Dreams are funny old things. Often they are absurd, incoherent images. Other times a jumbled assortment of the days thoughts, scrambled together by a weary brain attempting to digest it all. Or it’s me and my damn teeth crumbling to dust. Again. For better or worse, dreams have a way of sticking with you.
The First Tree, written, directed, and developed by David Wehle, takes you through a significantly less stressful dreamscape, guided by, in this instance, a fox. In this third-person tale, we take our vixen through five different seasonal lands on an introspective journey towards the First Tree and reunite with her three lost cubs after waking up to find them all missing. This is accompanied by Joseph, the narrator and second driving narrative of the game, talking at length with another character, Rachel, as he looks to reconnect with his father in Alaska.
As the game began, I found myself, in fox form, alone on a snowy mountain. The First Tree briefly displayed its controls, which were not much more than movement and jumping, before leaving me to my own devices. I moved forward and surveyed the area, taking a few moments to really drink in the blue and purple hues cast over the winter horizon. It would be a disservice not to talk about the visuals because The First Tree is, frankly, gorgeous to look at. Spread across five levels and an epilogue, each new land was a treat although the first time I entered a new level, going from snow-covered inclines to a more summery forest was a bit jarring when I was trotting about and then suddenly hit with a loading screen. Every level did suffer from environmental clipping issues, but thankfully these aren’t bad enough to take you out of the world, nor to be distracted from the wonderful colours that filled every scene.
Initially, The First Tree does guide you toward collecting shards of light, implying that these will help you towards the titular First Tree. However, this is a quickly discarded aspect of the game as, other than trophies, there is really no incentive to collecting the light shards at all. I must have gathered roughly 130 by the time the game ended and it has zero impact on the outcome of the story. The collector in you may wish to explore the lands you encounter but, again, I couldn’t really find much worth in doing so other than for light shards, which soon became a tiresome exercise.
Outside of these shards, though, are varying items such as radios, pictures and cards dotted across these levels. More than anything, they are to tie-in with the dreamy aspect of The First Tree, often relating to a part of Joseph’s recounting of his and his father’s time spent together. Along with this are certain areas telegraphed by white beams that the fox can dig up, quite literally acting as a visual metaphor of Joseph digging up the past as well as a story prompt for further dialogue.
The story told by David Wehle is a sombre one: heartfelt, personal and melancholy and, much to its credit, I did find myself engaged for its majority. This is thanks to the voice acting by David and Elise Wehle, although I do wish the writing had some lighter moments and was tighter in areas (one memory told of a moment when Joseph had an argument with his father and threw a cassette tape out the car window, with Rachel remarking how crazy he was making me snigger, albeit unintentionally). I’d also be remiss to not mention the score by Josh Kramer, which is both enchanting and beautiful, only complementing the lush environments.
The First Tree does have platforming, although these are really more of a distraction to the main plot and very much few and far between. If anything, I think the game would feel less clunky had these been removed altogether. Along with this, you are given pretty much free reign to explore as you see fit although you will ultimately have to end up at the same end point to move to the next environment. You are never instructed on what it is you need to do to progress and I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed that my exploration across each and every map was never rewarded.
As I moved between levels and the end was in sight, I’ll be honest in saying I was waiting on when the game would wrap up. And then the ending happened.
I don’t want to say too much for fear of spoilers, but the ending of the fox’s story was possibly one of the biggest gut-punches I’ve ever experienced in gaming. I found myself sitting up, jaw-dropped and heart sinking. I’d become more attached to the fox that I had ever truly realised and, with what followed in the epilogue, is perhaps the most touching, connected and personal conclusion I have seen. It’s one I know will stay with me for a long time to come.
It’s difficult to review The First Tree as a game, because, well, I don’t really know that it is. It’s a mood piece. It’s reflective, meditative, relaxing. It’s a journey, a tale of life and death, a message about the impact of our time spent on earth and the memories we leave behind.
The First Tree was mostly created by one person, which is why some of its faults are so evident. It's a very short game with a few impactful moments, but a deep story and pretty scenery isn't enough to mask what is often a clunky experience with no incentive to explore what else is on offer.