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.