The First Tree is a beautiful and touching adventure centred around two parallel stories of hope and family. The game was recently announced for Nintendo Switch, so we took the chance to speak to creator David Wehle. We talk exploring the game's emotional themes, building a unique narrative and supporting up and coming developers...
Nintendo Life: Congratulations on bringing The First Tree to Nintendo Switch. Could you outline what we'll be doing gameplay wise?
David Wehle: The First Tree is about exploring a colorful surreal world where two stories are uncovered in unexpected ways: one of a fox looking for her missing cubs, and one of a son reconnecting with his estranged father in Alaska. Players play as the fox where she digs up items from the son's past, and the characters explain their lives like it's a memoir and learn how they got to that point. While there are some small platforming and puzzle segments to overcome, the focus is almost entirely on the story of these two entities and how their paths intertwine.
The narrative is told through voiceovers and environmental storytelling, so gamers who want a change of pace and are looking for a relaxing and thought-provoking experience will probably like The First Tree. At the end of your journey to the first tree on Earth, there are some unique aspects of the story that could only be accomplished through the gaming medium, so I'm excited for Nintendo Switch players to find out what that is!
The game is centred around two parallel stories- how was the writing process?
Almost all my ideas come to me while I'm doing repetitive work... in this case, it was doing the dishes. I was thinking of a way I could tell a personal story that was juxtaposed with the epic. I love the idea of these two unrelated families (one of a fox, one of a young couple in Washington state), and how they both were connected to an archetypal symbol for life: the first tree on Earth. The idea of this tree not only has a poetic quality to it, but it's deeply rooted (ha) in mythology and religion. It's one of the most archetypal symbols I can think of, especially when you consider countless religions pay respect to a tree of life of some sort. This symbol of life, knowledge, and even the afterlife has powerful implications for the characters in this story, and eventually it affects both parties in unexpected ways.
Was it difficult to connect/ separate the two stories?
Yeah, it can be difficult to keep it coherent. However, the surreal, dream-like quality of the game works in its favor. Some of my favorite filmmakers like David Lynch or Terrence Malick don't necessarily make sure every story thread is perfectly resolved... they focus more on the texture or the feeling of the journey. But those are my favorite stories anyway... the ones that leave something to the imagination.
Were there any particular personal experiences that you drew upon?
My game is intensely intimate, probably so much so that I won't ever fully explain my connections to the story. If it wasn't intensely intimate, it probably wouldn't be worth playing as a low-budget one-man-team indie game. What Jonathan Blow said about vulnerability comes to mind. He said, "A lot of people come into indie games trying to be like a big company. What those companies do is create highly polished things that serve as large of an audience as possible. The way that you do that is by filing off all the bumps on something. If there’s a sharp corner, you make sure it’s not going to hurt anybody If they bump into it or whatever. That creation of this highly glossy, commercial product Is the opposite of making something personal. If you don’t see a vulnerability in somebody you’re probably not relating with them on a very personal level."
I will say that like everybody, we had deaths in the family that shook us to our core, and made us question why things are the way they are on this dumb planet. The First Tree is a result of me coming out from that dark place and sharing what I learned. At the end of the day, The First Tree is a game about families.
How does the use of both humans and animals in the story affect the dynamic of the narrative/ gameplay?
A lot of people ask me, "why a fox?" There's lots of reasons, but the big one is it's my wife's family name and her favorite animal. Two wooden foxes she crafted were our wedding cake toppers. I put a lot of my life and personal details into it, because in my opinion that's how you make a story that lasts... you put yourself into it, warts and all.
I'm more drawn to domestic stories like Gone Home or Firewatch probably because that's the part of my life that's most important. I became a father two years ago when we welcomed Evelyn into our family, and as I do this interview my wife just started having her first contractions for our second little one (she's alright though, promise!). The premise of The First Tree is juxtaposing an ancient, epic story of finding the first tree on Earth with a young married couple dealing with something that happens everyday around the world: the death of a loved one. I will also say that Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road had a huge impact on me as well. Even though The Road is about the death of the Earth, which is probably the grandest, heaviest topic you could tackle, the story focuses on a father and son, and because of that it makes it real and relatable. McCarthy wrote The Road because of his son. Those same themes of parenthood and life and death are explored in The First Tree.
Was it a challenge to balance an exploration based game with a linear story?
A lot of the story is reminiscing about objects in the young couple's lives. These artifacts the fox uncovers slowly pieces together the lives of these people, and by the end you have an understanding why they're the people they say they are. I don't want to explain every little detail, so I love that players can inadvertently miss a voice over... they still will need to piece together the story from the fragments they've gathered, and that can be an insightful experience. There's also lots of secrets and hidden objects, since I don't think an exploration game can thrive without lots of interesting vignettes tucked away in the environment.
