Embracing Emotional Spaces in The First Tree

The First Tree brought me to tears. I find emotional reactions in games natural, as they often signify a desire for something greater than our immediate reality. This kind of escape is an important part of gaming for all of us. Sony’s old PlayStation 3 marketing slogan invites us to “Play Beyond” what we directly have in our lives, but how often does a game utilize the transformative nature of its medium to take us full circle to a place more familiar, more personal?

Games have made me cry before—that’s nothing new. The Last of Us left me in a cold, tearful silence, but the experience, breathtaking as it was, was projected away from my own sense of self. It wasn’t about me or anyone or anything I knew. Personal reflections required a departure from a place more abstract. The First Tree, however, took me somewhere real. On the surface, the game seems to be a straightforward representation of childhood memories and the loss of a loved one; it ends up, however, being a greater mediation on how we navigate through life.

A Personal Landscape

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Instead of whisking the player to far off realm of fantasy, The First Tree invites one to hear the heartfelt story of a young married couple grappling with how they are supposed to process the trauma of their lives and transform it into something positive and beautiful. For me, this became a more personal experience; moments in between voiced narrative prompted questions of my own life: Have I spent enough time with those I love? Will I ever know before it’s too late? Is it even possible to find a definitive answer as to what I should be doing with my life?

Stepping outside of the personal space I found here, I felt I had to reconsider what I had previously thought a game could do. This is a message at the very heart of The First Tree, with creator David Wehle encouraging everyone to not only explore and interpret the game’s meaning, but to also take advantage of the access engines like Unity and Unreal have given to the public in terms of designing new games and finding new spaces. I hope The First Tree serves as an inspiration for a way to both think about and create new games.

Holistically Embracing The First Tree

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I don’t find it appropriate to discuss the plot points in The First Tree too much in writing, as I feel the less one knows before going in, the better. Likewise, I’m not sure it’s appropriate to focus on what works or doesn’t work in the narrative, mechanics, or presentation the first time around. To go in with such a perspective risks losing the experience had by taking everything in holistically. This is a game where we risk leaving ourselves emotionally vulnerable, somewhere in between the story Joseph and Rachel share and the dream of a fox searching for her lost cubs.

The First Tree is currently available for PC and is slated to come to consoles this year. In a post on Steam, Wehle talks about a “giant update” coming to the game soon, which I hope doesn’t obscure the heart and soul of an otherwise deep and wonderful journey.

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Eric Jackson is a writer and musician based in New York City. His work centers on the various cultural and political dynamics at play in video games.


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