Developer: Giant Sparrow
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), PlayStation 4
If one must reduce it to a category, What Remains of Edith Finch certainly fits ‘walking simulator’. The goal of the game is to explore the Finch family home, and in doing so, discover their strange history. In practice, this manifests as moving from room to room in and around the Finch home, examining various documents, tapes and books to obtain fragments of narrative which culminate in a complete picture of what took place there. Usually with this sort of arrangement, player agency is limited to only a small number of interactions, as mechanics take the backseat and the story becomes the primary focus. However, this is not the case with Edith Finch, where developer Giant Sparrow manages to incorporate a diverse array of simple yet effective mechanics to more effectively tell their story.
To do this, each piece of narrative information presents itself not as a readable item, but rather as a narrative device that shift’s the player’s perspective to different themed offshoots, making them explore the memories of various family members through segmented gameplay instead of narration alone. The earliest appearance of this feature sets the broad scope of this mechanic wonderfully, with the player entering the imagination of a young girl, who herself pictures becoming an assortment of different predators. One can’t help but respond with child-like glee as they pounce from tree to tree hunting birds as a cat, or soar above a snowy field littered with rabbits before swooping down to devour them. There are better examples too, though to discuss them would certainly spoil their magic, as the interactivity that this feature offers is made more brilliant by its diversity and unpredictability
As a central device both mechanically and narratively, these shifts in perspective help Edith Finch to tell its story in a way that is completely involving. At their best, they evoke a strong sense of each individual Finch character, as player interaction becomes personalised to fit each family member’s specific traits or story arc. Where these offshoots lack agency, they do so to evoke a sense of impending tragedy as well as the unchangeable nature of history. In this way, Edith Finch plays into a strength of the medium that is explored all too rarely in that it effectively builds characters through mechanics whilst it also bucking the more negative limitations that audiences have come to associate with ‘walking simulators’.
And that’s a good thing, too, because the tale Edith Finch weaves is one that is more than worth hearing. You end up exploring the bizarre family line of the secluded Finches, which is utterly submerged in fateful tragedy from the off. As you begin to work your way across their family tree, you begin to discover the fates that befell this family, and the terrible luck that seems tied with the Finch name. While the different offshoots may explore these themes in very different ways, there is a confident cohesiveness that weaves itself throughout the tale. It’s a story that primarily deals with mortality and the brevity of life, its various tragedies being portrayed with maturity and sincerity. Despite this, it was not a story that I found to be particularly sad. This is largely because each sequence fully embraces the power of imagination, highlighting the importance of joy in times of despair. This allows established character motivations to be paid off in a way that is utterly satisfying, if unfortunately, tragic. There’s a point to all the pain, though, as Edith Finch explores the theme of legacy and how we choose what to pass on the those that we leave behind when our time comes, and is bought to a resolution that makes perfect sense of the picture-book storytelling that emanates throughout.
To tell its thoughtful tale, Edith Finch offers a superbly realised setting. Like many of its kind, the entire game takes place in one location: the home of the Finch family; a precariously stacked cacophony of architectural styles. But the details here are extreme, every room an individual masterpiece of environmental character-building. Many times, I entered a room and immediately had a sense of its owner’s character, just by observing the possessions that were placed around and how the room was decorated. Driving dreams and ambitions were adorned across the walls and furniture decorations, while tragedies were foregrounded in the finer details. Ultimately, Edith Finch succeeds in creating more intricate bonds with characters through level design than most games do through cutscenes and dialogue.
If Edith Finch does possess any considerable problems, there is an argument for one in the game’s length and replayability. As is usually the case with games of its kind, the price of entry is high for an experience that only lasts for a couple of hours. But it’s clear why that’s the case: What Remains of Edith Finch oozes production value; delivering a hitchless, extremely well-paced game that doesn’t spend a second longer than it needs to tell its story. While there is little in terms of content to gain from going back for a second playthrough, it’s still an experience that I would like to have again. Additionally, the game allows you to select and replay your favourite sections again without starting from scratch. That’s a nice touch, as the diversity that the game offers certainly left me wanting to re-experience parts without committing to the entire length.
Beyond this minor niggle, however, Edith Finch is through and through a brilliant video game. My two hours with it left me feeling thoroughly moved. It’s a game that evokes a multitude of emotions, in a way that is vivid and totally involving – showcasing the very best of the medium’s attempts at linear storytelling. It is a truly joyous experience, which manages to fully emulate the bizarrely brief ride of life and the inevitable dance with mortality that all of us face. While it may not be a particularly challenging or replayable game, What Remains of Edith Finch is an important one. It manages to escape the mundane aspects of its peers and in doing so sets a new example for them to follow in the future.