What influenced the art style?
I played Journey right before coming up the with the idea for the game... it was just a sublime amazing experience. For The First Tree, I thought the brilliant colors and stylized look fits into the surreal, dreamy aesthetic I was shooting for. There will be some fantastical elements in the game, and I think the art will make those things more believable. It also helps seeing all of the gorgeous artists I'm inspired by, like Jane Ng (Firewatch), Mikael Gustafsson (Unity artist), and Heather Penn (Overland). Their work is so inspirational that the images of The First Tree and this story in my head just formed with that inspirational backdrop.
Why was nature chosen as a plot device/ a fox and cubs chosen as the playable character?
It goes back to the fox being this personal thing that connects to my family in real life. It also distanced itself from the real people (and fictional people) involved in this painful story... it made it more approachable. I can't tell you how many kids played the game thinking it would be a goofy animal platformer, then told me their outlook on life had changed dramatically, and in a real way they saw life and the living in a new light. That's what makes it all worth it, hearing cathartic tears were shed.
Funny enough, It was difficult finding accurate sounds for the fox, but I think visually it just works beautifully. The typical color of the fox really accentuate the environment around it, and that's the big focus... the fox is important, but the environment even more so. There will be fox-like traits expressed in the game naturally... jumping, digging, running and chasing rabbits. But in the end, the fox is a vehicle for the player to observe the environment and the story.
Without spoiling anything, 'The path to the first tree'- could you explain its significance?
I don't want to give away since the game is so strongly symbolic. Even the camera perspectives during gameplay carry significance. But I will say that the archetypal symbol for the "tree of life" has carried significance for humans since they could write. The a large theme is the idea of simple memories seen through the lens of the grandiose. I love seeing intimate, domestic stories juxtaposed next to epic, origin-of-life stories, because in my mind they're not that dissimilar. Microcosms next to macrocosms allow us to gain perspective in a way that was hidden before.
What is the balance between the game being an intimate journey and having an overarching theme?
I think the best stories are ones with the end destination being a huge focus. There's the question of what will happen, and you need that mystery and excitement in a slower-paced game like mine. Probably another example that's inspired me is Tree of Life, a film by Terrence Malick. That film really shook me to my core... it was about the birth of the universe, but also about this family in Texas. And the crazy thing, those two incomparable things were held in the same regard. They were both strikingly important, and that resonated with me because that's what I believe.
The theme of family seems to connect The First Tree and your previous title, 'Home Is Where One Starts'. Was it a conscious decision to progress this theme?
Yeah, I guess it's something that's on my mind a lot! In fact, there are easter eggs for players who've gone through my first game... they're related in a lot of ways.
Have you utilised the Switch hardware in any way?
I'm working with the very talented DO Games in London, and they're awesome, I feel like they can do anything. We're still early in development, but we would of course like to utilize the unique features of the Nintendo Switch. I've heard gamers love taking narrative games like Night in the Woods on the go since there's lots of reading, and it's a relaxing way to pass the time. The First Tree is a relaxing game that may unexpectedly end in a huge feels trip for players.
What Nintendo games did you play growing up?
Like all kids ever, I was obsessed with all the NES Mario games. I never had a SNES, but I was obsessed playing it at friend's houses. They would get so sick of me, but I literally couldn't help myself, I just had to keep playing. The first time I played through Final Fantasy VI, I stared at the end credits scene for at least an hour... I just couldn't believe I had experienced something so epic and emotional on a Super Nintendo. That was a turning point, and it drove me to make narrative-driven games later in life. Now I have a SNES Mini, so I'm overcoming that childhood absence with lots of playtime with my little girl.
If I told little kid David that I would have a game on a Nintendo console, I would probably laugh in his face. It's just amazing to me that a one-man team can develop and publish a game on a major console now, and I find it incredibly exciting. I love talking to people about being a solo-developer and how to make that happen, so aspiring game creators can reach out to me on Twitter or email at [email protected]
Is there any extra content or features for the console versions of the game?
I don't have anything to announce at this point. I really hope to polish the gameplay and its performance to a shine, especially with the controls and the handling.
When can we expect to see The First Tree on Nintendo Switch?
I'm hoping late summer or early fall, but I don't have an official announcement at this time. Follow me on Twitter to stay updated! @DavidWehle
We would like to thank David for his time. The First Tree arrives on the Switch eShop in 'late 2018'.