Wot I Think: What Remains Of Edith Finch

Whatever the screenshot above might have made you think, What Remains of Edith Finch [official site] doesn’t have very much in common with Dear Esther at all. It has a great deal in common with a lot of games I’ve played, but in the end doesn’t feel very much like any of them. It’s a walking simulator for about ten minutes, and then it becomes all manner of other things, including one of my favourite games in years. Here’s wot I think about this extraordinary family saga.

Walking simulators come in many flavours and have tackled many genres of narrative in recent times. There’s the sincerity of Gone Home, in its single location that contains enough experiences for a lifetime, the quaint sci-fi radio drama of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture in its none-more-British period setting, and the romantic mysteries and serenely grand natural environments of Firewatch. I like all three of those games, to varying extents, but I’ve always thought the kind of interactive storytelling their developers are exploring is in its nascent stages.

Though both Rapture and Gone Home have their own ways of presenting the process, they lean on the audiolog tradition of story discovery. You go to a place, you hear narration, you move on. Firewatch is more open, in terms of using dialogues rather than monologues, and though their worlds are of varying sizes, they all give some room for exploration outside the linear tracks of their stories. They are games about looking, listening and learning, though much of my enjoyment of them comes from simply existing in these places, both familiar and strange. Virginia, which I liked far more than anyone else around me did, had an interesting approach, taking some of that ability to control and exist away from the player, and instead propelling them through confusion and smash cuts.

I always want more though and in What Remains of Edith Finch, Giant Sparrow have delivered so much more than I imagined a single game would. Like Gone Home, this is the story of a young woman returning to a family home, and like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, it’s a story made up of several voices, telling the tale of an entire community. In this case, that community is the Finch family and their house, which is a towering, jumbled structure and a monument to all that they have lost. It is so large, rooms stacked on top of one another to form a tower at one corner, because no bedroom has ever been recycled. When its owner passes on, the room is kept as it was, sealed so that it is part museum and part mausoleum.

Over the three generations the Finches have lived in America, having moved from Norway in the early twentieth century, many rooms have been constructed. And that’s because Finches have a habit of dying young. They’re either cursed, unfortunate or too adventurous/unhappy/restless/fragile to exist in the real world. Throughout the game, you, as the last surviving member of the family, Edith, explore the house and learn about the fate of your siblings, parents, grandparents and others. At the end of every story, somebody dies. In a way, you die because you always control the character on the chopping block.

The framing story of the doomed family could be tragic, darkly comic or terrifying. The beauty of the game is that it doesn’t settle on one genre, instead presenting the Finch family as an anthology of tales, each told in their own style. A child star’s life comes to a grisly end in an EC Comics Horror story, with a Cryptkeeper-like narrator who relishes every telegraphed twist and delicious irony. Elsewhere, an imaginary world distracts from dull days at work, eventually drowning out the daily grind entirely. Or almost.

All of these stories are controlled, from a first-person perspective that Giant Sparrow repeatedly find new ways to recontextualise. If there are no other lessons for interactive storytellers to take from Edith Finch, the flexibility of its perspective is vital. This is the camera as identity and as an engine for empathy. It’s also a superb technical feat. In what will most likely become the game’s signature sequence, you’ll take a tour of the animal kingdom, through their own eyes, in ten of the most astounding and exhilarating minutes I’ve ever experienced in a game.

Edith Finch doesn’t just do magical realism beautifully, it makes me think games, rather than literature or film, are the genre’s most natural home. There’s a sequence that reminded me of the most extraordinary conceit in Gabriel García Márquez’ The Autumn of the Patriarch and Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach simultaneously, and I wasn’t just amazed that two of my favourite things were being alluded to (consciously or not), but that Edith Finch sat so comfortably in their company. Its stories are more for the heart than the head but even when it’s riffing on cheesy genre fiction, this is a smart game.

It’s a sentimental game too. There’s no meta-humour or ironic detachment, as you’d find in the likes of The Stanley Parable. This is hearts-on-sleeves time and if you’re not as much of a softie as I admittedly am, you’re probably not going to adore it quite as much as I do. There’s one story in particular that had me in bits, needing a supportive hug and a cup of tea before I was ready to carry on, but I’d understand if some people were left cold by it, or even found it exploitative. Heart strings are tugged, unapologetically, and emotions are manipulated. That’s what stories and art do though. We only tend to complain when we’re not convinced a story has earned the reaction it aims for, or if the machinery that’s pulling and prodding at us is too obvious.

For me, Edith Finch earned every tear, every laugh and every moment of joy. It’s two hours, maybe just a little over, with no padding whatsoever. In those two hours you’ll see and do more than most games will ask of you in twenty. Giant Sparrow’s previous game, The Unfinished Swan, is referenced as another story within the matryoshka of stories that is the game as a whole. This is a much more confident game, using control and perspective to the benefit of its story without ever requiring the player to do busywork or achieve goals that aren’t directly related to the tale. The individual sections here don’t feel like minigames, as in That Dragon, Cancer, but like natural extensions of the characters and words.

In the end, the bitter/sweet end, Edith Finch is a game about storytelling. It’s not just about the different stories that people tell, to figure out their place in the world or to try and reshape that place, but about the forms those stories can take. Comic books, weird tales, romance, sentimental drama, tragedy, escapist fantasy, games, daydreams, a photograph, a conversation, a memory, a painting, a poem.

