It’s quite common these days for videogames to try and deliver some kind of message to their players through their visuals and themes. Usually, this message will be some grand, sweeping ideal about how war is bad, or to watch out for corrupt governments, or that love conquers all.
The truth is however that most people will never go to war, or save the world, or exercise any influence over their governments at all. These messages are only relatable on a superficial level – we understand them, and acknowledge them, but in an abstract, academic sort of way.
I find that the messages that leave the most impact are delivered by games that explore far more mundane issues – things that every person, great or small, will experience intimately in their lifetime. Things that may not change the whole world, but can change a single person fundamentally. Something like, for example, the death of a loved one.
Sad and surreal music/visuals
In the First Tree, you play as a fox on a quest for answers as to the whereabouts of her three children. The journey takes her across snow-capped mountains, through yawning valleys, from dense fir forests to majestic deciduous woodlands. These are stunning, surreal landscapes, devoid of human life but mysteriously littered with objects and artefacts from somebody’s childhood.
A soft, smooth colour palette and gentle lighting make the First Tree a very soothing game to play.
The soundtrack is very reminiscent of Journey, Spirit of the North or Ori and the Will of the Wisps – gentle and ethereal, and impressively for an indie game, dynamic (meaning that it changes slightly depending on what you’re doing in game).
The story let’s you fill in the gaps yourself
The First Tree tells two stories simultaneously: one of a mother fox desperately searching for her missing pups, and another of the narrator reminiscing about his childhood and the time he spent with his dad.
The narrator isn’t really here to narrate a story per se, but rather to share a collection of memories and thoughts that help us navigate the most important events in his childhood.
Most of his memories seem vague and quite unremarkable, but that’s because the point of these stories isn’t to tell us what happened, but rather to tell us why it mattered and how it made him feel. This is what makes the First Tree so effective – by leaving out the specifics, it encourages the player to think about a time when they felt the way that the narrator did; to insert themselves into the story.
The regret of having said certain things, and having not said others; failing or disappointing someone with no opportunity to make things right; wishing you had a second chance; trying to understand why things ended the way they did. The game provides the canvas and the players paints their own unique picture – a portrait of their own lives – without even knowing that they’re doing it.
The gameplay itself is very limited
The First Tree is an exploration game – there’s no combat, no quests, no real dialogue and only very limited interactivity with the environment. The game is also very short, and can be completed in under 2 hours.
If the story or the concept of the game isn’t something that interests you, there is absolutely no reason to play The First Tree. It is best to think of The First Tree as less of a “game” in a traditional sense – as it is impossible to “lose” in the First Tree or even take any damage – and more as an interactive art experience, which I feel more accurately describes what the First Tree is.
Videogames Make Me Happy concludes… that the First Tree can help us learn more about ourselves
I would recommend players to pick up the First Tree only when they’re in a neutral headspace, free of anxiety or distraction, otherwise you won’t have the clarity you need to get the most of out of this game. Whilst you’re listening to the story, let your innermost thoughts do the talking and take the time to listen to them for once.
Ask yourself: as you go on this journey and listen to these stories, what, or when, or who, comes to mind? Helping you to find an answer is the reason this game exists.
If introspection and reflection isn’t your thing, then you might be inclined to think that the First Tree is a waste of time – and if you do think this way, then you’re right, it probably is a waste of time.
The way I see it, the game extends to you, the player, an invitation to spend some time with the narrator, exploring your own personal experiences, feelings, losses and regrets together; to go on a short but important journey and, hopefully, learn something about yourselves and each other.