Electron Dance
23Feb/189

On Edith Finch

For those who might be interested, I wanted to put down some thoughts on What Remains of Edith Finch (Giant Sparrow, 2017), a game that’s received plenty of positive attention and Raph Koster recently acknowledged it was his favourite game from last year.

As it’s a short game, I’ve played it twice and got plenty out of Edith Finch. It’s not easy to discuss without spoiling so please don’t read on if you haven’t played it because the discoveries and revelations are all the game offers.

Edith Finch starts out like any other “walking sim”. You walk around slowly and trigger monologues. The spoken words also pop out in the environment, occasionally performing a few acrobatic tricks; early on, a line of dialogue sits atop a road barrier and when you push through the barrier, the letters scatter on the ground. Stimulating, but it’s just adding a rather dashing hat to a sumptuously dressed “walking sim”.

It only becomes clear why Edith Finch got every critic scouring the thesaurus for synonyms of “brilliant” when you reach Molly’s room. In Molly’s room, you find a diary and instead of simply reading it, the player becomes Molly, on her last night. We’re still not there yet, though, because the game is just going through a wardrobe change.

A sense of deep dread set in fairly quickly. I had already twigged that most of the Finch family all died well before their time and Molly, locked in her room and extremely hungry, started eating everything she could lay her hands on. Having her eat a tube of toothpaste and a stale, half-eaten carrot stolen from her gerbil’s cage was bad enough - then to follow up with holly berries that had been sitting on the window sill of toilet was beyond uncomfortable. Finally Molly turns her attention to a bird beyond the window and I thought, this is it, she’s going to fall to her death.

I did not expect Molly to transform into a bloody cat and chase the bird around across treetops.

That was the moment I understood Edith Finch was different.

Edith Finch is head-and-shoulders above a traditional “walking sim” because the team worked hard to find ways to translate each Finch’s final moments into an effective mini-game. You didn’t just walk to hotspot A and get a piece of text explaining “it was really sad when Lewis took his own head off” or see a cutscene where Walter is struck down by a train. You get to experience each death: a storm turns a ramshackle tent into the instrument of Gus Finch’s death, but the game has the player, as Gus, fly a kite around which allows the game to depict the rapid development of an unexpected storm on an apparently calm day and also explain why Gus stayed out in the rain. This shows another one of Edith Finch’s fake outs – while you might expect Gus’s kite to bring down lightning, he merely fell victim to hostile garden furniture.

Raph Koster wrote, ‘Edith Finch is a major structural evolution of what people have termed “walking simulators,” first person narrative storytelling, a hybridization of filmic story with narrative drips from static object interactions.’ What is this evolution that Koster writes of?

Edith Finch has a far broader narrative toolset at its disposal than that environmental narrative powerhouse Gone Home (Fullbright Company, 2013). But the Dear Esther template has remained fairly rigid over the years – find story hotspots, decipher the visuals. Now Edith Finch doesn’t shred that template, sprinkle salt over it and feed it to hungry wolves – it treats it as base and builds on it using mini-games. It’s not the only game to have attempted this and Koster positions That Dragon, Cancer (Numinous Games, 2016) as a forerunner of Edith Finch. But why does Edith Finch succeed?

I don’t see any answers aside from the obvious: this is an expensive game and the developers spent insane amounts of time designing mini-games that were perfect transports for story and emotion. What I see in Edith Finch is adding mini-games can work – but, boy, you have to be willing to put in some serious blood, sweat and tears to pull it off.

Edith Finch is the proof-of-concept some designers have been searching for, proof that the “walking simulator” experience can be enhanced with gameplay without (a) seeming half-assed about it or (b) undermining the narrative with “too much” game. (Bear in mind, I’ll always go back to Cart Life as my personal proof that story can be bolstered through mechanics without coming across as trite.)

Ironically for a game about death, it manages to feel so very alive, full of people. Still, it would be wise to note that Edith Finch is a just another take on the “beautiful dead” trope of an empty environment where the player’s job is to read the world to discover a story that happened in the past. Edie, the great matriarch of the Finch family, turning each room into an environmental narrative showcase for its late occupant is right up there with Portal’s framing of puzzles as actual puzzles in a research lab. It is a brilliant way to justify environmental narrative going into overdrive and works because it is 100% on point regards Edith Finch’s core themes, but it will get old once you’ve seen several games copy the structure. Oh, one of those “shrine room” games.

