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What Remains of Edith Finch - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Exposition is playable
  • Excels at putting player in the headspace of the characters
  • Delightfully whimsical premise and presentation
  • Creative use of text narration and subtitles
  • Linearity supplements the dramatic irony

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • ...?

Overall Impression : A+
A triumphant exemplar of interactive dramatic irony

What Remains of Edith Finch - cover

Developer:
Giant Sparrow

Publisher:
Annapurna Pictures, Interactive

Platforms:
PC < (via Steam),
PlayStation 4 (via retail disc or PSN digital download),
XBox One (via retail disc or XBox Live digital download).
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $20 USD

Original release date:
25 April 2017

Genre:
walking simulator, drama

ESRB Rating: T (for Teen) for:
Violence, Blood, Drug Reference, Language

Player(s):
single player

Official site:
www.giantsparrow.com/games/finch/

The Finch family is, as we are told, cursed. It's not a spoiler to say that every member of the family dies a tragic, premature death. The family tree in the sketchbook tells you as much at the start of the game.

We play, ostensibly, as 17-year-old Edith Finch, the last surviving member of the Finch family, but also an expecting mother. Her son will carry on the name and legacy of the family. She returns to her childhood home to learn the stories of all her cursed relatives, as she debates internally with whether to share these stories with her son, or to let the past (and its myriad tragedies) fade away and die.

The Finch family is cursed by tragedy.

The house itself, is a whimsical generational home in which each member of the family is given his or her own unique room. As more members of the family are born, new rooms are added onto the house, including a towering structure on the top that makes the house look almost like a castle. After losing both of her sons, Edith's mother began sealing off everyone's rooms so that Edith (and any future children) would not become aware of how the others died. But, each room has alternate ways in and out, including some secret doorways and tunnels.

Despite the whimsical, fantastical nature of the house, everything feels surprisingly real and lived-in. The house is cluttered with the paraphernalia of the family (since they were apparently also hoarders), and each room has a very distinct personality. Even the shared spaces that do not belong to any one individual still exhibit a sense of personality to them. This is a family that takes great pride in their history and the connectedness that they have towards one another.

The Finch home is a whimsical, generational house.

As she learns about these stories, Edith questions whether the family members should know about the stories of their relatives and the supposed curse? Or does that knowledge make tragedy a self-fulfilling prophecy? Should she share these stories with her unborn son, at the risk that the knowledge may cause him to also fall victim to the curse? Or is he cursed either way, and has a right to know it?

A family history told by vignettes

What Remains of Edith Finch is told almost entirely through a series of vignettes that depict the lifestyles and tragic deaths of each member of this eccentric, cursed family. Unlike other walking simulators (in which backstory and exposition are handled by reading notes), Edith Finch's expository vignettes are all playable. In fact, Edith Finch seems to take a self-aware stab at other walking simulators. All the vignettes are triggered by reading notes or journals, but as the narrator begins reading the text to you, the screen fades into the playable sequence.

Each note and journal you pick up is a playable vignette.

There is text on-screen to go along with the narration, and this is actually used to guide the player's attention. Text appears in the environment in order to draw your attention to certain paths or to certain objects that need to be examined. The camera will even pan towards newly-appearing text in order to guarantee that the player sees it. You can't miss everything that the game wants to show you by simply walking through the entire game backwards.

Each vignette provides a short, playable mini-game. In one case, you play as a child day-dreaming about turning into animals to hunt for food (including a Lovecraftian tentacle monster that devours fishermen). In another, you'll read a horror comic book with stylized, animated panels and speech bubbles, complete with background music inspired by Friday the 13th. In yet another, you play as a baby at bath time, as your bath toys perform a choreographed dance number. Each of these vignettes features a palpable sense of dread due to the dramatic irony of knowing that the character you're playing as is doomed to die, and that something that you do is going to bring about their demise.

Vignettes range from a child dreaming about being animals, to a comic book of a celebrity's death.

A parent's worst nightmare

The bath tub vignette is one of the saddest and most tragic. The child is left unattended in the bathtub as his mother fights on the phone with the child's father over divorce proceedings. The child, probably as a defense mechanism against hearing his parents fighting, slips into the world of his imagination, in which he giggles with glee as his bath toys come to life and perform a choreographed song and dance for him. It all highlights the imagination and innocence of children.

This sequence would be beautiful, adorable and completely endearing, if not for the specter of imminent tragedy looming over the entire affair. Instead, every moment of this whimsical fun is soaked in terror, since at this point in the game, you should definitely know what's about to happen. It is so horrifically difficult to follow through on this scene, and I couldn't help but tear up while writing about it (and replaying it for the purpose of capturing screenshots).

A baby's bath time vignette is perhaps both the most endearing, and most terrifyingly heartbreaking.

Killing an infant could easily be one of the most disgusting and tasteless things that any video game could possibly do. Games like Grand Theft Auto don't even include children in the game world because they don't want players running them over or massacring them. But somehow, Edith Finch's execution of this sequence just works. Despite its heartbreaking nature, this scene so completely and thoroughly captures the essence of wonder and joy that young children see in the world. It also acts as a stark warning to any parent or caregiver of how quickly and suddenly a child's wonder, curiosity, and playfulness can turn into disaster.

