Review: What Remains of Edith Finch

Review: What Remains of Edith Finch

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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

9.5/10

Superb!

 

 

 

 

Review: T2 Trainspotting

The original Trainspotting ended with great ambiguity. Through bittersweet betrayal, protagonist Renton got a clean break from his heroin habit but was also forced to leave his dearest friends. It was a powerful climax precisely because of its lack of closure. There was a certain allure to not knowing the fates of these characters, as closure was left up to the audience instead of being dictated to them, a quality that a sequel could only seek to undermine. This appreciation of ambiguity, combined with cautious skepticism towards the late trend of reviving long-dead films or film franchises for the sake of profit, left me feeling somewhat skeptical of the necessity of a Trainspotting sequel.

Set twenty years after the end of its predecessor, T2 Trainspotting opens by bringing us up to speed with the estranged group of four who were central in the first film. After a fresh start in Amsterdam with the £12,000 he ran off with, protagonist Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) appears to have moved up in the world, a seemingly successful man, the very image of the modern European. Back in Edinburgh, poor Spud (Ewen Bremner) is anything but. He’s still addicted to heroin and is failing to be a productive citizen as a result. Naturally, he has concerns that he will leave nothing of worth behind. Simon (Johnny Lee Miller), continues his shifty antics by extorting rich married men, filming them performing gross acts of indecency with an escort he employs and using it as blackmail. The ever-unpredictable and intimidating Begbie (Robert Carlyle), meanwhile, is in prison: serving a long sentence for his violent crimes over the years, and doing all that he can to get back out into the world.

A sense of inevitably hangs over this plot set-up. Here are non-heroes who appear to have reached their lot in life, ensnared in the trap of middle-age and left with no discernable direction, except towards the ground. This morbid desolation hangs heavily over T2, and what really stands out is how organic it feels. The reintroductions act as four logical endpoints for the characters we came to know in the first film. It’s a direction that feels logically conceived, and an assurance that things are off on the right note.Reeling from a personal crisis, Mark returns to Edinburgh to put make things right with the friends he betrayed.

The drab, grey rendition of the city as seen in the 90s movie is freshly recast, with neon signs and glittering vistas of modernity, and quickly becomes a symbol of the time that has passed by. Simon comes off as jaded and skeptical of Mark, and after an initially violent reaction, he plots a betrayal under the veneer of restored friendship. Spud, meanwhile, assumes a more tragic posture, so caught up in his own losses that he can’t entirely blame Mark. Whilst he perhaps comes off as more sincere than Simon, both men are bitter at the outcome of the past, having fallen into stagnant lives leaving them somewhat jealous of their ex-friend who at least appears to have it all sussed. With these moving reunions, the film settles nicely into its high stakes, high energy momentum. The characters play off of one another as strongly as they did before, as they are given plenty of fresh and memorable situations that beautifully capture both their unique internal strifes and their chemistry as a group. All the while, emphasis on drugs and drug culture is vastly reduced, as T2 opts instead for a different kind of drama. The deceit of broken friendships and the nostalgia for the simpler time of youth takes centre stage, in a powerful exploration of confronting the demons of the past and what, if anything, may lie in the future. This undoubtedly makes it a sadder experience than the enjoyably irreverent cynicism of the first film, but it also comes off as being far wiser.

That being said, for a film that could be oh so gloomy, T2 also manages to flex the opposite way, as it attains the same vividly gross sense of humour that made Trainspotting such a delight. A lesser filmmaker might struggle to reconcile drama and comedy in this way, but Boyle’s assured narrative direction manages to maintain this greatly elastic tone, as he quickly (but never clumsily) jumps between humour and tension. A particularly powerful example of this is seen in Mark’s eventual meeting with Begbie. The circumstances by which the scene comes to pass, and indeed those that follow it, are laughably absurd, but the emotional exchange between the two characters is so raw, so human, that one cannot help feel moved by it. Throughout this sequence, and others, Begbie descends to the level of villain in T2. Carlyle turns in an even stronger performance this time around, perfectly portraying a man reduced to a single drive. His thirst for vengeance has him turn his violence inwards on his old friends, causing his unhinged unpredictability become all the more menacing. As the antagonist, he’s a joy to watch, as his failure to understand human interaction at even the most basic level leads to both hilarity and great distress.

In its shaking up of the elements that made Trainspotting the runaway success that it was T2 avoids the common problems with the x-years-later revival. Boyle refuses to dress his narrative up in the kind of nostalgic callbacks that often disguise a lack of emotional resonance, and, Barring a couple of heavy-handed exceptions, callbacks to the original film feel largely organic to the story that runs here. They serve to augment the sequel’s sentimentality of the past, and not stand in for it entirely, and with the current state of filmmaking, that’s something worth praising. What makes T2 Trainspotting shine, however, is not only in Boyle’s deft handling of nostalgia but rather in how he attempts to separate it from the shadow of its predecessor, offering viewers a substantial continuation and conclusion to the Trainspotting story. Boyle manages to hit most of his beats with this sequel that, while playing to a different kind of rhythm altogether. It may not have the spark of originality that the first film did, but T2 certainly manages to be a fantastic follow-up to a cult classic.

 

 

Pokemon GO houses fascinating concepts but is a terrible video game.

Pokémon GO is a pop-cultural phenomenon. Since its launch two or three weeks ago, the brand has been returned to the public eye with the kind of attention that it has not felt since its western inception in 1999. It’s been a lot of fun to watch the success story unfold, especially because it concerns a brand that hitherto only seemed to be getting more far afield from its initial boom, instead relying on a small, loyal group of fans to stay afloat. It’s an interesting turn for the series, and one I have been very excited to explore in writing. Above all, I am interested in examining just what it is that sets Pokémon GO apart from the mainline series, as well as asking the question of whether or not it’s actually any good as a video game.

I’ll begin by examining some of the concepts that lie at the heart of Pokémon GO. First and foremost is that Pokémon GO does not only capture the idea of venturing out into the world in search of collectible creatures like the games before, but rather becomes it. There has always been a subtle meta undertone to the mainline Pokémon series: you begin each game as a boy or a girl in their room, with a TV and a games console, but you aren’t allowed to play it. You have to go outside, you have to go and do things. Pokémon has always been subtly trying to influence its player-base to get out more, to exercise and engage with their communities, and to not isolate themselves from the world at large for the sake of video games. With Pokémon GO, we finally see the series succeed in this, not by influencing the player to put the controller down and get outside but rather forcing them to in order to make progress.

This is achieved by the game’s use of GPS to track the player’s movement. They are presented onscreen as a customized avatar walking across an alternate reality map of their local area, made to look as if it belongs in Pokémon’s heavily stylized universe. As the player walks in the real world, the avatar on the screen will move too, and, after long enough, will encounter Pokémon that they can then catch using Pokéballs. There is a readout as well as particle effects on the screen that give some indication of how far away different Pokémon are located. As catching Pokémon is always the sole aim of Pokémon, and is the only route of progression here, the player must leave their home and go on a merry stroll if they are to effectively progress through the game.

