypoint. A large portion of the game’s runtime becomes the distance between locations and the wandering it takes to go between them, leading to a slow game that feels a tad drawn out.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say The First Tree takes the most inspiration from Journey. In Journey, the vastness of the wide-open desert was utilized to great effect; with stellar moment to moment design, it was able to keep the player invested in following the “path” laid out before them. The only thing that separates the two games from a design standpoint is that while Journey felt like a wide-open game, it was actually fairly linear, and every point where the character was free to wander, there was no underutilized space. The First Tree, while featuring similarly solid design, has a lot of in-between space that doesn’t seem useful in any other way than to pad the run-time or enhance the visual capital. While it does both of those things, it doesn’t feel rewarding to wander through the forest with no clear goal in immediate sight. Finally, a small quibble: it’s incredibly easy to get stuck on a wall in one of the platforming areas of the game. A minor quibble, yes, but I found myself getting frustrated when I got stuck a tenth time on the same piece of wall and ending up walking myself off the platform.
It may be unfair to characterize the game in such a way, as The First Tree is, in most places, quite good with its design. It’s clear Wehle paid very close attention to the artistic style of the game. Each location is gorgeously rendered with a simplistic style a la Firewatch and a bright, pastel color palette, leading to some quite enrapturing scenes that were a pleasure to behold. To go along with the spectacular visual presentation, there comes a wonderfully arranged soundtrack, featuring the likes of Message to Bears, Lowercase Noises, and Josh Kramer. The glittering piano and towering strings create a powerful atmosphere that compliments the game’s narrative, though as of writing, the music does not loop, leaving one to long periods of silence in their trek through forests and fields. Silence can be useful and productive, but ten minutes of silence against nothing but the sound of crunching grass under a fox’s paws can be mind-numbing.
I appreciate that some of these issues are endemic to the one-person development team, and making games on one’s own is prone to difficulty. Considering that fact alone, The First Tree is an achievement that Mr. Wehle should be proud of. It’s a stunning game, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself playing it. I’m firmly of the opinion that there aren’t enough well-made games that grapple with emotions that are difficult to articulate, or subject that are difficult to talk about in the particular medium. Unfortunately, the game is also terrifyingly slow, and some elements of gameplay left a few things to be desired. Nonetheless I find myself enchanted with this game, and it would be a worthwhile purchase if you enjoyed Firewatch or Journey.