The First Tree and Three Fourths Home

Next up in my run through of quick games via Steam is The First Tree.  Picked up during the annual winter sale, this indie title caught my eye because of the beautiful graphics in the screen shots and high reviews.  It also sounded like the sort of walking simulator-style story I’ve been into lately.  Per the store page, The First Tree is…:

…a third-person exploration game centered around two parallel stories: a fox trying to find her missing family, and a son reconnecting with his father in Alaska. Players take control of the fox on a poignant and beautiful journey that crescendos at the source of life, and perhaps result in an understanding of death. Along the way, players can uncover artifacts and stories from the son’s life as he becomes intertwined in the fox’s journey towards The First Tree.

That’s really the crux of the game.  You play as the fox searching for her missing cubs while voice overs between Joseph and his presumed wife Rachel discuss his dream of the fox and her search.  The world the fox inhabits is not a normal wood, but a lush landscape of greenery, vibrant colors, and random bits of Joseph’s life either decorating the landscape or, for the more important parts, buried in the ground for you to find.  In doing so, we learn more about the events in Joseph’s life that likely caused his foxy dream.

The controls are fairly simple: arrow keys to move the fox, shift to alternate between running and walking, and the mouse is used to control the view and interact with things.  Most of the game play involves searching for the hidden memories, with some very basic platforming and one mild puzzle to solve.  You can also collect stars to each achievements.  The controls mostly worked well, though the jumping could be jerky and there were a few times I got “stuck” between rocks or other landscaping and had to just keep trying moving in different directions to get out.  I also really couldn’t see any point in having a walk option, as there seemed to be no need to do it and running was faster.  Considering how wide the expanses were and how much distance there was between memories, running was much preferred for the entire game.

The story itself is fairly simple and somewhat clichéd, and felt a bit shallow.  I don’t know if I missed a memory, but while it was an emotional story, it just didn’t resonate as unique.  I was far more interested in the fox and her journey than I was in Joseph’s, and there seemed to be little to no connection between the two narratives at all.  The ending was predictable, and fair warning, mildly depressing despite the attempt to add a hopeful epilogue at the end.  I didn’t find it particularly poignant, just sadly realistic and common.

Clocking in at just under two hours, mostly due to running back and forth, The First Tree was memorable among the walking simulators I’ve played of late primarily for its graphics, beautiful music, and the framing of the story being a dream about a fox.  But the story itself was unremarkable, the dialog at times stilted and unrealistic, and the journey one that left me more disappointed than entertained.  For the price, it wasn’t a bad deal, but still, I’d probably say give this one a pass as it fails on the aspect that is, to me, the most important with  a walking simulator: weaving a compelling narrative.

And continuing the trend of walking simulators and short visual novels, with a mild twist, I moved on to Three Fourths Home.  For the main game, you drive instead of walk, but otherwise its the same basic format of short visual novel.  Unlike several of my recent plays, this one did have dialogue choices so you could influence the flavor of the story to a degree (though apparently more so in the epilogue than in the actual game).

Three Fourths Home is a visual short story in which you assume the role of Kelly during her drive through the storm. In the 20 miles between her grandparents’ crumbling barn and her parents’ home, she receives a phone call from her mother. While driving through a stylized representation of rural Nebraska, you must navigate an extended conversation between Kelly and her parents and younger brother.

Three Fourths Home takes a look into a specific moment of these characters’ lives and their relationships with one another. The narrative touches on a variety of issues affecting Kelly and her family, including disability, adulthood, and familial obligation.

Three Fourths Home was a risk, as it had some good reviews, but also a few negative ones pointing out things like the fact you have to hold a key down the entire time to drive, otherwise the game stops.  That is just plain annoying as heck, and seemed like a pointless thing to make a requirement.

Beyond that the game is graphically simple: simple black silhouettes on a white background.  There is no voice acting, which might have improved the game somewhat.  As it is, it comes across as a short choose-your-own adventure type story, but a dull one of a 24-year-old girl who has come home from college talking with her family, mostly the mother, about why she hasn’t called and what was going on.  With this is the backdrop of a bad storm spawning tornadoes, which the girl keeps driving through trying to reach home.

I don’t know if it’s the lack of imagery beyond the driving scenery, the lack of voices, or if it’s just the story itself that was mundane and uninteresting.  The most interesting part of the game was her brother’s short story that he tells her while she’s driving.  Despite the description saying the narrative touches on a variety of issues, it really didn’t feel like it did.  Despite the description saying the narrative touches on a variety of issues, it really didn’t feel like it did.  They were mentioned, but almost in passing, with only hints of how it was affecting anyone since most of the time, the characters themselves didn’t even want to talk about it.

The four characters felt like stereotypes of a small town family: the nagging mother, the drunken father, the older kid who tried to escape but failed, and the young son who is both gifted and annoying.  There was little depth to any of them and the choices that come up feel artificial and mundane: there seems to be little impact on the actual story from the choices being made and there is little context for them.  They felt there just to give you something to beyond hitting space bar to continue reading.

Even at $1.49, I left feeling like I paid too much for this one and I really can’t recommend it.  The entire story clocked in at around half an hour.  There are much better visual novels, walking simulators, and combinations out there.