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The First Tree Offers A Beautiful, Pensive Break From Everyday Life

Illustration for article titled iThe First Tree/i Offers A Beautiful, Pensive Break From Everyday Lifeem/em

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.

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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.

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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.

Former Senior Writer and Critic at Kotaku.

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DISCUSSION

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Inverse Falcon

Got it, played it, regretted it. I would advise saving money for a different walking simulator, but that also depends upon what you’re looking for in this game. I didn’t find what I wanted, but others may feel differently.

The dialog is...fine. I’ve heard better voice acting, but I’ve also heard worse. The clip in the article is the quality to expect throughout the rest. The writing’s decent for the dialog, and if you’re looking for a game which does some exploration of reminiscence and regret and loss with respect to a parent, then this may have a great deal of impact for you.

The other layer of the story, dealing with the fox, is rather generic. You get the frame of it, and little detail at all, and while that feels completely intentional, it wasn’t what I was personally looking for. Don’t expect Okami or Ori and the Blind Forest on this one. You will only get a hair more than what you already get from watching the clip in the article. That’s not an exaggeration. You get nothing of the fox’s backstory, no information about the cubs (except one’s female), and what little else has the weight of a dream: no real explanation, no real action taken, just moving forward.

The music was well done. Not amazing, but well composed, suited to the scenes, and did the most to evoke the emotions the creators wanted you to feel. Walking simulators usually need something evocative to give their game punch. Honestly this was probably the strongest part of the game.

The graphics are sub-par. The trees and shrubbery are about the quality of what you might expect out of an older golfing game. The skyboxes and the night scene were pretty, but that’s about the best I can say. Dear Esther feels like it has over 10x the atmosphere and graphics as this one.

The gameplay is...tedious. Not fun. Running around too-large areas collecting shining motes, or digging up a new audio clip. Bits and pieces of things from memories that are clearly out of place in nature. I’m not even sure what those motes are for, perhaps there’s something that gets unlocked, but you do not unlock any powers or in-game things. From the start of the game you can run, and at one part of the game you can buff your jump by running into some butterflies, but that’s the extent of what you will be able to do. Do not consider this a platformer, or even an exploration game, what little it has of each isn’t enough to really merit that categorization, and those aspects of this game are not enjoyable.

This is a walking simulator. Without the music, the enjoyability plummets, it has no game play value. If you like running through poorly-textured terrain with contemplative music you may get something out of this, especially if the details provided about the dialog sound interesting or relevant for what you might be feeling or going through at this point in your life.

If this is the creator’s first game, then kudos, it’s a start to get something out there, and to realize a story and project an emotional experience, but it would definitely help to shore up some of the weaker aspects next time to make this feel less like a chore, and to provide a bit more of a gameplay experience and visuals to meet the music and the desired impact.

For a (rather unfair) comparison, take Journey. Journey nailed the atmosphere, the music, had simple enjoyable gameplay with jumping, gliding, discovering things, and interacting with the various cloth-creatures and monsters, provided a mysterious and beautiful story through the murals and visions, and had an amazing soundtrack to provide some potent emotional punches to leave you with touching and possibly cathartic experience, wrapping up in that lovely fade to white and reflective backtracking with a beautiful soundtrack to tie up that experience with a bow. And I’m not even touching on what interaction with a random companion can do to enhance that experience. In contrast, The First Tree provided none of the fun, about 1/3 of the contemplation and music quality, maybe 1/5 of the atmosphere and overall experience. Definitely not bad for a first game. But not worth $10, not something I would consider replaying (I deleted it as soon as I finished), and not exactly a strong contender within its category.

Definitely a cool game title, though, and I do have to nod at the tie in between the two First Tree references.