A delicately woven tale that walks the line between realism and surrealism, What Remains of Edith Finch is a standout title among the indie releases of this generation.
This era’s most oddly enchanting walking sim comes from indie game company Giant Sparrow, creators of The Unfinished Swan (2012). The player assumes the role of the titular character, Edith, who travels to her former family home in Washington hoping to find out why she is the only Finch left alive. Played in the first-person point of view, you explore the abandoned Finch household and the rooms of each deceased family member in search of answers. From the very beginning, the game gives a sense of looming loss yet isn’t monotonous or heavy-handed on grief. Instead, the narrative is engaging, diverse, and – most of all – incredibly strange.
Perhaps the most common issue with walking simulations is that the player is, in a sense, “othered.” Games that use a narrative as their primary driving force can be immersive and interesting but often cause the player to feel more like a spectator than a participant (see also: Firewatch, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture). This can be for a number of reasons: either the actual storytelling isn’t nuanced enough, or the ways the player can interact with the story are far too limited. What Remains of Edith Finch, however, snubs both of these expectations and brings the reader face-to-face with the experiences of not only the main character but of the subjects of all the stories she uncovers. Instead of experiencing these stories as lectures, cutscenes, or collectibles, the player relives the final moments of each Finch family member in first person. The given causes for every Finch’s demise range from purely coincidental to utterly nightmarish, leaving an impression that’s rather difficult to describe. But for a game that alternates between being completely realistic to Lovecraftian levels of surreal in an instant, the game itself manages to find a balance of both fluency and variety. No two stories are alike, nor are they told the same way. This is what separates What Remains of Edith Finch from its cinematic brethren – in addition to its spectacular narrative, the gameplay mechanics vary wildly between each Finch story, forcing the player to feel exactly as they did. It’s akin to the difference between watching someone die and retracing their final steps.
The game does have its limits, of course – like many of its story-driven companions, the narrative of What Remains is linear and tightly bound, leaving little room for replay value (which, for a game that takes roughly two or three hours, can be a bit concerning). Similarly, the gameplay itself is incredibly straightforward, both for better and for worse. Though it isn’t exactly a game that holds your hand throughout, it would benefit from more challenges in terms of perception, exploration, or uncovering clues. Of course, throwing in collectibles and alternate paths can certainly seem like a cheap substitute in place of actual content (looking at you Assassin’s Creed), but, when used properly, can keep the player engaged and reward attention to detail. And finally, there’s the not-so-subtle presentation of each death – a bold creative choice that leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination. While at times the lack of ambiguity provides a sense of closure, part of the appeal of a game like Gone Home is the abundance of mystery and the autonomy the player gets from choosing how much they discover (to the point that the game can be finished in a mere minute). Regardless, the game is still gripping, exploratory, and certainly worth a try.
What Remains of Edith Finch is a beautifully morbid labor of love that sets a new standard in experimental storytelling. Though the stories and deaths of each individual character range from plausibly accidental to downright bizarre, each and every one of them is impressively and unmistakably human – which is what makes the narrative so genuine in spite of its harrowing premise.
This is precisely what it means to successfully use gaming as a storytelling medium. Is it short? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely.