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SummaryA creative stroll through a fatal family tree.
The Good* Quirky, well-written, and emotional set of stories
* Inventive use of different art styles and gameplay mechanics
* Graphically pleasing and atmospheric presentation
* Doesn't overstay its welcome
The Bad* Some minor control issues
* Edith moves too slowly
The Bottom LineOne of the more polarizing video game subgenres to emerge in recent years is the exploration narrative adventure, or “walking simulator”, as these games are sometimes pejoratively called. The first real game in this genre was 2011’s Dear Esther, but the trend really started with 2013’s Gone Home. Ever since then, games such as Firewatch, Virginia, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, and Tacoma have garnered critical acclaim while polarizing the gaming community. Every time one of these games comes out, there’s always heavy discussion over whether or not they should be considered a video game. Proponents hold these titles up as examples of interactive art and storytelling, a way to live inside the world of a story. Detractors bemoan the lack of true gameplay and progression systems expected of a “real” video game, finding their narratives pretentious and their gameplay mechanics low-effort.
What Remains of Edith Finch is one of the more prominent games of this type in recent memory. Developed by Giant Sparrow, the game was originally planned as a PS4 exclusive before moving to a new publisher and being released on PC and Xbox One. The player takes control of Edith Finch, a young woman who is returning to visit her former family home to understand the history of her family, whom her mother, Dawn Finch, kept secret from her for a very long time. As it turns out, the Finch family has an incredibly long history of meeting untimely fates. Some members of the family believe that this is a long-standing curse, and Dawn hid these stories from Edith in order to protect her wellbeing and innocence. Due to tragic circumstances, Edith is the last remaining member of the Finch family, and she is trying to make sense of the long-lost mysteries surrounding her family’s fate. The main themes of the plot are of course death, coping with loss, and the power and perils of imagination and storytelling.
The Finch house itself is an unusual construction, with a huge spire twisting and gnarling in all sorts of directions, almost like a castle. Rather than have new members move into old rooms, new rooms get constructed for every member instead, while the old rooms are sealed up. The house has lost of passages hidden behind bookcases and mirrors, and you’ll need to navigate through these in order to access the sealed up rooms.
Each bedroom contains a shrine dedicated to how each particular family member died. Interacting with a shrine brings you into a different mini-experience depicting that person’s death. Some are depicted in very blunt, obvious ways, while others reflect that member’s worldview and experiences. For example, one family member had a career starring in horror pictures, and thus her death is depicted in the form of a Tales from the Crypt -style comic book, even using John Carpenter’s Halloween theme to soundtrack one moment.
The controls are slightly unconventional. You can interact with various objects by pressing the right bumper, then moving the analog sticks in specific directions. For example, to open a panel, you’ll have to grab the switch and move the stick up to move the panel. Closing a book involves flicking the analog stick in. These controls also translate to the death experiences. One involves moving a character in one world with one stick while chopping fish with the right stick in another part of the screen. Others involve flying a kite and taking photographs to advance the narrative. Each experience is quite different in terms of the tone and mechanics, and everyone will have their favorites.
Edith’s movement is almost painfully slow. She can’t jump, and there’s no way of sprinting in the game, which is later explained through story reasons. There is a lot of climbing in this game, and going up or down ladders is even more of a chore. A couple of ladders have Edith climbing down them, and somewhat counterintuitively, you have to keep the stick moving forward in order to move down them. The deaths of a couple of characters are left somewhat ambiguous.
Graphically, Edith Finch is a hard title to pin down, though it does look very good most of the time. Using Unreal Engine 4, many of the environments have a photo-realistic look, though there is always a sense of fantasy thanks to the sheer strangeness of the Finch house. The rooms themselves are all unique and highly detailed, using environmental storytelling to allow the player to infer more information about each character’s life. Each death is depicted using an entirely different art style. Some are seen through sepia-toned filters, while the aforementioned comic-book one is appropriately styled and cel-shaded much like a comic. There are a lot of flights of fancy and just plain weird moments that happen during some of the death stories, so there are inevitably a few moments of visual incongruity. One thing that is consistent between all parts of the game is the narration text showing up as a part of the game world as opposed to simply appearing at the bottom of the screen. Each story also has its own text font. This allows for effects such as text floating in wind or being pushed away as a door gets pushed to happen, and it is often mesmerizing to see.
Much like the graphics, the music and sound are also all over the place. The Finch house is mostly quiet and eerie with minimal ambient music. You can sense an almost ghostly presence. It’s that exact atmosphere of returning to a familiar place long after you remember it, not quite finding it the same way you remember leaving it. However, each death makes use of a wide variety of music, including classical pieces, Christmas carols, classic and horror movie soundtracks. There are also original pieces as well, including rock, ambient tracks and lullaby-style pieces. It is quite varied to say the least, and it gives the game a lot of character over its short runtime.
Despite being sold in digital video game marketplaces, What Remains of Edith Finch won’t fit most people’s definition of a game. It won’t challenge your reflexes, or your planning, or your problem solving skills in any meaningful way, and the entire experience is almost entirely on-rails. That does not make it a bad work, however. You have to go into it with the mindset of being something you experience, not play. If you do, you’ll be rewarded with a wonderful set of tragic, inventive, and sometimes funny stories. Giant Sparrow use the interactivity and graphics engine of a video game to tell these stories in a very creative way that manages to encompass much more tones and visual styles than you might expect. Although it lacks the conventional elements of a video game, it is still worth the short time it takes to learn about the Finch family and experience this wonderful interactive short story anthology.