The First Tree is an exploration game about learning who you are. You take control of a fox in a colorful frosted forest. As the fox searches for her children, another story plays out, recounted by an unseen male narrator, that focuses on family relationships and regrets. Those thoughts come paired with intoxicating sights and powerful quiet. I have never wanted to sink into a game world quite like this before.
The First Tree—which is available on Nintendo Switch, PC, Xbox One, and Playstation 4—plays like a typical exploration game, with an expansive and gorgeous world to explore, accompanied by a pensive narrative. The massive forest landscape is full of frosted peaks and reflected sunlight. The game also has a wonderful grasp of color. This has been a year of fantastic use of color in games, from AAA titles like Red Dead Redemption 2 and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey to indie games like Celeste and Wandersong. The First Tree is as vivid and wonderful to look at as these games. In some moments, it surpasses them. I’d play this game to explore that space alone.
From time to time, you’ll stumble upon wooden toys. Inspecting these will prompt the narrator—a man recounting a vivid dream to his partner—to talk more about his woodworker father. That may sound maudlin, and the presentation can be precious, but ultimately the stories feel real. There are relatable anecdotes here, like the one about bringing a toy in for show-and-tell only to lie about how much it means after another kid makes fun of it, and getting lost in making a drawing of what you think adult life will look like.
The First Tree’s two parallel stories are well-presented in both visual design and writing. Sometimes, exploration games feel basic. The First Tree kept me intrigued. I wanted to see more of its world and learn more about this man’s relationship to his father.
Of course, there are video game-y aspects to it as well. Your fox has a springy double jump and there are items and orbs to collect. Controls can be stiff, but it’s still fun to explore every nook and cranny for hidden items. Moving forward in games just feels good, and I always felt compelled to press further into The First Tree’s world.
As I played The First Tree, I fell into a pensive trance. I think it made me feel sad, but it’s hard to say. What I do know is that I felt a genuine longing for… something: for the quiet of those forests, for the clarity of mind that the narrator seemed to have. I love exciting games like Hitman 2 and Battlefield V, but I get the sense that they’re not what I need right now. Maybe what I need is a game where I can do something as be a fox and just run far away from everything else.
Games are about journeys. Your character follows their path—goomba-filled kingdoms, dangerous military bases, the vast open world of Ancient Greece—and they grow. Sometimes that means getting better stats or gear. Sometimes it’s more personal. But games are journeys for players as well. As I played The First Tree, it became clear that there were three stories: the story of a mother fox searching for her lost children, the story of a son trying to connect to his father, and my own story. And as I crossed over each new hill, everyone was getting closer to what they were looking for. Even if I’m not quite sure what I’m looking for.