With this mechanic we also see the real-world application of another of Pokemon’s major selling points: The explorer/trainer fantasy. I’m certain that nearly everyone who has played the Pokemon games has thought about how fun it would be to be able to venture out into the world in search of creatures to collect and foes to take on. Obviously this was never going to become a reality, but Pokémon GO gets about as close as it comes. The realization of this fantasy begins with the exploration mechanics described above, but is also supported by a number of mechanics that ensure that the experience is not one of isolation, but one that is rather socially and competitively engaging. The exploration of local points of interest also being gamified in Pokémon GO. Once again using the game’s GPS feature, in-game zones called Pokéstops are dotted at points of real-world interest. These exist to mark historical locations like churches and monuments, as well as commercial establishments like pubs, shopping centres and family attractions. But they also serve as a game mechanic. Pokestops offer items to the player such as Pokéballs, which allows them to catch more Pokémon. These stops also offer items called Lures, which can be placed on the stops to attract Pokémon there, essentially making these zones great areas to gather and engage with other players of the game by offering something of benefit to all of them, and, as a result, making the game a very social experience in any area where it is popular. This social function of the game is also enhanced by the fact that these Pokéstop items can only be grabbed once by a player before a cooldown period is engaged. As a result, the player is encouraged to go to a number of them, essentially giving them an in-game incentive the real world exploration of their area as well as engagement with the local community. So we once again see how Pokémon GO takes something from the mainline series and applies it to the real world; that being the sense of being at one with an accessible community that has a common goal.

In addition to Pokéstops, there are also Gyms. Gyms are spots that are placed similarly to Pokéstops, but have a different function. Anyone familiar with Pokémon will know that Gyms are the places where trainers take their Pokémon to fight those of other people. It works very similarly in GO. Past level five, players are made to choose from three teams: Valor, Mystic and Instinct. The difference between the three is purely cosmetic, only serving as much as to provide a way for the game to divide its players into competitive groups. When arriving at a Gym, the player can challenge the current owner so long as they are on a different team. Victory allows them to leave their Pokémon guarding the gym, thus allowing players of other teams to challenge them for the position. They also receive Pokécoins, an in-game currency that is used to buy progress-speeding items. Naturally, this taps into the competitive spirit that has always been a part of the Pokémon brand, and provides yet another avenue for social encounters with the game through its usage of real-world places of interest.

The answer is obvious then. Pokémon GO sets itself apart from the mainline series by applying much of what people love or loved about the brand to the (almost) real world. By using Alternate Reality as the basis for its mechanics, Pokémon has (at least conceptually) become the exploration fueled social experience that it always emulated, and as such it’s no real wonder that it has resonated with such a large number of people. Whilst all of that may be wonderful in itself and bode well for the future of alternate reality based gaming, it also begs the question of whether or not Pokémon GO manages to execute any of these ideas in a satisfactory way. Unfortunately, the answer seems to be that it does not.

The biggest problem that Pokémon GO suffers from is its lack of a skill based element. Catching Pokémon, the central activity of the game, is a tiresome affair. As the player walks, the phone will vibrate and Pokémon will appear nearby. To catch them, the player touches the Pokémon on the screen, and the perspective shifts. If the player has AR (Alternate Reality) Mode on, then the phone’s camera is used to create a backdrop behind the Pokemon that is being caught, giving the ‘illusion’ that the Pokemon is there in front of them. The catching itself can best be described as being functionally identical as one of those ‘toss the paper ball in the bin’ games that infest sites like Miniclip. The only difference is cosmetic, and that you can, if you’re really that bothered about maxing experience points, put spin on the throw. Once caught, the Pokemon is added to your collection. There are 250 of them to catch. It’s very simple, in fact it seems as though every element of this game is designed with the intention of accessibility. There is no real difficulty curve. This problem extends to the combat encounters when fighting other people’s Pokémon for the control of Gyms. The perspective once again shifts to view that is a poor farce of the battle screens in the mainline series. I say this because all depth of these screens is lost. One simply taps the enemy Pokémon to attack it, and swipes to dodge incoming attacks. This would be acceptable, but it is rarely the controlling factor. Every Pokemon has combat points, or ‘CP’, and it is due to this that combat really becomes a simplistic affair in which whoever has the highest overall CP wins.

