The First Tree Review

December 12, 2018
Xbox One
Also on: PC, PS4, Switch
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Judging the depth of emotional content within a creative work of art is very much in the eye of the beholder. Of course, a good storyteller will be aware of this and weave their magic with either an all-encompassing blanket so as to appeal to a wider audience, or with laser focus on a solitary emotional point so as to utterly overwhelm a specific crowd. A brilliant storyteller will do both — and The First Tree does so with absolute mastery.

The scenery itself tells a story as you play through.

Created, and narrated in majority, by David Wehle (who confidently put his name on the start menu of the game — nowhere to hide, now!), it’s difficult to go into detail exactly why The First Tree is perfect without delving into spoiler territory (for which I would be rightfully shot). It would be fair to say that this feels less like a video game in the traditional sense and more like an interactive story-framing device. There are two stories being told simultaneously, one visual and one audio, and they are seamlessly interwoven. Both stories deal with the feeling of loss, regret, understanding and acceptance with an alarming clarity that resonated far too close to the bone for me. I doubt that’s a coincidence, however, as the narrative is so soulfully spoken it is bound to resonate just as loudly for many other players.

The dreamscape artstyle works wholly in the narrative’s favour.

In terms of gameplay and mechanics, they are functional and unobtrusive, aptly befitting the simplicity of the game. Playing as a vixen through the mountains and wilds of Alaska (I presume, as it's never directly mentioned — narratively that would make sense at least), you encounter mild platforming puzzles and thorough exploration in sandbox levels to further the narratives of both yourself and the narrator. There is nothing particularly taxing here, with there being a certain logic to your progression through the large levels and light tokens that serve as both a waypoint should you become lost and a simple collectable for you to scour the game for.

A dream sequence within a dream sequence. So, Inception?

To borrow from an old cliche; the beauty is in the journey not the destination, and it is here that The First Tree absolutely shines. The graphics are heavily stylised, leaning into the dream state that the narrative is set within. The colour palette pops with pure whites, clean blues and shimmering greens. Even in gloomier sections, the colours seem to ooze with sorrow — there is an attention to detail here that screams passion from Wehle.

The timing of music, narrative and visual cues is absolutely flawless.

That passion continues with the near flawless timing of orchestral swells and gentle piano. At no point did the narrative or score feel at odds with one another, nor battling for a place within the mix. After taking note of the music early on, I donned my headphones to get a true sense of depth within the score and was instantly greeted by further details in the environmental soundscape. The sounds of birds, gentle breezes and crashing waterfalls overwhelmed the gentle footfalls of the vixen trudging through mud, grass or snow. Everything works harmoniously to further the story by rising at hard and bitter moments or emptying out completely when clarity is required.

The First Tree makes as much use of silence as it does anything else.

Art is subjective. One person's trash is another person's treasure — and I fully appreciate that there are those that may read this, play it through and then scoff at this glowing review. This game is out there, fully occupying the left-field in terms of what is expected of a playable experience. But much like another favoured title of mine, Oxenfree, The First Tree challenges those preconceptions and is all the better for it. I wish I could discuss a particular decision that is given to the player that will no doubt be subject of much discussion everywhere (I’ve already checked, and it is), but I honestly found it to be one of the most truly inspired heart-wrenching decisions to make in a game, especially given how open ended it is. I look forward to seeing it play out in the wider gaming community.

I cannot stress enough that this game punched me right in the heart and the ending left me a mess of tears and remorse. That a game can elicit such a visceral emotional response speaks volumes to its content. I’ve heard and watched countless stories and films detailing loss, regret and pain — but The First Tree speaks with a soulful authenticity that clutches you and urges you to not only listen, but truly empathise with what you are experiencing.

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An incredible passion project eschewing video game norms and wearing its heart proudly on its sleeve, The First Tree is a masterfully executed work of art and storytelling showcasing the harsh realities of life even in the face of beautiful surroundings.
Daniel Garrod

You can usually find me scrabbling in the low Golds of Competitive Overwatch (the fact that I'm a Roadhog main this season is a coincidence), or shouting to any poor soul within earshot how amazing Dungeons & Dragons is (it is).