Look – nobody hates me more than I do for the way this review is gonna come out. So don’t waste your time writing me angry emails or doxxing me on Facebook, because, in the words of Jimmy Urine, there is nothing you can do that I have not already done to myself. Let’s go.
The First Tree is a very personal, very intimate story of Joseph and Rachel, a married couple who speak to each other as Joseph lays in bed unable to sleep, wrestling with a dream he had of a fox looking for her cubs (which constitutes the game’s visuals) as well as dealing with his own father’s recent death. The couple are played by the lead developer and his wife, David and Elise Wehle; Joseph recalls certain memories of himself and his father while Rachel helps him make sense of them.
Of course, you play as the mother fox, traversing a lovely and Flower-like landscape collecting sparks of light and digging up loose Earth that holds objects that trigger more voiceovers. Gameplay is nice and simple, with the DualShock sticks taking up positions of motion and the camera. X jumps, circle interacts, square switches between walking and running. Bright beacons of light shine directly down onto interactive objects including puzzle switches and there is no combat action to distract from the narrative. The graphics are beautiful – the title looks something like Journey or Abzu – and the original musical score is similarly delightful, with pianos and strings abound. The title also focuses on serious issues of life, death, our relationships with our parents (and how they change as we enter adulthood) and the ominous responsibility of impending parenthood. Add in the references to the long-fabled Tree of Life and the game occasionally reminds me of movies like The Fountain, The Tree of Life or Waking Life.
So, aesthetically and at first glance, The First Tree is a joy. Then the other shoe falls and I won’t be able to look at myself in the mirror for a month for what I’m going to say about it and I sincerely apologize to David and Elise Wehle. That’s because I’m not reviewing The First Tree as a husband and father myself, nor as someone who has lost elder family members in recent years, nor as a creative person – I’m reviewing it as a games reviewer first and foremost.
The first noticeable problem is that the Wehles are not professional voice actors. I respect that they wanted to tell such a personal story themselves, but had they gone the route of hiring someone else to record the dialogue (the website says they received outside help in other aspects of development), the story would be better for it.
The second problem is, oddly, the music. While the score is beautiful, each level has one piece of music, each of which is four or five minutes long. Unfortunately you’re in an area for upwards of 20 minutes, and each track has a clear beginning and end, so they noticeably loop several times before you move on.
The third and largest problem, which has been hanging over this review like a death sentence, is the story and characters – and in a game that revolves almost solely around story and characters, that’s a big one. Joseph touches on memories from his childhood to help illustrate his relationship with his father – Joseph’s troubled teenage years, going fishing, the cabin fever of living in an isolated part of Anchorage – but none of the stories are as striking as they need to be for us to celebrate the life (and mourn the death) of the father, nor is Joseph a particularly sympathetic character. And it desperately needs every anecdote to land, because the entire title is 90 minutes long – two hours at an absolute max. And the stories simply don’t land. For example, when Joseph discusses his teenage years, his absolute roughest, rock-bottom story is that his friends bullied/forced him into taking his dad’s old truck out for a joyride, for which they were arrested. On the drive home, Joseph chucks his father’s bluegrass cassette out the window and his father stops the car and makes him go get it. End of story. His wife is jaw-dropped, responding with awe, “Wow. I knew you were a crazy teenager, but…” Sorry to sound insensitive, but I never saw how that was that big of a deal. Ask most grown-ups what their wildest teenage stories are, or the most trouble they ever got in, and you’ll hear jovial recollections of laying down in traffic on the median, smoking pot or drinking liquor at school, sex in locked rooms at parties, dragging a vomiting binge drinker to a toilet or around the back of a house, etc. Failing to stand up to persuasive friends and then chucking a tape out the window doesn’t scream “out of control teen” to me. Similar examples follow in most of Joseph’s stories. His father makes him toys as a child and tries to relate to him but the focus of the writing is on how the kids at school bullied Joseph for it, not that he was ungrateful or unappreciative of his father’s sacrifices. He tells Rachel how miserably unfair his life is that his father died and he didn’t get to say goodbye only for her to relate to him by nonchalantly describing her own life literally running away from an abusive alcoholic father to a foster home. I empathized a lot more with her than him by that point, which was only heightened by the bookending scenes: one in which Joseph describes how angry he got when his father offered him their family business (!) because it’s not what he wanted to do, which smacks of ingratitude more than anything; and another before that where he tells his wife the only person who could make their upcoming trip back to Alaska for the funeral bearable or worthwhile is his father, who is dead. The only person who could make it a worthwhile or bearable trip was his father.
To his wife, he says that. His pregnant wife.
In addition, the parable of the fox is a mother looking for her three cubs set against the stories of a lone son who lost his father. There isn’t much of a correlation between the two besides the occasional – and late-entering – mention of the tree of life and what it may mean to the dreamer. But by this point, the damage is done.
So I apologize. I’m sorry to David and Elise Wehle and I’m sorry I have to be so cruel to a very personal creative outlet and passion project that helped the Wehle family grieve for their father. It’s made with the clear intention of casting an allegory of death and rebirth across a folk tale and of celebrating a life, and it’s beautiful to look at and sounds great (for a bit at a time). But in a game that bets all its chips on the characters in the story and their ability to deliver it, it falls short of its goal. I hate myself for it, but in the interest of fairness in assessing the actual game, it must be done. I’m calling The First Tree a 5.5 out of 10. And now I’m going to go hate-play something violent to forget how angry I am that all of this happened.
Disclaimer: AIR Entertainment was given a free review copy of The First Tree.