“The following is a contributor post by the Off-Centered Earth Mage.”
Nobody can argue that in recent years there has been an absolute abundance of triple-A games gracing our screens. However, more and more we are seeing indie games, hidden gems and low-budget games (often made by small teams of developers if not solo) not only grow in number and popularity, but in some cases, even obtain something akin to a cult following. No more than a few days ago, we saw games such as Dead Cells and Celeste win out at the Game Awards in their respective categories. I find it interesting and somewhat of a huge victory for indie games that Celeste was not only nominated for the prestigious Game of the Year award, but that Dead Cells won out alongside huge budget games such as Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 and Destiny 2: Forsaken. Surely a great victory for the industry. We’ve all heard of the beautiful simplicity of the story-driven exploration games Journey, Flower and Abzû, but I wonder how many have heard of and/or played David Wehle’s recent release The First Tree?
I will do my best to keep this piece as spoiler-free as possible. I may need to, at times, speak in depth about certain parts of the game’s narrative as well as its mechanics, themes, visuals and audio.
The way that The First Tree’s story comes across to the player is metaphysical at its very core. Directly after the title screen, we are shown a mother fox (our playable character) waking up from a deep and restless sleep in the dead of winter, realising she must search for her lost cubs. We quickly learn that this harsh, unforgiving-yet-beautiful world and its contents are not by definition “real”, but not once does it feel “unreal”. This more than once makes the player question themselves about what is reality and what is not, and continues right up to the game’s conclusion. Shortly after waking up from her deep sleep, we hear a human voice narrating the fox’s every move, describing this world, and what we come to realise is the man’s dream. The more we progress in the story, the more of the dream we uncover, and the more of the dream we uncover, the more of this man’s past we uncover through his dialogue between him, his wife, and sometimes between his own mind. I will say no more about the story at risk of spoiling it for others, although I will say that both the dream and the man’s dialogue centres around his own relationship with his father. This leads me into the game’s core mechanics, where I found something entirely unexpected.
At first glance, the core mechanics of The First Tree appear to be very simple in their nature. You have your average platforming controls: jump, directional moving, and sprint. Where things get interesting however is a mechanic that allows the fox to dig for specific items, marked by an almost spiritual yet easily missable white light. You also have your basic collectables – which appear as white stars across the level – as well as secrets hidden throughout. This is where Aestheticism comes into play for me. Across the five locations/levels, not only do you come across visual depictions of what the dreamer is describing (such as an overturned car or children’s toys), but there is also a mechanic that allows the fox to dig up specific items that progress the dreamer’s personal story while also giving us an added insight into their character, as well as their father. To put it simply, Aestheticism tells us that throughout our lives and the world at large, there comes things such as physical items, places, people, art, books, etc., whose very beauty lies in their ability to evoke memories or feelings in a person that seemingly cannot be explained using words. After playing The First Tree and basing it off Aestheticism, not only can I say that this game is beautiful because the dreamer himself is feeling these emotions and remembering these times in his life, but also because at certain points in the game, I felt them, too. Although the core mechanics of The First Tree are simple, after playing it and spending some extra time exploring its levels and uncovering its secrets, I feel like the way the story is told and revealed to the player is entirely original and, of course, beautiful.
Visually speaking, The First Tree is an absolutely jaw-dropping, stunning masterpiece. Quite often, I find that the mainstream gaming community focuses a little too much on AAA games with ultra-realistic graphics and grossly inflamed budgets. Occasionally, an indie title or low-budget game is released which utterly rivals AAA titles in terms of graphics. Although graphics have never been important to me personally, there were times in The First Tree that absolutely blew me away. For example, each level is completely different from the last, both visually and audibly. We the player are taken from a stunning open winter landscape with beautiful, glowing glaciers and snow-capped mountains to a lush, green forest with rolling hills and gigantic waterfalls to something quite special. So I don’t spoil the remainder of the game’s environments I will stop there, however, I will say that the game uses its dream-like narrative perfectly and shows us this by creating landscapes that would be both geographically and physically impossible.
To put it simply, this game is one of “those” games for me. One of those games that utterly rejuvenates my love for gaming as not only an art form, but a form of entertainment. For a long time – and perhaps too long – I have felt myself falling out of touch with gaming as a whole. I would of course pick up the yearly massive titles, but that was more or less it for me. Since finding this game I can honestly say that I have come back to a genre that I utterly adore, and lately all I’ve been playing are indie titles and retro-style games. I could not advise this game more to anyone – although I will say that at times, it can be upsetting. But in all honesty, that only adds to the title’s charm. Props to the dev team!
The Off-Centred Earth Mage, known as Thomas Kearns-Horan in some parts of the world, or The Vague Maker of References in even darker places, can be found in any second-hand bookshop, game store, and occasionally the odd forest. Check in on his escapades here @thomasK_H for a bit of a laugh, and the odd dog photo.
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