I am happy to see the line I drew between The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (The Astronauts, 2014) and Stories Untold (No Code, 2017), regarding the rise of the anthology game in a newsletter last year can now be extrapolated to Edith Finch. This is an anthology game at its heart although the whole is very much more than the sum of its parts. Some of the individual stories stand on their own – Molly, Travis – while others would not – Gus, Walter. Interesting to note that Tom Bissell worked on both Ethan Carter and Edith Finch.

There are some clever emotional tricks that Edith Finch pulls off. It manages to evoke a sense of nostalgia for the past as the family tree is fleshed out with each story – and each fleshing out means someone has died. The more we know, the colder the house feels.

However, it is the savage, subversive core to the game that surprised me most, at how it turns the player into an unwitting vector of the Finch curse.

Edie Finch loved the idea of a curse that was killing off her family members in bizarre accidents and co-opted everyone’s death into a grand, macabre artwork. She converted the rooms of each fallen Finch into a shrine for them, an idea whose cruelty becomes obvious when we discover Sam continued to live in the bedroom he shared with his twin Calvin, waking up opposite a shrine for Calvin for many years after his brother’s death. After losing her sons Milton and Lewis, Edie’s granddaughter Dawn worries that Edie weaving the tragedies into romantic fatalism was becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What does the player think about this?

It doesn’t matter what the player thinks they think because the player is betrayed through play. We all wanted to see more of these fascinating deaths, no matter how upsetting some of them were. And we are led deep into unreliable narrator territory – you can’t tell me Molly was eaten by a monster under her bed – and we absolutely love these polished, artistic vignettes.

What you’re seeing is what Edie saw: a series of death as a beautiful, coherent tale, the tragic curse of the Finches. But isn’t it a wonderful work of art? Who didn’t want to know what really happened to Milton? Who didn’t want to know what Edie found out there in the old house?

Perhaps there is Edith Finch’s real message. Contrary to the adage that telling stories is important, telling stories can also be intoxicating and dangerous.

It is art that warns you about art.

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  1. The tension between unreliable narrator—as it were—and the inmediate presence of a first-person game doesn’t work for me. They seem at odds.

    It was good for a few chuckles in Call Of Juarez: Gunslinger. It was put to rather better use in Spec Ops: The Line [and I’d be happy to never see another game with a colon in its title]. But in Edith Finch, the stories Edie tells (or is it actually Edith telling them?) are all quite fantastical, but made less—“believable” might be the wrong word. Mythical? Believable as myth is what I mean—anyway, less that by virtue of the first-person experience.

    Like, a legend told to you can be imagined, and can feel real in a similar way that a dream feels real; which is quite unlike how being awake feels real. The first-person setting never makes the leap from the latter into the former for me.

    Perhaps also it was having to learn a new set of controls for each story that was also contributing to the distance I felt.

    Whatever it was, Edith Finch left me cold, much as did Ethan Carter before it, which is strangely similar in both structure and theme as well as name!

  2. Hello Andy, I have been away for the weekend so only getting a chance to review and spamban your comment right now. ho ho

    Pretty much your response is why I hate dream sequences in most films these days, because they feel pretty cheap and, uh, very filmic – actual dreams are weird and fuzzy. Mind you, I probably give Dreamscape a pass because I really liked that film but God knows if it holds up in 2018 WORLD.

    I actually tend to think the imagery is Edith’s rather than Edie, it’s what she imagined. But then again – isn’t the whole thing actually in Finch Last Standing’s head, so it may be his interpretation of the whole story.

    I guess I see it like this: the vignettes translate understood facts into first-person activity, rather than an attempt to address an unreliable narrator. That is, these are abstractions. The kite didn’t bring down the tent, it was just a alternate depiction of the facts. Like the way the words hang in the air: they’re not really there, they are a way the first-person game is being used to reflect and heighten the story. Gregory’s death in the bath is quite clearly a load of bollocks, but it is a first-person translation of the message from Sam to Kay about his death and consoling words about how he was probably very happy.

    I like this idea that we can use a first-person vision to do something which isn’t trying to track with reality, even within a more-or-less grounded story. It might be argued The Beginner’s Guide does something similar but I would disagree, those worlds are “real game levels” under discussion and are not abstractions of any kind.

    Ethan Carter doesn’t pull this off at all, because the stories are already abstract. The vignettes are first-person renderings of stories which appear orthogonal to the core Ethan Carter storyline (I’d hazard a guess they all have their place, but I just couldn’t see past the sense they were indulgent.)

