You are a mother fox who awakes to find that your three babies have disappeared. As you set off through the vast wilderness to find them, a voice begins to speak. It’s the voice of a man named Joseph. At first he talks about your journey, but then the focus switches to his own story. As the player, you realize you are not really a fox—you’re a part of Joseph’s dream. The First Tree focuses on the narratives of the fox, who is searching for her lost children, and Joseph, who is struggling with the loss of his father.
You play as the fox for the majority of the game. The fox decides that she will go to the First Tree, an ancient sentient tree, for answers. Along the way, she comes across artifacts from Joseph’s life: dilapidated cars, torn-up posters, old CDs. Some of these items the fox must dig up, while others seem to be a part of the environment. Each time you dig up an artifact, Joseph talks about an experience he had with his father. Occasionally, the voice of Rachel, his partner, asks him questions to drive the story along or comforts him when he becomes emotional.
Unfortunately, what could be a powerful story-driven narrative is marred by unnecessarily complicated platforming, ill-fitting dialogue, and jarring pacing. When you start off the game in the frozen tundra, the gameplay is smooth and easy to understand. It tells you to collect the sparks of light, which will guide your way to the First Tree. This went breezily, and I felt relaxed. I went along and dug up artifacts, travelled across the landscape, and was emotionally touched by the conversations Joseph had with Rachel.
But at a certain point, the landscape suddenly transforms. You’re no longer in winter, but spring, and somehow, even though an entire season has passed, you are still looking for your babies. Not only that, but finding your way through the level becomes more complicated. The sparks of light become less helpful in terms of showing you which way to go. Instead, you’ll find them randomly scattered across the map, sometimes in corners or hard-to-reach places. The sparks just become items for you to collect in order to unlock Steam achievements. You can get an achievement for getting 50 of the sparks, as I did, and also 100.
The level’s new complications, like tricky platforming, reveal the wonkiness of the game’s controls. At one section with a waterfall, I simply could not jump over the ledge to get to the next area. I tried using all the purple butterflies, which give you a jump boost, and even then I couldn’t even reach the top part of the ledge. I tried to jump up this ledge for almost 30 minutes before looking up a guide, which showed me that I was supposed to make my way to the top in the most convoluted, complicated way possible. Although I was eventually able to progress through the story, the complicated navigation frustrated me to no end.
Multiple times through the rest of the game it was hard to know where to go or what to do. I often somehow bypassed certain key areas and found myself at the edges of the map. By the time I finished the game, the only emotion I felt was relief. The developer said on the game’s site that “a playthrough where you explore leisurely takes about 2 hours.” Mine took four, and I was trying to get to the end as quickly as possible.
Joseph and Rachel’s dialogue frequently made me cringe. They occasionally refer to each other awkwardly as “my love.” When Joseph describes his teenage years, there’s nothing especially remarkable or unique about them. Yes, he did rebellious things when he was a teenager. He threw his father’s cassette tape out the window while he screamed profanities, and he took an old truck out for a joyride with his friends. I think that even if most people haven’t spent their teen years rebelling or brooding in their own angst, they at least have done things they regret. But Rachel is in shock—speechless at first.
“Wow,” she says. “I never knew you were a crazy teenager.”
My eyes rolled.
While the story’s content is heavy, focused on death, loss, and regret, Rachel and Joseph scarcely laugh or try to cheer each other up. Every story that Joseph recounts is depressing. Meanwhile you guide the fox through a heartbreaking search to find their children. The game turns into one brutal moment after another, conveying not that pain is a part of life, but that life sucks, everything is pointless, and then you die. The First Tree lacks a balanced look at the realities of life, seeming to be more of a depressing, slow slog rather an in-depth look at loss.
The First Tree was largely made by one person, which can somewhat explain why parts of the game lack polish. Looking at the Steam reviews, many players have said it was “sweet” or that the game positively impacted them in some way. But the frustrating navigation combined with the clunky writing had me experiencing frustration more than anything else.
You can get The First Tree on Steam now.