This lack of a skill element also exposes the deeper problem at play here. Pokémon GO is disappointingly shallow, and will lose its charm for many after getting over the initial wow-factor of its alternate reality gimmicks. Seriously. There is nothing interesting about how the game presents its mechanics outside of the social opportunities and fantasy fulfillment that it creates. The only way that a Pokemon’s CP, and therefore combat effectiveness, can be increased, is through the use of two items: stardust and candies. Stardust is accrued by the act of catching Pokémon. Candies are, err, accrued by the act of catching Pokemon. There is only one difference: While stardust is obtained from every catch, candies are not. Instead, you get them by trading in your duplicate Pokémon. While I can respect how it allows the game to sidestep the issue of finding a lot of duplicates in any given area, I feel it does not manage to avoid that problem in an engaging way. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you about the frustration of getting that sweet phone vibration only to find yet another Pidgey. There just isn’t any excitement to progression in Pokémon GO. Sure, your Pokémon get stronger, and maybe even evolve, and it’s a great moment when you stumble upon a rare Pokémon that you’ve been after. But there is no long-term strategy at play, no room for tactics or anything of real substance, just constant repetition with irregular levels of fulfillment. It might be a laugh at first, especially with friends, but the Pokémon GO gets old fast.

Pokémon GO is also riddled with technical issues. I cannot tell you how many times I have tapped a Pokémon on the screen and nothing has happened. It sends you into a frenzy, you hammer at the screen again and again. Sometimes that works. Sometimes the little bugger just vanishes and you have to walk some more to find another. Either way, it casts some doubt in your mind every single time, and even goes as far as panic when it’s something rare that you’re trying to grab. And that’s it really: you know it’s sloppy design when one of your central features doesn’t even work correctly. There are also issues with catching Pokémon. You’ll put the perfect spin on your throw and get a little ‘great!’ read-out flash up, only for the game to then freeze and crash, leaving no option but to restart it. Most of the time the catch is registered when this happens, but even then it replaces the buzz of the catch with downright frustration at having to restart the app. That’s the other problem: restarting the app takes a very, very long time. You get a stylized safety warning screen and a loading bar, and some chirpy music that smells of adventure but tastes of mockery as the game just. keeps. on. loading.   There are massive problems with the game servers as well. I can think of several occasions that I have opened up the app with full signal only to find that it won’t let me connect. It even went down for more than a day last week; happy hunting indeed. I know this is likely down to the fact that it was never anticipated by the developer that this game would be so huge, but it’s not like they didn’t have time to find a solution to this before the game released in territories outside of the US. Pokémon GO simply isn’t a well polished product, and solving these issues is a priority if Niantic wants this success to be long-term. It currently has the air of cheap production values and shoddy craftmanship, which is actually rather ironic given how successful the game has been. That being said though, I have been playing the game on an old and beaten Samsung Galaxy S4 mini, so you might fare better if you’ve got something a bit more cutting edge.

If there is one thing I will hand to the game’s design as being a positive, however, it’s in how it monetizes itself. The game is free to play, and so it has micro-transactions. But it isn’t pay to win. In return for your money you receive Pokécoins, and these can be used to buy items in the store. Thankfully, you can only buy items that can already be obtained at Pokéstops, such as eggs that hatch Pokemon when you walk enough, incubators that house these eggs during hatching, and lures that attract Pokemon to these stops. You cannot buy stardust or candies, and so outright progress is still made impossible without the player actually going out and making catches on the regular. So while microtransactions will help you on your travels, they will not cut out the need for that travelling altogether. It is a decent way to monetize a free little app like this, and it seems in tune with the game’s vision. I honestly feel that other mobile developers could learn a thing or two from Pokémon GO‘s way of doing things. Then again, it probably isn’t a good sign if the best thing I can say about your free mobile game is that it doesn’t take the piss where the player’s cash is concerned.

Ultimately, Pokémon GO is nothing more than a collection of interesting ideas that are used poorly to mask a terrible video game, which capitalizes on nothing other than brand nostalgia and cheap gimmicks. It’s worth a GO (hah hah), simply for the fact that everyone is playing it, but beyond that it is an utter waste of your time.

Score: 4.0/10

By Matthias Brunwin