  3. Gosh, it must be time to replay this!

    But… is that Edith even the first-person protagonist we’re playing? I thought the final scene was telling us that their are three Edith Finches, and we are playing the latest. Maybe I misinterpreted it, but it seemed to me that the narrator Edith’s seemingly first-person narration is in fact not first-person but is also a hand-me-down story itself.

    What Joel said there gets to the core of it: “Gregory’s death in the bath is quite clearly a load of bollocks, but it is a first-person translation of the message from Sam to Kay about his death and consoling words about how he was probably very happy.” All these minigames and poetic imagery are metaphors for the stories that were handed down. I think we’re meant to experience them first-hand as a we might experience weird incoherent family mysteries that are handed down in real life – they don’t quite make sense, and they a coloured and patched by platitudes and ellipsis. (Or is that just my family? LOLZ) You wouldn’t tell your kids that their aunty Molly died when she fell out of the window after being locked in her room, you’d just tell them how imaginative she was, and oh look here’s one of here stories!

    Regarding the “acrobatic” tricks of the in-world text, I feel like that serves as a visual/spatial metaphor for how we are exploring the stories. One could wax metatextual about it and say that the words are the structure of all fictional worlds, or even that words in the form of code are the structure of game words. It reminded me, weirdly, of Myst: the first Myst game seemed to be building up a grand metaphor about fictional worlds made of words, and then it dropped it. The Talos Principle too: “Where the words end the world ends.” At least words are the only thing Edith has to create these memories with.

    Joel, I enjoy it when you get your teeth stuck into narrative and metaphor even more than mechanics and puzzles, because you apply the same analytical, deconstructionist thinking to it which will lead me to say all kinds of wanky things about furthering the medium as an art-form if I don’t stop typing now. Good show that man.

  4. Ugh. I swear that my ability to use “their” and “there” correctly has gone from impeccable to sketchy as I’ve got older.

  5. Mr Behemoth, did Molly fall out of the window? I actually thought about this while writing. It makes more sense that she perished from food poisoning and write about her last night… but that moment when she leans out of the window always makes me think. You are of course right to point out that having the words fly around the environment stresses the “storytold” nature of the world. My dismissiveness is that the game is not doing something vitally different yet (and I’m sure this isn’t the first time I’ve seen this kind of effect?).

    As the developer of Bonbon, I’m sure you’d like me to do more of taking apart narrative games :) I do feel I’m painted into a corner a little with puzzle games right now, trying my best to break out. HEY SUBNAUTICA LET’S DO THAT. Christ, I’ve also been meaning to finish off Even the Ocean. I will say that I find it more difficult to see “interesting” things in story games these days other than, say, the story itself. I don’t have as much to say about digital presentation which is more my thing. You’ve got the whole internet out there who love to talk about story, so it puts me off doing “story analysis”. Of course, give me The Witness and *KABOOM*

  6. Me n’t’other-half were talking about that earlier and came to the conclusion that some holly berries and an old carrot wouldn’t do you much harm beyond a dicky tummy. Whether the devs considered that is a different story…

    I want to say you’re right that this isn’t the first time a game has put non-diegtic text into the digetic world, but I can’t think of an example, other than actual title cards and credits. (Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice does it with the opening credits.) The point when I started to feel that it was significant was when literally pulling together the story with the kite. We were presented with the story that Gus’ death was caused by his truancy and stubbornness, but the kite was part of the building of that story, a tool the adults used for pulling together the story that excused the negligence of leaving a kid outside in a storm. At that point the text techniques bear some deconstruction, but I do wish it was deployed more meaningfully throughout. Did I say I wasn’t going to get wanky?

  7. Oh, Mr. B, I do have those conversations all the time. “I wonder if the devs actually thought–” There are some references online to how holly berries are definitely not to be eaten and can, in extreme cases, cause death. Of course, with the Finch family, playing the odds and losing is their jam.

    In Joseph Anderson’s video on Edith Finch, he is convinced the “curse” is reckless and practically loses his shit when covering the Gregory scene.

    The only example of words turning up in the world is Actias but that isn’t really the same – that’s a substitution of a narrator, not support for. I’m sure The Beginners Guide had something but that is actually part of the digital world vs conveying an idea. Dang it, why can’t I remember an example?

    Also, if you’re worrying about typos, your diegetics are all over the shop. Tsk tsk, I remember we used to get quality comments around here ;)

  8. Sorry, that should be reckless “parenting”, phone ate the word

  9. My phone ate my spelling homework.


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