Sam Barlow, developer of Her Story, once described What Remains of Edith Finch as not a walking simulator but a ‘narrative WarioWare.’ Few descriptions have ever felt so apt.
Fair warning, this is a game best experienced blind. It’s hard to call anything below spoilers considering the nature of the story, but the experience might still be ruined with any minor details which I find necessary to explore while describing why this resonated with me.
The constant shifting of this game’s nature is key to capturing the central theme. This is the story of the Finch family as told by the only living member, Edith. As long as they can remember, the family has been seemingly cursed to die tragic deaths, most at a young age – most generations see a single member live long enough to have children. Again, this is not a spoiler. At any time, the player can pause and look at the family tree which is marked with years of birth and death, which is filled in with pictures as Edith learns their stories.
The game certainly starts as a walking simulator, with Edith approaching her family’s abandoned estate. They lived on an island, with the matriarch of the family sealing off the several bedrooms as shrines to the deceased. As such, the house continued to grow upwards into a perilous tower as the generations went on. This is an unforgettable location, both in the originality of its design and what it represents, a gigantic monument to those otherwise doomed to being forgotten.
What Remains of Edith Finch shakes things up once Edith enters the room of Molly Finch, who was born in 1937 and died in 1947. Edith reads her diary, which transitions into Molly’s memory of the day she died. This starts with a similar control scheme as Molly searches desperately for food after being sent to bed without dinner. After swallowing some questionable berries and a tube of toothpaste, Molly goes to her window and transforms into a cat, chasing a bird through the trees. Then she becomes an owl, and then a shark. It’s the shark which really hits people – the shark falls out of the sky and has to flop down a mountainside to find the ocean, almost getting hit by a car on the way down. It’s a bit awkward to play through (it might be the weakest of the several narratives), but it so perfectly captures the headspace of this character once you realize this is the dying fantasy of a girl who accidentally poisoned herself.
What these constant changes in style do is establish a theme that, despite their unifying curse, each of these were individuals who deserve to be remembered in their own way. The overall experience is macabre – this is the story of a young woman exploring the deaths of her several family members after her mother kept this information hidden. Yet it looks upon death only to make a grander statement about life – we need to cherish these fleeting moments, because we never truly know when everything will end.
What makes this theme come through so strong is that, despite their obvious curse, the Finch family chooses to live. While their stories focus on their deaths, the rooms where you must find these stories first expose the player to their aspirations. Barbara was a child star. Calvin wanted to be an astronaut. Milton enjoyed painting. And all of their deaths ooze with irony.
The ways in which these stories are told is also unique. Outside Molly’s straightforward diary, we get these stories through flipbooks, poetry, and a therapist’s condolence letter. The most striking is a schlocky horror comic about Barbara, a perfect statement on how horrific deaths can become cold cultural fodder. In a story about how we honor the dead, this is a poignant moment about how we sometimes reduce people to nothing more than victims.
Like a walking simulator, there is no way to fail these levels. Yet that does not stop each of them from being engaging. There’s a controversial trend over games forcing players to commit awful acts. Edith Finch is in a similar boat, as each level forces the player to act out someone’s death. But it’s the framing of these as memories which makes this easier to swallow. Still, many of these moments are difficult to get through in their own ways. Calvin’s sequence is a prime example. You know exactly what’s going to happen as soon as you find yourself sitting in a swing placed precariously close to a cliff. But the game forces you to put yourself through the same stupid decisions, if only to better understand what these characters must have felt.
What Remains of Edith Finch saves the best for the penultimate story. The therapist’s note about Lewis is absolutely devastating, and the gameplay is like nothing I’ve experienced. As it begins, Lewis is working his job at a cannery, where he’s stuck performing the awful task of deheading fish over and over and over. As his therapist notes, Lewis admitted to creating elaborate fantasies to play out in his head which started to become hallucinatory. As you play through this sequence, this fantasy takes over more of the screen until Lewis’s present moment is completely overtaken. During this time, the player controls both the movement of fantasy Lewis and his grabbing and deheading of the fish. If you stick with it, the awful clanking of the machine pounds over and over again. Like Calvin, it is obvious where this story will be headed, yet actually playing through this sequence is about as devastated as a game has left me.
When we talk about video games as an art form, we get stuck on comparing narratives. Many games simulate movies, simply showing a few scenes with little being implemented into the gameplay experience. Meanwhile, there’s a common adage in writing workshops: show, don’t tell. Video games are a wonderful form because they offer us the ability to go one step further. A great video game narrative goes beyond showing – a great video game allows the audience to experience the events from a personal perspective. What Remains of Edith Finch is simply a flurry of these moments. Where the grand majority of games are about avoiding death, this odd little title demands the player die over and over again. Yet at the heart is an achingly beautiful tale about the desire to live and move on to something greater. Though this is a game which can be completed in a matter of hours, every single second has lingered with me.