Here’s a launch trailer, but if you’re already planning to buy the game, I’d skip it so that every single image comes as a surprise. I’ve picked the screenshots carefully, for similar reasons, but what I can’t get across with words is how important the soundtrack is. It’s wonderful, both in its own themes and the music that it uses from elsewhere.

What elevates it from a fascinating and gorgeous experiment in presentation to an immediate contender for my game of the year is the way that the broader narrative informs the stories it contains, just as the house is home to its many rooms. Without casting judgement or becoming didactic, Edith Finch explores both the good and the harm that stories can do, and how folktale, imagination and superstition can lift us up and dash us down.

It does all of that with such inventiveness and such a powerful sense of joy that despite spending time fighting back tears (and failing to do so), I was elated from the first out of body experience to the end of the credits.

What Remains of Edith Finch is out tomorrow, for Windows. It will be available on Steam for $19.99.

26 Comments

  1. poliovaccine says:

    Tbh, it’s not so much the screenshot that made me think of Dear Esther.. rather, it’s the name Edith. Also, I have to congratulate the author on what must have been an ungodly amount of restraint, for not calling it “Wot Remains of Edith Finch.”

    Anyway, sounds good. I’m not always able to be receptive to openly sentimental fare, but I get windows of opportunity to do so, and that’s when I fit in stuff like Night in the Woods or Firewatch, and maybe now this one.

    P.S. Games like this make me really glad RPS doesnt use a numerical rating system.

    • skeletortoise says:

      Sounds like a solid 5/7 emotions to me.

    • Ich Will says:

      I can’tt get the Vanishing of Ethan Carter out of my head, probably for the same reason!

    • Urthman says:

      She thinks she’s Edith Finch
      But you might know she’s not
      The accent in her speech
      She didn’t have growing up

    • cannedpeaches says:

      I played it at PAX South and can confirm – as a regular fan of sentimental, character-driven walking simulators like Firewatch – that it’s one of the best and most imaginative I’ve ever played. It is just jam-packed with ambition and creative joy.

  2. draglikepull says:

    I believe it was JP LeBreton who coined the term “wander games” as a better genre name than “walking simulators”. I like it because it’s:

    1. Not pejorative.
    2. Does a better job of capturing what it is about the genre that appeals to those who enjoy it.

    I really liked The Unfinished Swan and Edith Finch sounds good too. Looking forward to playing it.

    • Jac says:

      I just call them First Person Story games, although I guess First Person Experience would be better for abbreviation purposes.

      This year is going to bankrupt me, will definitely be picking this up.

      • lancelot says:

        “Interactive Story” maybe? Very appropriate for this game because of how well it uses the interaction with the 3D environment as a part of its narrative, just as the review says.

        “Solitary Exploration” is a good term if the game has plenty of walking around, books/recordings, puzzles and, well, exploration. EF is definitely more Interactive Story than Solitary Exploration.

    • Monggerel says:

      The proper terminology is “Walk ’em Up” and I will literally have a walk with anyone that dares to disagree.

    • papusman says:

      Someone referred to Firewatch as a “Walkie Talkie” and that’s just the most brilliant thing.

  3. cqdemal says:

    Call me overly excitable but this just went from “I’ve never heard of it” to “I’m running home from work to play this tomorrow”.

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      My God, how long does it take you to run home from work?

  4. lancelot says:

    Is it true that at any given moment there is at least one person in the RPS office who is either sobbing uncontrollably or wiping his tears?

  5. toshiro says:

    Sounds amazing. Does it have any jump scares? I can’t stand that.

    • Dinges says:

      Play Dear Esther first, then you’ll understand what kind of game this is.

  6. Monggerel says:

    Edith Finch does sound like the kind of name I’d expect to walk off into an ancient woodland glen on a moonlit night and disappear forever into mystery, so I might have to take a look at this.

  7. reality3ites says:

    Sounds like a great time, but there’s quite a few spoilers in the article (I assume anyway, I stopped reading after the child star/DC comic bit). Maybe a bit of a warning?

  8. Premium User Badge

    AutonomyLost says:

    Definitely gonna wishlist this tonight after work. Thanks for the review, Adam. Sounds wonderful.

  9. Premium User Badge

    particlese says:

    The music, eh? Well, that decides it, then. I can’t guarantee I’ll be in bits, but the right music increases the likelihood.

    Now the only question is if I should bump The Unfinished Swan to the top of my queue. I get the impression it’s unnecessary but worthwhile, so…yeah, I think I’ll crank up the old PS3. Journey will also be waiting for me there, too, so I’ll be swimming in bits whether this one puts me in them or not.

    Cheers.

  10. Xantonze says:

    I wanted to like this, but got gradually irritated as I pressed on:
    it is a manipulative death-circus, up to the very end.

    Since I reached it in less than 2 hours, I asked for a refund.
    Pretty shameless I guess… just like the game itself.

  11. caff says:

    Played through this today and it’s just brilliant. Thanks Adam for recommending this. I must admit I skim most reviews so as to go in blind, and I’m glad I did with this one as it’s just excellent to discover.

  12. camgurl says:

    One of the stories actually hit me a little too close to home, but I didn’t find it exploitative at all, though I’d understand if others in a similar situation would. I think they got a away with a lot bc in the end none of the loose ends were tied up in the end and its left completely open. I thoroughly enjoyed this game and was completely immersed and found it beautiful but the whole game of the year thing is a little ridiculous…like i think to hype it up like that will disappoint some people. luckily i didnt go in with those expectations. or else i would have been like wtf…2 hours? wtf the story is incomplete…