When I first booted up You First, I was expecting to play an FMV visual novel with video clips of actors stitching together a story. Imagine my surprise when I found out it actually tells its story via a series of still photographs with text that types out over it. This mismatch in expectations was just the beginning of my baffling journey through this episodic love story, which contains moments of realistic and touching intimacy that are spaced too far apart in a sea of questionable (and slow) writing.
Relationship status: it's complicated
You First tells the story of romantic partners Alex and Seb at a few key points in their relationship. This story is told by a cheeky narrator who makes little quips and judgements in reaction to what is happening nearly as often as they tell you what is happening. As mentioned previously, all of this appears on screen in the form of photo stills with text that displays over it, and this text is stylized so as to pace out the experience and add some artistic flair to the overall presentation and storytelling.
From the very start of the game, you are tossed into the deep end and only have tiny morsels of context to infer the exact nature of Alex and Seb's relationship. Some of this gets backfilled as you continue along in the story, but almost nothing is made entirely clear, especially when it comes to why both of them agreed to the relationship arrangement that they have. With this little to go on, the game will ask you on a few occasions to make decisions for characters that impact the way the narrative plays out.
You First is divided into three chapters with big time gaps between each one. You aren't ever really sure how much time has passed or what has happened in the interim, though. If that wasn't confusing enough, the writing in You First drips with a sense of sophomoric profundity that it can sometimes make it hard to follow what's happening or what point is being made by the narrator about it. Some of this is endearing, but there's an awful lot of times where collections of cliche phrases just get strung together, as if someone was improvising a script by saying things that sounded good when said out loud together without going back to check or edit for clarity or coherence.
The writing also casts both Alex and Seb as pretty self-absorbed people who don't have very many redeeming qualities, if any at all. It's not really clear to me whether this was intentional or not, but at no point in the game did I find myself "rooting" for either of them, and my impressions of them only got worse the further I got into You First.
Rooted in realness
If I'm sounding pretty down on this game, it's because I didn't have a ton of fun playing it. All of the issues mentioned above also compound with the fact that the text in the game types out really slowly with no options to adjust its speed or tap through any of it.
That said, there were moments in You First that depicted relationship intimacy that I myself have experienced, and it did so in a way that hit closer to home than most other games I've played. In those moments, I found myself questioning my feelings around You First. Is it like this on purpose? Does it want to lull you into these negative sentiments before hitting you with some powerful and genuine storytelling? By the end, does all the seemingly mishandled stuff suddenly make sense?
After completing the game, it doesn't seem like this was part of the plan. The moments of fleeting relatability are good, but otherwise float like little crumbs in a soup of plodding and obtuse storytelling that seems to think it's much more flavorful than it really is.
The bottom line
The good bits in You First are too few and far between for me to feel good about recommending it. It does explore interesting ideas of what relationships can and should be, and it should be applauded for that, but otherwise You First ends up creating most of its appeal from being so oddly off-putting.