What Remains of Edith Finch

This post contains minor gameplay spoilers.

What Remains of Edith Finch is a walking simulator that takes about two and half hours to complete. It was released back in April on Steam and for the PlayStation 4, and oh my goodness it is gorgeous.

What Remains of Edith Finch falls into the most perfect category of video games: It was created for an adult audience by a small team of developers who take full advantage of the interactive gaming medium but have no intention of frustrating the player with unnecessary and artificial puzzle or platforming elements. The game is emotionally challenging, and there’s a lot to explore and take in. The design is flawless, and the atmosphere is never broken by the player having to get up and check a walkthrough.

You play as a teenage woman named Edith Finch, who is returning to her family’s house on a small island off the coast of the Pacific Northwest. The house has been abandoned ever since Edith’s mother moved away in order to escape what has become known as “the family curse,” which seems to be that everyone who is born into or marries into the Finch family dies before their time in a tragic accident. In order to find closure, Edith tries to reconstruct the details of these deaths, which the player is allowed to experience for herself in a series of vignettes that play out in the form of games within the game.

The story progression is definitely on rails, but it doesn’t feel particularly linear or forced. Even though we know that each vignette will end in death, the player’s interaction with the game is integral to the storytelling. I’m going to use the case of Edith’s older brother Lewis as an example of what I mean.

Lewis is a kid who loves fantasy novels, 16-bit video games, and smoking pot. When he graduates from high school, he gets a job at a salmon cannery, which is just as dreary as you might expect, but he daydreams while performing menial labor. As the player, you use one joystick to control the repetitive motion of decapitating fish and throwing them onto the conveyor belt while simultaneously using the other joystick to guide Lewis’s avatar through his RPG-themed fantasies.

Lewis doesn’t die by slicing off his own hand if the player messes up the controls. That would be a cheap shot, and this game does not take cheap shots.

What happens instead is that Lewis’s daydream becomes more interesting and complex, which is reflected by upgrades to its graphics and sound. The controls for the salmon cannery aspect of Lewis’s life never change, and they remain a constant annoyance as the fantasy gradually fills the screen. When the player is jolted out of this daydream back into the bloody and poorly lit factory, it’s much more jarring than it would be if we were simply reading or watching Lewis’s story.

The psychiatrist who narrates this vignette says that Lewis’s death was caused by a hallucination triggered by withdrawal, but the player knows that it was suicide brought about by his overwhelming desire to no longer be anchored in an unpleasant and unsatisfying reality.

What Remains of Edith Finch made me tear up not because it’s sad or sentimental, but rather because it’s nuanced and incredibly beautiful. It doesn’t give the player the same sort of transcendent experience as something like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture or Abzû, but it offers a smaller story that still manages to contain mystery, wonder, and breathtaking landscapes. Epic postapocalyptic science fiction is all well and good, but it’s also nice to see the gaming medium used to apply magical realism to a Gothic drama of family ghosts and dying communities that is uplifted by the emotional catharsis of voyage and discovery.

( Header image from the game’s review on Wired )

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