This is something that I know all too well, as I once had to pull a friend's toddler out of a pool to save her from drowning. She was in a little floaty chair, and her dad turned around for just a minute or two to talk to somebody. Her older brother suddenly started screaming, and I looked up to see the toddler face-down in the opposite end of the pool. Somehow, she had managed to tip her floaty chair over and was floating face-down. I ran over and pulled her out, and thankfully, she was still breathing and conscious. She's fine, thank goodness. But that is not an experience that I ever want to repeat. Had her brother not noticed her when he did, it could easily have been too late. I went over to my girlfriend afterwards and told her "This is why I don't want a pool.", and she responded by saying "I don't want a pool anymore either."

Gregory was (according to the narrator)
always a happy and playful baby.

Disaster can strike so quickly and suddenly. Even for good, vigilant parents (which the Finches in the game weren't), all it takes is a moment for a child to do something that puts themselves in a life-threatening situation. If you're lucky, they'll be just within eyesight and reach for you to notice and stop them. One of the most harrowing realizations of a parent is that we can't hover over our children every second of every day, no matter how much we might want to.

Day dreaming about video gaming

Little Gregory's sequence is probably the most heartbreaking, but perhaps the most brilliant of the game's vignettes is the Cannery level. This levels puts you in control of Lewis Finch, who dies at his job at a fish cannery. He stands all day in front of an automatic slicer, chopping the heads off of salmon and tossing them onto a conveyor belt. According to the narration from a psychologist, Lewis was exceptional at his job, even though he grew to hate the mundanity of it.

The player is tasked with moving the mouse to pick up a fish, and move it over to the knife blade to cut its head off, then move the mouse to toss the decapitated fish onto the conveyor belt. The player is forced into a repetitive motion that mimics the motion of the character, and it puts the player into a state of autopilot with your right hand. As this is happening, the left side of the screen gradually turns into a separate level that displays Lewis' work-time fantasy about being an adventure game character. With your left hand on the keyboard, you navigate Lewis and his boat around the world of his video-game-inspired imagination, while your right hand continues to repetitively chop the heads off of fish.

Lewis' cannery vignette expertly captures the experience of daydreaming at work.

The sequence does a remarkable job of capturing the feeling of daydreaming. The fantasy level on the left gradually grows to encompass more of the screen and becoming more intrusive. If you focus too much on your day dream, then the fish will pile up and block your view of the fantasy, but if you focus too much on chopping, then you'll probably navigate your fantasy avatar into a wall. You have to balance these two conflicting game states with one another. The experience of daydreaming about video games while at work could very well be one of -- if not the -- most relatable experience that I've ever had with a video game character.

You might think you know exactly where this level is going, but it might surprise you. I thought for sure that the repetitive fish-slicing, combined with the increasingly-intrusive fantasy enveloping more and more of the screen, would eventually result in Lewis (or the player) accidentally chopping off his hand. That's not quite what happens (the actual conclusion is far more surreal and disturbing), but the expectation certainly made the sequence much more tense than it otherwise would have been.

Gone Home by way of Tim Burton

The deaths of the Finch family aren't just strings of bad luck. This isn't a snake-bitten family whose members all die of tragic illness or accidents. These deaths are (at least partially) the result of wreckless and irresponsible behavior and neglect, and the family matriarch, Edie, revels in this notion of a "curse". Edith herself is climbing and exploring this house while 22 months pregnant, at least one of the kids in one of the vignettes has a cast on his leg, and the individual reading Edith's journal in the opening of the game already has a cast on his arm, and yet another family member locked himself away in the basement for 30 years to hide from the "monster" that is the curse (or was he hiding from Edie?). Is the fixation on this "curse" actually causing this family to bring misfortune onto themselves? Is it truly better, as Edith's mother Dawn suggests, to let the past, and these stories, and the memories of their beloved brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers and sons and daughters, and of the house itself, all just die and disappear into history?

Or maybe the curse is real? Except instead of being some paranormal phenomena, maybe it's a genetic predisposition to mental illness (including Schizophrenia) that afflicts most (if not all) of the family, and leads them to their self-destructive behavior.

What Remains of Edith Finch doesn't defy the typical conventions (or criticisms) of a walking simulator. It isn't going to provide any sort of gameplay challenge. There are no fail states. It doesn't allow for any open-ended exploration like Firewatch, let alone branching story paths. You simply walk from plot point to plot point and have exposition dumped on you. But where Edith Finch succeeds gloriously (even compared to the likes of Gone Home and Dear Esther, and even to an extent Firewatch) is in how it presents its exposition. The entire experience is so delightfully whimsical, despite its pervasive melancholy. It's like Gone Home by way of Tim Burton!

Could the Finch family have been cursed with a genetic predisposition to hallucinations?

In my review of Firewatch, I said that I felt like that game represented a "maturation" of the walking simulator genre. Edith Finch feels similarly like the genre is maturing, but in a different way. This game lacks the openness of Firewatch (Finch is about as linear as an interactive work can get), but its mastery of interactive dramatic irony, and the way that it really puts the player in the headspace of the characters that you're controlling (including their imaginations), far surpasses anything that I've seen in any other walking simulators to date. Maybe, in time, another game will come along that will make Edith Finch look quaint in comparison. But right now, What Remains of Edith Finch is the pinnacle of its genre, and should be a centerpiece in any discussion of interactive art.

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