I got this somewhat wobbly, but nevertheless vigorously held theory regarding a certain kind of indie games, which I like to call “fox games”. Fox games are usually presented in trailers trembling with emotion. They promise a stunning experience when traversing beatiful landscapes with a fox or a fox-like animal. A boundless exploration of nature, a touching story, a transcendental experience.
Those games offer rich colors, far horizons, solitude and above all glowing balls of energy you have to collect without having any use for them. The story always and exclusively revolves around loss, with the exception of a few cases where loss is involved. Loss of a loved one, of innocent youth, of a father or father-figure, or of a pet (according to this, Doom from 1993 would also qualify, but there is no fox in Doom). The genre is also distinguished by choppy controls and serious technical flaws, caused by overambitious developers, biting off more than they can chew to create all of that kitsch. The sound department (which is made up of the same person who programmed the rest of the game) delivers mellow ambient piano sounds according to the motto “less is more”, which are occasionally interrupted by monumental orchestras according to the motto “more is more”.
When I wasn’t quite as wise as today, I bought one of these fox games. It’s called “The First Tree”, got good reviews (“Beautiful nature experience.” “Touching story.” “Would cry again. 10/10”) and was really cheap. I started the game full of expectation and quickly realized that it was a badly written, whiny piece of work wasting my time like a self-obsessed teenager who thinks his problems are the only relevant ones in the world. It offers no beauty, no means of identification and therefore collapses on itself. I felt nothing but the urge to slap the narrator back to sleep.
So I guided this astonishingly poorly animated fox (it felt more like a ship or a train) through corny and empty nature paintings and followed balls of energy. Meanwhile, a nightly dialogue between two people to sad by-the-numbers piano music poured over me. Puzzles, mechanics, gameplay do not exist. “Ah, but the big, wide world – what might be over there? Ah, I can’t find out! There’s an invisible wall in the middle of the level as if it was 1996!” So the game trains you early on to steer from energy thing to energy thing, hoping the narrator will finally shut the hell up.
And then there is the end of the game. The big twist. After finally reaching it, the “First Tree”, I was given the opportunity to write down a message for a person dear to me, who should receive it when I am no more. I was genuinly surprised and wrote a short message for my children, but did not give it any further thought afertwards. I thought it was a somewhat clumsy attempt to link the story to myself. But then the screen faded tot black and I found myself in a tent as a human being in first person perspective. In front of the tent a glowing fox could be seen, but it quickly moved away. It was the early morning hours and I followed the fox through refreshingly realistic landscapes. Finally the fox disappeared and I found a big tree instead. The narrator had told me that his father had disappeared in the forest and was never found. As I approached the tree, I could read a message. It was a message from a father who knew that he would never see his son again. And it was one of the messages that another player had entered into the game just like I had minutes earlier. And I liked the thought that someone else would read the message to my own children and maybe even be touched by it.
So this part of the game actually worked. It is a good idea right there at the end of the game. But one good idea does not make a good game. Not by a far, appearantly And so I stood in front of the tree, moved for a moment, but quickly remembered the rest of the game and just thought: “Nah.” I want to go visit the idiotic blatherers who recommended the game to me in 10/10 reviews and shake them: Just because you walk an animal through colorful natural settings to piano music, you don’t play a narrative masterpiece.
The First Tree by David Wehle was released in 2017 for Switch, PS4, ONE and PC. Other “fox games” of varying quality are Never Alone, Fé, Lost Ember and Spirit of the North.
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